Caught Between Two Worlds: Otherbound

A review of Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis

Amulet (Abrams), 2014

Otherbound Corinne Duyvis

by REBECCA, June 11, 2014

hook

Every time Nolan Santiago closes his eyes, he sees through the eyes of Amara, a servant girl bound to a cursed princess in a world far from his own Arizona town. Amara has no idea he’s there. Until, one day, their worlds collide, and they realize that although all they want is to be rid of one another, their worlds are bound in a way that only working together can hope to untangle.

review

Whee! I’ve been so, so bloody disappointed with all the YA fantasy I’ve been reading lately, so much so that I’ve started and abandoned five or six fantasies in the last month or so. I had high hopes for Otherbound, though, and I am so thrilled not to be disappointed. Corinne Duyvis‘ debut novel is impressive and original. But, most important to me, it has stakes—the lack of which in a number of books I’ve reviewed have been driving me wild with confusion and frustration lately.

Nolan Otherbound Corinne Duyvis

Nolan, by Corinne Duyvis

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the deal. Nolan’s parents, teachers, and doctors all think he is epileptic, diagnosing his departures into Amara’s world as micro-seizures. He has tried medication after medication, but nothing seems to have an effect on the seizures—because, of course, they aren’t seizures. He’s been visiting Amara’s world since he was a kid. Indeed, one of his early experiences of Amara’s world, while he was riding his bike, was so distracting that he was caught under the wheels of a car and lost his foot. So, although he is invested in Amara, her fellow servant Maart, and Cilla, the princess they serve against their will, Nolan pays a huge price for his implication in their world. His parents struggle to afford medications that don’t help him, his teachers and classmates don’t even notice when he barely makes it though the day it’s so common, and everyone in town knows to look out for his seizures. Nolan’s life isn’t wholly his own even when he’s in his own world.

Amara Otherbound Corinne Duyvis

Amara, by Corinne Duyvis

Amara was taken from her home as a child because of her mage-like ability to heal herself and tasked with safeguarding Cilla, the princess who escaped her family’s overthrow with a curse that will kill her if she spills even one drop of blood. Amara’s job is to absorb the pain of the curse into her own body, should Cilla accidentally spill her blood, since Amara can heal herself. She and Cilla have been bound together so long that Amara has trouble knowing whether her feelings for Cilla are hatred, pity, friendship, or perhaps something more like love. She has no idea that Nolan has been with her, looking through her eyes and feeling what she feels, until one day he manages to take over her body—to make her body run when she’s in danger but has passed out.

Cilla Otherbound Corinne Duyvis

Cilla, by Corinne Duyvis

When Nolan is finally able to control Amara’s body enough to explain that he is there (servants in Amara’s world have their tongues cut out and communicate through sign language), Amara is horrified to realize that what she once thought were private thoughts, sensations, and feelings, have been observed. But she and Cilla may need the insights Nolan has, as a longtime observer, to discover who cast Cilla’s curse and how to break it so that she and Amara—and Nolan—have a chance at living free lives.

When I say that Otherbound has stakes, I mean that there are real personal risks to and for characters, both physically and mentally. But there are also stakes because of Duyvis’ worldbuilding. Duyvis uses the class system of Amara and Cilla’s world to raise questions about the ability of a servant and a princess to ever enter into friendship or love as equals. Ethnicities, in Amara and Cilla’s world mean different things than they do in Nolan’s, but power and race and gender and pain are all bound up in both. Yet Duyvis never falls back on allowing these to be demonstrative of any fixed meanings about characters, groups, or places.

Otherbound starts a bit slow, especially because it shifts between Nolan’s and Amara’s worlds so quickly, but as the mystery ratchets up and the stakes grow, it really takes off. There are twists and turns, but never red herrings or deliberate obfuscations for the purpose of confusing the reader. For me, Nolan’s was the more interesting story. While I was taken in by Cilla and Amara’s adventures, I cared more about the boy attempting to live a life split between two worlds, always struggling to reassure his parents and sister that, maybe, just for today, his seizure medication is working and they can watch a movie or practice Nahuatl together. Otherbound is a story about connections and the ways we become tethered together, implicated in each other’s lives whether we choose to or not.

Otherbound will appeal to fans of contemporary YA, queer YA, fantasy, and adventure stories. Oh, and you should check out Corinne Duyvis’ website to see more portraits of her characters (she went to art school—no, seriously, look at some of those gorgeous pencil drawings!). Duyvis is also an organizer of Disibility in Kidlit, which is an amazing resource for all things disability in YA.

Can’t wait to see what she writes next.

readalikes

Wake Dream Catcher Lisa McMannFade Dream Catcher Lisa McMannGone Dream Catcher Lisa McMann

Dream Catcher series by Lisa McMann (2008–2010). Janie can’t help it: she gets sucked into other people’s dreams. When she falls into a different kind of terrifying nightmare, Janie isn’t just an observer—now she has a part to play.

Skin Hunger Kathleen Duey A Resurrection of MagicSacred Scars Kathleen Duey A Resurrection of Magic

A Resurrection of Magic series by Kathleen Duey (2007–present). Duey’s series (which I ADORE!) alternates quickly between perspectives in an attempt to solve a mystery of magic too. My full review of Skin Hunger is HERE. The third book in the series is slated to come out this summer.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis will be available June 17th.

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“Don’t Open Your Eyes”: Bird Box Is Horror At Its Best

A review of Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Ecco (HarperCollins), 2014

Bird Box Josh Malerman

by REBECCA, June 4, 2014

hook

Something out there is making people crazy. When they see it, they lose their minds and kill. Others. Themselves. Everyone. Malorie doesn’t know what’s going on. Then, it’s later and Malorie hasn’t seen the world outside her house in four years. But today. Today she has to risk it. She has to take to the river to try and save herself. Today, she has to open her eyes.

review

HOLY SPOOKY ACTION AT A DISTANCE, BATMAN!

Bird Box is told in chapters that alternate between the present, when Malorie and her two children are rowing down the river, trying to find safety, and the past, when a mysterious . . . something . . . has just begun to threaten humanity.

In the past, Malorie and her sister, Shannon, just moved in together and are ready to start a new life when the news begins reporting strange stories of mysterious deaths in St. Petersburg, Yakutsk, Omsk. Then, closer to home, in Alaska. No one knows what the cause is, but people are turning on each other, killing each other and themselves. Little by little, the panic builds. What is it? Is it a disease? An attack? An epidemic? Bit by bit, people become scared even to leave their homes, because it seems like the people affected are those who see . . . something.

Shannon is terrified, but Malorie has other worries. She’s just realized she’s pregnant, and that seems scarier than some vague threat out there. But when Malorie can no longer deny what’s going on, she finds a house with people who are helping each other survive. Together, she, Felix, Jules, Cheryl, and Tom survive. All anyone knows is that the madness can’t get you if you can’t see it. So they block up the windows and seal all the doors. They live off canned goods and develop elaborate systems to get water from the well behind their house without ever opening their eyes. Malorie comes to love and depend on her housemates. But soon she’ll have to give birth. And, slowly, something is creeping closer to threaten the safe house they have made. But is the threat from outside, or from within?

In the present, Malorie lives alone with Boy and Girl, her four-year-olds. There is a fog this morning, and so Malorie decides it’s finally time to go. Under cover of fog, she thinks they can make it to the river, and then, safety? She isn’t sure. All she knows is that she has trained her children from birth to hear with an acuity no children in the before could have. And it’s their ability she will have to rely on as they make the trip down the river. Because they have to do it without ever opening their eyes.

Bird Box is an absolutely beautiful and harrowing horror story. Debut author Josh Malerman (lead singer of The High Strung) has crafted a story that is incredibly creeping and suspenseful (at one point, I found myself standing in my kitchen, reading as my water boiled because I absolutely had to see what happened next, and nearly screamed when my cat brushed up against my leg). It is, for me, the most exciting kind of horror story: one that is all about atmosphere and mystery and dread.

bird box josh malermanAlternating between past and present ups the suspense, but it also instructs the reader that this isn’t a story about what happened next. We begin in the present, so we already know what happened (kind of). It’s about how it happened, and how the characters reacted to it. That is to say, it’s a book that’s as much about ideas and psychology as it is about fear. There are multiple theories about what is going on in the world, and Malerman allows these theories to resonate throughout the book, never giving any definitive answers but always showing us the material consequences. His prose is tight and declarative and perfectly echoes the way Malorie has come to think in this new world.

Because Bird Box is a novel about the threat of the invisible—of that which absolutely can not be looked upon—the characters spend a great deal of time experiencing the world without sight. In the hands of a lesser writer, I think, this could feel like a gimmick. Malerman, though, manages to make the reader feel as claustrophobic, vulnerable, and jumpy as the characters do. The fact that the whole mystery could be revealed merely by removing the blindfold adds a layer of temptation that is titillating.

When I first read the blurb, I was nervous that this would be one of those post-terrible-world-event books where the main character just wanted to make the world safe for her children, or feels hope because she has her children. Bird Box was the opposite. This isn’t a book about the horrors of pregnancy (though that whole giving birth thing is its own scary story). Rather, it’s about the guilt and horror that Malorie feels about raising two children who have never seen the world outside. Who have never seen anyone but her. She has to put their safety above their comfort if they’re all going to survive, and the ways in which she must deny her children their childhood resonate beyond a book of speculative fiction. These are children growing up in a war-torn land who must learn to survive instead of learning to play, and that’s not the stuff of fiction.

bird box josh malermanSome reviewers, I know, are disappointed that more of the questions that Bird Box raises are not answered. For me, the denial of answers to the reader has the powerful effect of making the readers as helpless as the characters. If we could see what they cannot, I think, the reading experience wouldn’t be nearly as potent. More literally, the reader is in Malorie’s position narratively: we look at word after word, waiting for the threat to reveal itself, and once it does we cannot look away. I often found myself covering the recto side of the book so that my eyes couldn’t wander ahead and see something they shouldn’t. The experience of the medium of storytelling itself participating in the creation of fear was extremely disconcerting.

The one weakness of the novel, for me, was the characters. Though we are in Malorie’s head (primarily), she never really came to life for me. I was still desperately rooting for her—because, as I said, the reader is in her position. Still, though, certain moments would have had more resonance if the characters were a bit more fleshed out. Indeed, the character who came to life the most was the scariest! (Which is kind of awesome.) Still, the lack of character development had one positive side effect, which is that it leant a sense of real unease to the house they all share since their relationships feel so tentative and contingent.

Bird Box is a wonderful debut and a truly chilling horror story. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Josh Malerman.

procured from: the library

 

Teenage Superspies, Codeword: Milkshake

A review of I Become Shadow, by Joe Shine

Soho Teen

I Become Shadow Joe Shine

by REBECCA, June 2, 2014

hook

“Ren Sharpe was abducted at fourteen and chosen by the mysterious F.A.T.E. Center to become a Shadow: the fearless and unstoppable guardian of a future leader. Everything she held dear—her family, her home, her former life—is gone forever.

Ren survives four years of training, torture, and misery, in large part thanks to Junie, a fellow F.A.T.E. abductee who started out as lost and confused as she did. She wouldn’t admit it was possible to find love in a prison beyond imagining, but what she feels for Junie may just be the closest thing to it.

At eighteen they part ways when Ren receives her assignment: find and protect college science student Gareth Young, or die trying. Life following a college nerd is uneventful, until an attack on Gareth forces Ren to track down the only person she can trust. When she and Junie discover that the F.A.T.E. itself might be behind the attacks, even certain knowledge of the future may not be enough to save their kidnappers from the killing machines they created.” (Goodreads)

review

So, the above blurb gives the whole plot of the novel. Which is okay, I guess? Because, though I Become Shadow is an action book, it’s not really a mystery. The book is divided roughly into three parts. The first part is told retrospectively by Ren Sharpe, our protagonist. She tells us the story of how she came to be abducted at the age of fourteen and how she wakes up in the training facility where she’ll spend the next four years. She meets Junie—who, because the blurb doesn’t refer to as “he,” I assumed was a girl because, well, you know, his name is Junie, and was disappointed to find is, in fact, a boy—and begins her training.

The second third, which is the shortest piece, gives a kind of brief summary of the next four years: how Ren learns everything from mortal combat to defensive driving to techniques in surveilling her future target. Here, Ren and Junie must part ways. But DON’T WORRY! Of all the places in the whole world, they both end up in Texas. Finally, the third part covers Ren’s time at college protecting Gareth, until things get complicated . . . in exactly the way the blurb describes.

training montageI Become Shadow isn’t really a bad book. It just seems unsure what it’s supposed to be doing, a problem that is likely more one of publishing than writing. Because so much of the book (more than half) takes place at the F.A.T.E. center, you’d think that Ren’s trials there are the center of the novel, but they seem to be prodromal to her assignment. Okay, then, well, when we get to Ren’s assignment, you’d think that we were finally getting to the meat of things. But almost nothing happens in this section. Ren herself keeps commenting on how boring it is to watch a nerd (you know, like the blurb said), and, yeah, it’s boring to read about someone being bored watching a nerd. Then, in the very end of the book, the Big Plot is revealed (just like the blurb already told you it would be).

There is nothing that indicates I Become Shadow is the first in a series. But this has to be the first in a series, right? Because we end with everything revealed but nothing resolved. Did Soho Press tell Joe Shine to write a book that could be the first in a series but not commit to a second book? Did this start out as a longer story that got chopped in half? It’s really not clear. The result is a book that might be a very summary standalone or the diffuse first book in a series. Either way, though, it reads wrong in its apportionment.

DivergentIt’s not awful—there’s some intriguing worldbuilding that undergirds the creation of F.A.T.E. But that raises more questions than it answers (including the kind of annoying questions like, “but based on what you’ve said, why would this ever happen?”). The training sequences feel very similar to Tris’ experiences in Divergent: because Ren and the other future-Shadows are kidnapped because of circumstance not skill, they’re starting their training from nothing, so there are the now-familiar scenes of a normal girl learning self-defense stuff. Again, nothing terrible, just nothing galvanizing.

The real trouble, though, is the voice. I found Ren intensely irritating, and it’s her tone that drives the book. She thinks she’s funny and clever and unique and the other characters’ responses to her seem to uphold her uniqueness, while I sat there thinking, “seriously?” An example: Each trainee receives instruction from a voice piped through a speaker to them. When Ren responds to the voice, she calls him “Mr. Speakervoice.” When it’s time for Ren to graduate, the man behind the voice seeks her out because she’s apparently so unique and amazing and tells her that Mr. Speakervoice is “one of the best names I’ve ever been given that’s for sure [sic]. You’ve certainly been a fun one, Ren” (139). Seriously? That’s like naming your fluffy white cat Snowball—it’s a description of what the thing is. How could that possibly be the best name he’d been given? How, god, how?!

Also problematic: none of the characters have any personalities. Ren is supposed to be wry and snarky (or so her voice must be trying to imply), but we don’t know anything about her. She has also long ago accepted that she’ll never break free of F.A.T.E. to see her family again or live her own life. And she is injected with a serum that makes it so she can’t feel pain or fear death. You know, so she can protect her target more effectively. People, if you don’t have your own hopes, dreams, desires, and fears, and you can’t feel pain or fear death, you know what you are? BORING. Or, in literary terms, a character with no stakes whatsoever. Which makes you boring. And, since Ren didn’t care about her safety, fear anything, or worry about what was going to happen, I couldn’t either. So, it might seem like a great conceit in theory, but in practice it just flattens the story out completely.

All in all, the premise that underlies the creation of F.A.T.E. is the only interesting thing about I Become Shadow, and we get about two sentences about it. The characters are blah, and the story has no real stakes. Again, it’s not terrible or anything, but I was very aware the entire time I was reading it that it could have gone in so many interesting directions and seemed to choose the path of least resistance every time. I hate to be repetitive, but this is what I keep finding with Soho Teen’s releases: decent books that feel too thin and/or tortured into marketable shape to really excite me or do anything.

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I’ve read a lot of books recently that explore a similar kind of training/testing teens in their skills of fighting, surveilling, manipulating, killing, escaping, etc. Here are a few that worked better for me than I Become Shadow.

How to Lead a Life of Crime Kirsten Miller

How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirsten Miller (2013). “A meth dealer. A prostitute. A serial killer. Anywhere else, they’d be vermin. At the Mandel Academy, they’re called prodigies. The most exclusive school in New York City has been training young criminals for over a century. Only the most ruthless students are allowed to graduate. The rest disappear. Flick, a teenage pickpocket, has risen to the top of his class. But then Mandel recruits a fierce new competitor who also happens to be Flick’s old flame. They’ve been told only one of them will make it out of the Mandel Academy. Will they find a way to save each other—or will the school destroy them both?” (Goodreads).

The Naturals Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The Naturals (The Naturals #1) by Jennifer Lynn Barnes (2013). “Seventeen-year-old Cassie is a natural at reading people. Piecing together the tiniest details, she can tell you who you are and what you want. But it’s not a skill that she’s ever taken seriously. That is, until the FBI come knocking: they’ve begun a classified program that uses exceptional teenagers to crack infamous cold cases, and they need Cassie.

What Cassie doesn’t realize is that there’s more at risk than a few unsolved homicides—especially when she’s sent to live with a group of teens whose gifts are as unusual as her own. Sarcastic, privileged Michael has a knack for reading emotions, which he uses to get inside Cassie’s head—and under her skin. Brooding Dean shares Cassie’s gift for profiling, but keeps her at arm’s length.

Soon, it becomes clear that no one in the Naturals program is what they seem. And when a new killer strikes, danger looms closer than Cassie could ever have imagined. Caught in a lethal game of cat and mouse with a killer, the Naturals are going to have to use all of their gifts just to survive.” My full review is HERE.

The Testing Joelle Charbonneau

The Testing (The Testing #1) by Joelle Charbonneau (2013). “The Seven Stages War left much of the planet a charred wasteland. The future belongs to the next generation’s chosen few who must rebuild it. But to enter this elite group, candidates must first pass The Testing—their one chance at a college education and a rewarding career.

Cia Vale is honored to be chosen as a Testing candidate; eager to prove her worthiness as a University student and future leader of the United Commonwealth. But on the eve of her departure, her father’s advice hints at a darker side to her upcoming studies–trust no one.

But surely she can trust Tomas, her handsome childhood friend who offers an alliance? Tomas, who seems to care more about her with the passing of every grueling (and deadly) day of the Testing. To survive, Cia must choose: love without truth or life without trust.” (Goodreads).

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. I Become Shadow by Joe Shine will be available on June 10th.

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