Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Unwanteds - Lisa McMann

Title: The Unwanteds
Author: Lisa McMann
Publisher: Aladdin (Simon & Schuster), August 30, 2011 (Hardcover) (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 390 pages
Genre: Children's Dystopian Fiction/Fantasy
Started: August 6, 2011
Finished: August 10, 2011

From the publisher's website:
Every year in Quill, thirteen-year-olds are sorted into categories: the strong, intelligent Wanteds go to university, and the artistic Unwanteds are sent to their deaths.

Thirteen-year-old Alex tries his hardest to be stoic when his fate is announced as Unwanted, even while leaving behind his twin, Aaron, a Wanted. Upon arrival at the destination where he expected to be eliminated, however, Alex discovers a stunning secret--behind the mirage of the "death farm" there is instead a place called Artime.

In Artime, each child is taught to cultivate their creative abilities and learn how to use them magically, weaving spells through paintbrushes and musical instruments. Everything Alex has ever known changes before his eyes, and it's a wondrous transformation.

But it's a rare, unique occurence for twins to be separated between Wanted and Unwanted, and as Alex and Aaron's bond stretches across their separation, a threat arises for the survival of Artime that will pit brother against brother in an ultimate, magical battle.

I love dystopian stories, and finding ones written for middle grade readers are harder to come by (as opposed to YA), so I was happy to preview this title. Unfortunately, the book didn't meet the expectations I had for it, though it was still a decent little read.

The book is being marketed as a cross between The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, and granted, on the surface this seems quite appropriate. Quill is a dystopian world where children are divided into three categories at the age of thirteen: Wanted, Necessary, and Unwanted. The Wanteds are skilled in math, science, engineering etc. and are destined for university and spots in the government or military (cutely called the Quillitary). Necessaries are just that: necessary workers that make up the majority of the population. The Unwanteds are those that excel in creative arts: writing, drama, music, dance, and visual arts...they are sentenced to death. Children are sorted into said categories based on their skills and "infractions" they commit (merely drawing in the sand with a stick will doom a child to an Unwanted fate). Alex has potential as an artist and is therefore sentenced to die with all the rest of the year's Unwanteds, but soon discovers that the "death farm" is really an alternate dimension/world called Artime, where the Unwanteds are rescued each year to hone their talents and learn to use magic (ergo the Harry Potter reference). That's where the references end sadly.

The book seemed rather rushed to me in some areas. I felt that there wasn't enough world-building established before rushing into the main plot, which was a shame because the premise of Quill had lots of potential (it was amazingly brutal and cruel, which I love to see in my dystopian worlds) and I would've loved it if the author delved into it more. Once the kids get to Artime they're thrown right into their creative lessons and magical training and even that passes by comparatively quickly, I would've loved to get more detail about the spells, the community of Artime itself, the creatures, and the arts lessons (to the kind of detail that the Harry Potter books delve into). The spells especially were extremely creative (turning paper clips into lethal scatterclips, enchanting origami dragons to actually attack and breathe fire), and I was dying to get more detail on other spells, but was left hanging. I think this rushed feeling could be contributed to the fact that this is a middle grade novel (and therefore things are sped up to accommodate younger readers with shorter attention spans that need things moving at a quick pace) and not the first in a series by the looks of things, so it could be excused thusly, but I think this could've benefitted from being either longer with more detail in the appropriate areas, or as a series.

There were a couple of areas in the book I felt could've been delved a bit deeper, but got what I thought was a "cop-out" resolution to these areas. First off, the idea that creative children are punished by death in an authoritarian dystopian world is awesome, but rather than explain to readers that creative people in all disciplines question the status quo and are a threat to governments that demand blind obedience, the author instead sticks to the idea that the label of "creative" only applies to the arts, and that maths and sciences are exempt from this designation. I hate this idea personally, I think it does a disservice to kids to perpetuate that you can only be "creative" if you write stories or draw pictures, I've seen creative minds in science classrooms as well as in math, and I always tell kids that creative means that you produce or contribute something by thinking outside the box no matter what subject you're working in. I think the whole "creativity only belongs to the arts" is a major cop-out, and would've preferred to have seen the idea explained as I have above, I don't think such a concept is something that middle grade readers couldn't understand. Another thing that bothered me was the point in the plot where Mr. Today and Alex's teachers hold back his magical warrior training because they think he'll use it to reunite with Aaron. They've got the kids under surveillance and see that the lack of magical warrior training is making Alex miserable and therefore thinking more about his twin than if he had been allowed to do his training with the others, which makes no sense if you think about it, so I think it was just put in unnecessarily to create conflict in the plot, which was just dumb in my opinion, if you're going to create conflict, do it in a way that's realistic. Last thing in this area...the whole idea of an actual war with Quill and Artime could've been prevented in a very simple way (won't say more for fear of spoilers), but it's so stupidly simple, you'll want to smack the characters upside the head for not doing it in the first place, which just frustrated me as a reader, I felt the whole battle and everything was just completely pointless.

Also, although the characters did have distinct personalities I would've liked to see them developed a little more, especially the girls Meghan and Lani (Alex and Samheed I felt had some pretty decent development throughout the book). The secondary characters like the adults and the creatures (I loved Simber) were pretty interesting as well, another area that could've been better explored if this had been a series instead of a one-shot.

I wanted to like this, I really did, and it has a lot of potential in some areas: the premise, the spells, the arts lessons, the magic of Artime itself, and the characters. However, the feeling of being rushed through what good parts there were and being dragged through a climactic battle that didn't need to happen in the first place really affected my enjoyment of the book (again, perhaps my expectations were a bit too high). Also that whole "creativity only belongs in the arts" idea really bugged me, but that irked the teacher in me, so that might not bother all readers. It's a decent middle-grade novel, but I think there are definitely better ones out there that don't dumb down things for kids and assume that middle grade readers can indeed have some sophisticated stuff in their books.

Thoughts on the cover:
I do like the cover, I think it's nice and dynamic, a perfect fit for a middle grade novel. I like how Simber is the main focus of the cover, with the kids at the bottom as well as their origami dragon spells (I loved those!).

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