Thursday, July 30, 2020

Axiom's End - Lindsay Ellis

Title: Axiom's End
Author: Lindsay Ellis
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 2020 (Hardcover)
Length: 372 pages
Genre: Adult; Science Fiction
Started: July 22, 2020
Finished: July 27, 2020

From the inside cover:

Truth is a human right.

It's fall 2007. A well-timed leak has revealed that the U.S. government might have engaged in first contact. Cora Sabino is doing everything she can to avoid the whole mess, since the force driving the controversy is her whistleblowing father . Even though Cora hasn't spoken to him in years, his celebrity has caught the attention of the press, the internet, the paparazzi, and the government - and with him in hiding, that attention is on her. She neither knows nor cares whether her father's leaks are a hoax, and wants nothing to do with him - until she learns just how deeply entrenched her family is in the cover-up and that an extraterrestrial presence has been on Earth for decades.

Realizing the extent to which both she and the public have been lied to, she sets out to gather as much information as she can and finds that the best way for her to uncover the truth is not as a whistleblower, but as an intermediary. The alien presence is completely uncommunicative until she convinces one of them that she can act as their interpreter, becoming the first and only human vessel of communication. Their otherworldly connection will change everything she thought she knew about being human - and could unleash a force more sinister than she ever imagined.

The author, Lindsay Ellis, is a video essayist on YouTube who posts mainly about media criticism, including all the geeky things I tend to enjoy, like Disney. Her videos are intelligent, funny, and just generally well-done (especially her Hugo Award-nominated videos on the Hobbit films); if anyone is interested in them, you can find them here. The main reason I knew about and read this book is because I'm fond of the author's work, so I wanted to be clear about my bias in regards to this novel in particular. With that out of the way, this book was definitely an engaging read. It had some blips on the radar, but this was definitely read-worthy, which is a good thing because this book is the first in a series with four more books planned.

Journalist Nils Ortega has leaked evidence that aliens known as the "Fremda Group" have been in CIA custody for decades. When the government investigates his ex-wife and three children and take them into custody in the hopes of finding him, 21-year-old Cora manages to escape and seeks the aid of her aunt Luciana, Nils' sister who, until recently, worked with the group tasked with figuring out how to communicate with the Fremda aliens, to no avail. Before she can meet up with Luciana though, Cora is followed and abducted by an alien who plants a Babel Fish-type device into her, enabling him to communicate directly into her mind. He, later named Ampersand, orders Cora to take him to the Fremda group before they are killed by another alien called Obelus, who was sent to destroy them. Cora agrees, mainly so she can leverage her ability to communicate with Ampersand to guarantee her family's safety. As the two travel to meet Luciana and later the rest of the Fremda group still in CIA custody, Cora learns about Ampersand's society and how humanity will be impacted by their interactions.

This book had a bit of a slow start for me. Cora isn't a very engaging character in the beginning in my opinion. She's having some issues adjusting to adult life: she's a college drop-out with an incomplete linguistics major, loses a temp job on the first day, and in general acts younger than twenty-one (which makes sense because apparently in a first draft she was supposed to be eighteen and was aged up). Things get much more exciting once Ampersand shows up and Cora slowly pieces together the reason why the Fremda group came to Earth in the first place. The dialogue between them is engaging, and through this you can see that Ampersand does have a fully formed personality. Though Ampersand does have a chance to have his character background explained, Cora sadly doesn't. We know she has daddy issues from Nils leaving, and that she has a tenuous relationship with her mom but loves her younger siblings, and she likes to play the guitar, but no clues for why those things exist. It sometimes feels as if any time that could've been used to flesh out Cora a bit more was sacrificed to either advance the plot or to focus on Ampersand. The focus on Ampersand pays off, but I wish that we could've gotten to know Cora better (hopefully we will get that in future instalments).

In terms of the setting, it takes place in an alternate version of America in 2007. There are a lot of references from that time period from political figures to movies, music and events, so anyone who either wasn't alive or was too young to really remember that period (so anyone younger than their teens/early 20s) might have a hard time envisioning the environment the author is trying to invoke. I fear this book will not age well as a result of this.

The themes in the book can get very dark, but not to the point where you feel you have to put the book down. Colonialism, genocide, and how those two ideas often intersect in practice compose the main thematic points, with the undercurrent of what it means to be human and traits that we value and how we place those expectations on a group we view as the "other." This book could generate some great discussions in a classroom or bookclub setting.

The interactions between Cora and Ampersand are well-written and satisfying. I can't say more for fear of spoilers, but let's just say it is very on-brand for the author if you're familiar with the content she creates (it made my inner fangirl happy).

A bit of a slow start, but once it gets going this book manages to be insightful and touching and is definitely worth the read. I look forward to reading the rest of the series and seeing where the story goes.

Thoughts on the cover:
Apparently the author had numerous revisions with the publisher to get the cover to look the way she wanted, and if that's true, it was worth the hassle. The reddish-orange and beige colour scheme is aesthetically appealing, and the cover image works in the context of the story.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes - Suzanne Collins

Title: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic, 2020 (Hardcover)
Length: 517 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian
Started: May 19, 2020
Finished: May 26, 2020

From the inside cover:

Ambition will fuel him.
Competition will drive him.
But power has its price.

It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games. In the Capitol, eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Games. The once-mighty house of Snow has fallen on hard times, its fate hanging on the slender chance that Coriolanus will be able to out charm, outwit, and outmaneuver his fellow students to mentor the winning tribute.

The odds are against him. He's been given the humiliating assignment of mentoring the female tribute from District 12, the lowest of the low. Their fates are now completely intertwined - every choice Coriolanus makes could lead to favour or failure. triumph or ruin. Inside the arena, it will be a fight to the death. Outside the arena, Coriolanus starts to feel for his doomed tribute...and must weigh his need to follow the rules against his desire to survive no matter what it takes.

Earlier this year when I first heard that there was going to be another book set in the Hunger Games universe, I was excited. I didn't even care that it wasn't about Katniss, until news came out that the protagonist was going to be President Snow as a young man. That gave me pause. Not enough to make me not want to buy the book, but it did make me wonder what a tall order it was going to be to make me care about the younger version of the original series' chief antagonist. I have to give it to Suzanne Collins, she not only made me care about a young Snow enough to read a whole book about him, but proved that she's still got it as a writer even a decade after writing her famous series.

The story begins in the Capitol barely ten years after the infamous war mentioned in the original books has ended. The Capitol as we know it from the original series is shiny, modern, and rich. The immediate post-war Capitol is anything but. For anyone who knows their history, think of Germany after WWI or all of Europe immediately after WWII. Eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow has lost both his parents, as has his older cousin Tigris, and they both live with their grandmother in the once-lavish but currently decrepit family townhouse. Coriolanus needs a university scholarship in order to feed his family and pull them out of poverty, which he will win if the tribute he is being paired with wins the upcoming Hunger Games. With viewership levels falling, the Capitol is experimenting with new ideas to make the Games more appealing, and this is the first year mentors are being used, except instead of district winners being the mentors like in the original series, they are using Capitol students from the academy.

Since Coriolanus is not Dean Highbottom's favourite, he is assigned to the female tribute from District 12, small and understated. Coriolanus has little hope of winning, until he sees Lucy Grey Bard in the reaping footage, and hears her sing. With no real fighting skills, he plans to play up her cunning and charisma, but that hinges on the assumption that she actually trusts a Capitol boy to get her through the Games.

This book not only makes Coriolanus Snow sympathetic, but it also his fellow classmates. This book adds in the idea that it isn't only the districts that are suffering due to the Capitol's tyranny, and this is clearly shown through the daily grind that Coryo and his friends go through. Some of his classmates and their families weathered the war relatively unscathed, but the food shortages affect even the most influential families, to the point where the main perk of attending the academy is that the students are well fed while in attendance. The Gamemakers' decisions also lead to accidents and death not only for the tributes, but the Capitol students as well. The themes of trauma and how it shapes a person, war and its effect on society, and the degree to which people will go to in order to save themselves are well displayed here and both complement and add to the themes explored in the original trilogy.

Coryo is admittedly a likeable character for most of the novel, it's hard to believe he's the younger version of President Snow from the first series, but granted, that is the whole drive to this book, to discover how Coryo became the Snow as we know him 65 years after the fact. Lucy Grey is a stereotypical manic pixie dream girl, but a likeable one; and I enjoy how songs from the first series were incorporated through her. Sejanus is a favourite of mine (poor tormented Sejanus), and his friendship with Coryo is well developed. It's amazing how the author managed to not only name every tribute and Capitol student, but also gave most of them some area in which to develop their character so they weren't merely a name.

If you're a fan of the original Hunger Games trilogy, it's worth picking up this newest instalment. Don't let the fact that the protagonist is a young Snow put you off, trust me, the author makes it work, and it's just as good as any of the first books were.

Thoughts on the cover:
I really appreciate cover continuity, even with more than a decade between books. With the black, red, and blue colour schemes of the first three books, the choice to go with green here fits well.