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Code Name: Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name: Verity is one of the best books I've read this year. I expected it to be excellent, since Wein is such a good writer and the author of several other favorite books of mine, but it surpassed my expectations.

The novel is best-read knowing as little as possible about it, since it goes in a number of unexpected but logical directions, so I will confine my description to what you learn within the first 20 or so pages:

The book is in the form of a confession written by a captured British spy during WWII. The spy is a young woman who parachuted into France after her plane crashed. Her best friend, Maddie, was the pilot, and was killed in the crash. The spy is being held prisoner and tortured by the Gestapo; to play out the remaining time she has left, buy herself an easier death, and to memorialize her best friend, she has agreed to give up information in exchange for being allowed to write her confession at book length, and to tell the entire story of how everything came to pass.

I don't think it's spoilery to say that the reliability of the narrator is questionable; that's inherent in the set-up. But how she's unreliable, how she's reliable, and why is both fun to unravel and, like the rest of the story, moving and heartbreaking. This is that rare thing, a story of female friendship as intense as any other sort of love. It's extremely well-written, suspenseful, meticulously researched, and cleverly plotted.

As you can predict if you've read any of Wein's other books, the characters are great and it's extremely, extremely emotionally intense. There are no graphic details, but the psychological depiction of what it feels like to be tortured and helpless - and to hold on to whatever you can of your power and self under circumstances where that feels impossible - is one of the most realistic I've ever read. I would not schedule any important meetings or dates or anything where you need to be emotionally together and focused immediately after finishing this book. It's terrific, not depressing, a book I'm sure I will re-read. But like I said... intense.

Also, female friendship! Girl pilots! Girl spies! Intrigue! War! And even humor and wit, which is certainly needed.

I don't usually make award predictions, but I'm going to throw my hat in the ring for this one: Code Name Verity is going to win the Newbery Medal. You heard it here first.

Code Name Verity

Please do not put spoilers in comments. If enough of you have already read it to make a discussion possible and you'd like to have a spoilery discussion, please say so in comments, and I'll open a separate spoiler post later.

Wein's other books form a sequence which is ideally read in order. However, I'll mark good starting points.

The Winter Prince. An intense, unconventional Arthurian retelling, also with an unusual narrative structure: a letter from Medraut (Mordred) to his aunt, Morgause. This gives Arthur two legitimate children, a son, Lleu, and a daughter, Goewin. It's mostly about the relationship between Medraut and Lleu, but Goewin is a very interesting character. Especially good depictions of PTSD and healing from trauma.

A Coalition of Lions (Arthurian Sequence, Book 2). After the battle of Camlann, Goewin ends up in Aksum (ancient Ethiopia.) Works as a bridge between the first book and the next sequence, but not as strong on its own as the rest of the series.

The Sunbird. If you don't need to know the details of everything that went down previously, you could start here with the knowledge that Medraut went to Aksum and had a son, Telemakos, with an Aksumite woman. Very good, but warning for child harm: Telemakos is very young and endures some very bad things. (Not sexual abuse.)

The Lion Hunter (The Mark of Solomon) and The Empty Kingdom (Mark of Solomon Book Two). One book in two volumes. Telemakos, now a teenager, is still suffering from the aftereffects of his spy mission in the last book. But, of course, the reward for a difficult job well-done is another difficult job. You could start here, too, if you don't mind not knowing the exact details of what went down. Fantastic, well-written, atmospheric, well-characterized story. Yet another excellent depiction of trauma and healing. Again, extremely intense, but easier to take since he's no longer a child. Try not to get spoiled for anything in this - don't even read the cover copy.

Crossposted to http://rachelmanija.dreamwidth.org/1044146.html. Comment here or there.

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

I didn’t love the first two books in this series – the worldbuilding is flimsy and I couldn’t help comparing them to the remarkably similar Battle Royale movie, which I like a lot more - but I liked Katniss, her narrative voice, and the energy of the story enough to keep reading. That was a mistake.

Not only is Mockingjay awesomely depressing, but the elements I enjoyed in the first two books are absent. It lacks energy, and Katniss’s character has changed radically and off-page before the book begins: the angry, determined survivor of the first two novels is gone, replaced by a clinically depressed and passive girl who spends most of the book in a despairing haze, being moved around like a pawn by authority figures.

This was such a deliberately and consistently grim novel that I ended up sorry that I read it, and I rarely feel that way. The first two books were dark in ways which logically followed from the premise: the story was about kids forced to kill in gladiatorial combat, and kids were killed in gladiatorial combat. This one is dark in ways which logically follow from the premise, but also in ways which don't. Sometimes people act out of character solely so that horrible things can happen, and a climactic scene makes absolutely no sense solely so that the most horrible thing of all can happen.

My usual example separating inherently depressing from gratuitously depressing is a Holocaust novel in which everyone dies in a concentration camp, and a Holocaust novel in which everyone dies in a concentration camp except for the protagonist's true love, who is liberated, runs joyously across the street to meet her, and is squashed by a cement truck. Not only was the cement truck not a logical consequence of genocide, but by adding implausible elements to make genocide even more depressing, the entire novel and so the genocide it contains seem less real, and so defeats the author's purpose.

Mockingjay is a cement truck novel.

It’s not necessary to write a book which is no fun in order to point out that war is bad, nor is it necessary to make the book excruciatingly depressing in order to convey that the heroine is depressed. Aristotle wrote all about the paradox of audiences getting profound enjoyment out of watching horrific tragedies unfold onstage. The emotional state of the protagonist does not have to be inflicted on the audience to make the audience to understand how the protagonist is feeling.

The first spoiler cut only describes the first sixteen pages, which is one of the most stunningly depressing openings I’ve ever read.

Spoilers trip over the skulls of loved onesCollapse )

Had I been normally browsing, I would probably have given up there. However, I was determined to stay at air-conditioned Borders to prevent heat exhaustion, so I continued, cool but depressed.

The next spoiler cut is for the rest of the book.

Spoilers fall, everybody diesCollapse )

If you haven’t started the series but you want to, I would recommend reading only the first book and possibly the second (though that one ends on a bigger cliffhanger), then writing your own ending.

The Hunger Games - Library Edition

Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games)

Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games) - Library Edition

Battle Royale: Director's Cut (Collector's Edition). Warning: very violent and disturbing, doubly so because it’s live-action and the teenagers look like (and I think are mostly played by) real teenagers, not young-looking adults.

This entry was originally posted at http://rachelmanija.dreamwidth.org/858625.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
Belated read-a-thon reviews. Books sponsored by [profile] sartorias.

The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom are a pair of excellent quasi-historical novels set in an alternate sixth century Aksum (Ethiopia), about a royal child-spy. I think they would appeal to fans of Megan Whalen Turner for their suspense, excellent characterization, complex politics, fine prose, and extremely high angst quotient.

The child spy in question is Telemakos, the son of the Aksumite Turunesh and the British Medraut. Yes, that Medraut, the one more commonly known as Mordred. That being said, there’s very little else about the books which is in any way Arthurian. Let me explain how this came about…

The first book, The Winter Prince, is an intense, heartbreaking novel in the form of a letter from the young Medraut to his mother Morgause. It’s notable for featuring no magic, and for adding the characters of Lleu, Arthur’s high-strung legitimate son with whom Medraut has a tormented love-hate relationship (tormented love-hate sums up all of Medraut's significant relationships, actually), and Goewin, Arthur’s practical legitimate daughter. Guinevere is very sympathetic, and there is no Lancelot. Nor is there Merlin, though in some ways Medraut is a Merlin-figure, and takes the role of the Magician in a play. This and the completely different The Once and Future King are my all-time favorite Arthurian novels. It stands on its own, and I'm not sure if a sequel was intended at the time it was written.

The sequel, A Coalition of Lions, is a complete left turn. It’s from the point of view of Goewin after Camlann, and takes place in Aksum. It’s well-written and sets the stage for the rest of the books, but is a bit emotionally distant (until the end) and I found the politics hard to follow.

It’s probably possible to start the Aksum sequence with the next book, The Sunbird, which is told from the point of view of Telemakos, a brilliant boy – but still a boy – who volunteers for an absolutely harrowing spy mission. It’s a great story, but very intense and angsty, the more so because Telemakos is so young.

The subsequent two books (really one book broken in two, so buy both if you want to read the story) largely involve the aftermath of the events of The Sunbird, complete with a very believable depiction of PTSD, and proof that the reward of a difficult job well-done is another and harder job.

In these books, Telemakos copes with both new and old traumas, on a new mission intricately interconnected with his old one. His new baby sister is one of the best-written portrayals of a baby and toddler I’ve ever come across, adorable but not too adorable, a real character even before she learns to speak. The two of them are sent to a neighboring kingdom, where Telemakos develops a complicated relationship with its very complicated ruler. Intrigue, ancient science, and extreme suspense ensue. I love Telemakos THIS MUCH, and was alternately covering my eyes in horror and leaping up to cheer for him. Metaphorically speaking.

Highly recommended, with the caveat that Telemakos is very young and some very bad stuff happens to him. (But not sexual abuse.) I also note that the novels are a sort of historically based fantasy (but without magic) rather than history as it really happened, much like the historical-but-not-real-history of The Winter Prince - that is, they are taking place in the same world as King Arthur.

Spoilers welcome in comments, so don’t read the comments if you don’t want to be spoiled.

The Winter Prince (Action Packs)

Coalition of Lions

The Sunbird

The Lion Hunter (The Mark of Solomon)

The Empty Kingdom (The Mark of Solomon)
Sponsored by [profile] sartorias.

Damn, that was a good book. I'll hold off on a write-up till a little later, when it'll get more eyes.
Sponsored by [profile] sartorias. (I already read A Coalition of Lions and The Sunbird.)

In a land based on ancient Ethiopia, the royal child-spy Telemakos recovers from his horrendous last mission, only to find that the reward of a job well-done is another job. And that's about all I can say about the plot without spoilers.

Excellent. Intense. Harsh. Really great job of characterizing a baby; also an excellent portrayal of PTSD.

...and I think I'll just start reading The Empty Kingdom now rather than writing up this book, then actually write something once I've finished that. Thank goodness I waited to read this one until I had them both!

The Lion Hunter (The Mark of Solomon)

The Empty Kingdom (The Mark of Solomon)


Rachel M Brown

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