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December 11, 2010

Reading Update: Comparisons Are Odious, But Fun

Richelle Mead Spirit Bound
Ally Condie Matched
Richelle Mead Last Sacrifice

Ally Condie's first book in a new dystopian series follows a girl in a future "perfect" society, who is matched by computer program to her life partner on her seventeenth (?) birthday. Unusually for them (matches are usually total strangers) he turns out to be her best friend. But when she views his info chip, the face of another friend of hers, an "Aberration," or son of a criminal, flashes on the screen for a moment. This initial moment of confusion leads slowly, and inexorably, to the total breakdown of the protag's understanding of her perfect society. Of course, there's also a love triangle involved.

Matched has been getting a lot of play, and it's a decently conceived and written book. But ... well I think it's a good example of incompletely digested influences or sources. Truly inspired books like The Hunger Games can wear their sources on their sleeves and still have an identity and life of their own; you note the sources in retrospect, not while you're reading. But while I was reading Matched, every time a new layer was peeled away and the perfidy of their perfect society revealed, I was thrown out of the story by its resemblance to its sources.

SPOILERS AHEAD! When the grandfather was scheduled to die, I had to push Logan's Run out of my head. Several times I was annoyingly reminded of Brave New World, mostly in the cheerful attitude the characters had towards their entertainment. The communications monitor in their home gave me a 1984 hit. And several things -- the grandfather's relationship with the protag, the way she thought things through, the general atmosphere of the book -- gave me The Giver deja vu. At least the book has good taste in sources.

The Hunger Games, on the other hand, owes just as big a debt as Matched does to dystopias gone before. And THG's sources are a bit cheesier: every tournament/gladiator/fight-to-the-death genre flick and brick you can think of. And yet, THG, while influenced, seems to arise out of its own necessity: the choices the protag makes are based on her character and circumstances, not stolen from other stories and cobbled together. Matched, on the other hand, feels like a very smooth and expert pastiche, sewn together into a pleasing pattern like a quilt, but with the patches of acquired material still visible.

I don't know the processes of each author, but it's clear which result I prefer. I'm not saying Matched isn't worth reading: it is. It's smoothly done and holds together well, and I might even continue reading the series. But it's not a terribly good book. It's just okay.

Richelle Mead, as was almost inevitable, got very well, even honorably, through the first five books of the Vampire Academy series, and then dropped the ball in the last book. Again, Last Sacrifice isn't bad, but it's not very good, either.

In Spirit Bound SPOILERS! half-vampire guardian Rose gets the love of her life, half-vampire guardian Dmitri, back. He had been turned into an evil vampire, a Strigoi, previously, and Rose's good vampire (Moroi) best friend Lissa had brought him back by staking him with a silver stake, while pushing her spirit magic into him. (Yes, the series is hella complicated.) Spirit Bound was kinda interesting in how we got to see Dmitri push Rose away while he agonized over all the evil he did during his three whole months as an evil vampire.

(Let me just put in a word here about influences and sources. Mead does actually digest her sources pretty well, but they're right on the surface. Rose is a Buffy, and Dmitri is an Angel; no question. But their circumstances fit in so well with the world that Mead built here, that you don't have to notice these things until you're done with each book.)

But the problems all come crashing in in the last book. Mead had created too many characters who needed some sort of resolution. She also put the characters, emotionally, into untenable positions which had to be resolved before the series could end. She'd done a creditable job previously of teasing out emotional processes. Of course, the whole series takes place over the course of a single year, so the number and completeness of the emotional highs and lows throughout are completely unbelievable. However, even though each book covers only a few months, each book is a complete emotional arc, so it works.

The last book, however, gives each character several mini-arcs. For example SPOILER: in the heat of battle Rose finally kills one of the series' bad guys, a Moroi vampire, during a battle in which the much older, and sick, vampire was using his magic against her. She was being influenced by the dark side of spirit magic, but she falls into a five-minute funk in which she blames herself and decides that she's a savage and a monster. Then, literally a few hours later, she has an epiphany and realizes that she's just like Dmitri and that she has to forgive herself while he has to forgive himself. All of this is accomplished via one of the most awkwardly written dialogues in the history of genre trash. Of course, Dmitri, having spent all of a few months being evil, apparently only needed a couple of months to get over the guilt, too. Argh.

The speed with which everything has to be accomplished in the final book also starts to unravel the previous books. Like I said, I accepted the short timeline in the previous books, but when the time began passing waaaay too fast in the final book, it affected my view of what had happened previously. Rose starts to seem shallow, in how quickly she allowed herself to be courted by Adrian after Dmitri was turned. (It took, like, a few weeks. Don't people mourn anymore?)

I could bitch on about it, but I'm losing words and interest. The series' ending was disappointing, and not as good as Mead could've done. That's all.

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