Blog Tour | Review: Gottika, Helaine Becker

9781770863910Helaine Becker’s Gottika is a powerful retelling of an old Jewish legend about the golem, a magical humanoid being made from clay who is brought to life to protect Jewish towns from anti-semitic attacks. The world that Becker creates in Gottika bears many similarities to Panem and other contemporary YA dystopias, but the reference to Jewish legend turns the into an unsettling allegory for the horrors of the Holocaust.

Fifteen year old Dany is a Stoon, in Western Gottika where Stoons are treated as second class citizens and killed for no reason under the tyrannical rule of Count Pol. Unrest is brewing, and Dany’s father must decide if he must stop trying to keep a low profile and use the secret knowledge he possesses to bring clay to life and transform it into a weapon against Count Pol.

There’s a lot going on in Gottika, multiple plot threads that, though resolved, rarely ever take off. What’s the “staring sickness”, why do all the families in town only have one child each, why is Count Pol kidnapping teenage girls? The final question in particular does have a pretty big significance in the story, but the question feels so tangential, and buried beneath so many other plot points, throughout the story that the payoff feels disjointed.

More powerful are the encounters between Stoons and Count Pol’s soldiers. In one particularly memorable scene, Dany and his father are swimming when soldiers order them out of the water and castigate them for not wearing their hats. The casual injustice, coupled with Dany and his father’s powerlessness to resist, is difficult to read. In another scene, soldiers storm Dany’s house to confiscate his family’s books. The novel breaks from text narration then, switching over to graphics and demonstrating how some horrors are beyond just words.

While more of the main characters are male, I love that the female characters seem to have more complex motivations for their actions. While most teenage girls fear being kidnapped by Count Pol, Dany’s cousin Dalil welcomes it. She is attracted by Pol’s lifestyle, and manages to turn a blind eye to his faults. Later in the story, she is forced to face the truth of Pol’s tyranny, and becomes instrumental in the resistance against it. I love her character arc, how her desire for comfort initially outweighs her loyalty to her people, until she is forced to realize just how much she is condoning by her actions. Dany’s mother as well, quiet and unassuming at first, later reveals a dark secret she’s had to live with for many years. In contrast to Dany and his father’s more traditional heroic roles, I love the nuances and  questions raised by Dalil and Dany’s mother’s more problematic arcs.

The horrors of the Holocaust are difficult to discuss, particularly in fiction for children. Gottika isn’t exactly a simple allegory for that, but it does speak to the oppression experienced by certain groups of people. The story is futuristic, but the tone is that of a classic fairy tale. There’s a timelessness to Dany’s story, and despite the supernatural elements, the sense that there have been, and continue to be, far too many Count Pols throughout history.


Thank you to Dancing Cat Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

Review | Red Rising, Pierce Brown

9780345539786Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest class in the colour-coded society of the future. Part of a human colony in Mars, he and his fellow Reds work to make the surface of Mars habitable for future generations. Except it turns out, the surface of Mars has been habitable for some time, and a different class of humans — the Golds — have been living in luxury thanks to the work of the Reds and other colours within society. When a personal tragedy opens Darrow’s eyes to the truth, he undergoes a painful physical transformation to become a Gold and infiltrate the highest echelons of society in order to destroy it from within.

As with any dystopia published within the last few years, Pierce Brown’s Red Rising has been compared to The Hunger Games, and Darrow to Katniss Everdeen. There are certainly similarities — unjust society, hot temper, heroism and sacrifice, etc. However, Red Rising isn’t quite as concerned as The Hunger Games with youth and the loss of innocence. Perhaps it’s because Darrow, like most teenagers in his society, is already married. Or perhaps it’s because we meet Darrow in the middle of a work day, practically indistinguishable from the adults he works with — unlike Katniss, who is forced to hunt so her family will survive, Darrow fulfills an accepted role in his society as a breadwinner for his family. Distinguishing this as well from other YA dystopias, the story actually feels more adult than young adult until the second half, when Darrow goes undercover in a training institute for Golds and the book reverts to familiar YA dystopia territory.

Red Rising is an exciting, action-packed science fiction thriller. Reds and other colours are kept subjugated so that the ruling class can maintain their supremacy. This is clearly wrong, and a rebellion has begun. But first, Darrow must face the Gold training system, which turns out to be horrifically brutal (like, Hunger Games-level brutal), to the point that it strains credibility that society would allow such a ruthless system to continue for their children. Within this training system, murder, rape and Lannister-level scheming are all par for the course, in the quest to be top of the class. Imagine the Hunger Games, but every one is a career. There is a girl, of course, whose loyalty is called to question, and a best friend, from whom Darrow is hiding a horrible secret. It’s brutal, it’s intense, and Brown never lets up the pace. To Brown’s credit, his world building is so masterful that it actually does end up being believable, and like Darrow, even the reader may soon forget his larger mission and the world around this training centre.

Still, the story is at its best when it deals with the machinations beyond the arena. There are some moments of nuance that give power to a more complex story — for example, when Darrow undergoes physical transformations to become a Gold, he is uncomfortably aware of how much these transformations are improvements. In terms of many physical aspects, Golds actually are superior to Reds, and while that is likely the result of conditioning and environment affecting evolution, it’s an uncomfortable observation for the author to make, and a bold one that reveals potentially much more serious effects of racial or class based segregation.

Darrow’s battle to make top of his class in Gold society and the innovation of his strategy foreshadow the eventual resolution of the larger conflict in his society. Red Rising is a promising start to what could be a powerful trilogy; one just can’t help but be impatient for the training to be over, and the actual rebellion to begin. It’s a trilogy custom-made for the screen — non-stop action, non-stop thrills, very little time for contemplation. Yet the seeds for a deeper story are there, and I at least can’t wait to see how the story progresses beyond the arena.


Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Half Lives, Sara Grant

Imagine a lethal virus decimating most of the world’s population. Then imagine  that all that has survived for future generations are the words of a teenager. Not just any teenager, but one with a penchant for combining words just because she thinks they sound cool (e.g. freaking + idiot = fridiot, freaking + creepy = freepy). Now imagine a world where Facebook is the guide to living right, “crupid” is part of the vocabulary, and “whatever” is a form of prayer.

16131051On one hand, Sara Grant’s Half Lives could be seen as a sobering commentary on the devastating effects of nuclear waste. The story touches on terrorism and biowarfare, and makes a convincing argument about the horrors we humans inflict upon each other. On the other hand, the novel can also be seen as social satire — words and symbols that mean nothing to us can easily take on sacred meaning when taken out of context. Could the worship of the Great I AM, founded upon the group leader’s infinity symbol birthmark and based upon the teachings of Facebook, be a rather pointed dig at blind obedience to religious institutions? The problem is, as a reader well-familiar with the original context for these cultural icons and rather grouchily unimpressed by words like “freepy,” I was just annoyed.

The story switches between time periods and points of view. In the present day, seventeen year old Icie escapes the virus along with three other teenagers by hiding in an abandoned nuclear facility hidden inside a mountain near Las Vegas. The teens with her — spoiled rich boy, head cheerleader, and mysterious hot boy — aren’t particularly memorable, though I found Grant’s portrayal of one of the teens’ descent into madness interesting and I wish Grant had explored that character more. Random pieces of literature — To Kill a Mockingbird and Waiting for Godot — are conveniently brought into the story when the author wants to make a point, but neither is used enough to create a potent metaphor.

Generations in the future, Becket is a leader of a group of young people who live in the mountain. They have their own rules, based upon aphorisms paired with smiley faces. Again, on one hand, it’s somewhat believable and realistic; on the other hand, it’s simply annoying. Makes me wonder if some of the writers of religious texts may have included their own language’s version of “whatever” and we just have no idea. Becket’s group refuses to leave the mountain, because they believe crossing a border means instant death, as well because they fear running into Terrorists, whom they imagine as hulking beasts. This storyline had potential, and I really liked the character of Harper, Becket’s best friend and on the losing end of a love triangle. I also liked the storyline about the power struggle Becket has to face.

There are a few scenes in the book that pack an emotional punch, and the themes it raises certainly need contemplating. Unfortunately, much like the Facebook aphorisms of the Great I AM, the story remains comfortably on the surface and never quite brings the edge it promises. I wonder what an author like Margaret Atwood or Suzanne Collins would have brought to this concept.


Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.