Book Thoughts

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

Someone mentioned recently that this is the book for the present times, even more so than 1984 or the Handmaid’s Tale. I can see why. This book gave me nightmares.

The book is set in California in the near future (2024). Climate change has made food too expensive even for the well off. There isn’t really a middle class, only the destitute, and the working poor. Small towns have turned into corporations where people are paid less than the price to get ahead, and are forced into indentured servitude by the debts this presents. Government policies have made it impossible for anyone to get ahead, and outside gated communities there’s a good chance you’ll be murdered by either the desperate or the drug addled. Nowhere is safe.

It follows Lauren as she grows up in one of those gated communities, struggling to make sense of the world as it fractures around her. To make sense of it, she creates her own religion that worships ‘god as change’.

This word is Lauren’s normal, everything she has always known, even though she knows it’s only going to get worse. The result is a strange disconnect between Lauren’s calm and measured view of the world and all the terrible things that happen. The pace is at times excruciatingly slow, and the story spans years of Lauren’s life. This removes a feeling of immediacy to the horrors to come. Combined, these two techniques created an eerie effect as I read the book.

If this were made into a movie it could be shot as a zombie film, complete with gun fights, severed limbs, and cannibals. It is a survival story at its core, as much as it is Lauren’s origin story.

This novel feels scarily plausible given the trajectory of world politics today, and this was published in 2000. It’s not that bad yet, but it could be. I can’t get it out of my head, but I sometimes wish I could.

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Book Thoughts

The Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda

Here’s a MG that’s a ton of fun. Ash Mistry visits his uncle in India, and stumbles into an adventure that involves deadly demons and gods. My first impression was WOW this is creepy. It starts out with an almost cobra bite, and then there’s a half-eaten water buffalo on the shore, snakes with baby heads. But if you know me, that’s right up my alley. The prose is quite visceral and toothy. It’s very well written.

Yet it is very much a MG. The kids act like kids and talk like kids. It’s an adventure that starts straight away, without taking its time. Archaeological digs, ancient mysteries, gods and demons. If you liked the Percy Jackson books, I think you’ll like the Ash Mistry ones.

My only disappointment was that, though there was a fierce demon girl who helps Ash, his sister doesn’t get much page time and her main function is ‘damsel in distress’. Hopefully, she gets her time to shine in the later books in the series.

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Book Thoughts

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Rarely have I read a YA fantasy novel with a contemporary setting that evokes such a sense of place. Brooklyn isn’t described so much by its physical landscape, but the way that the people interact with it, how they speak, and inhabit it. ‘Community’ might be a better word for it.

The story follows Sierra, a talented artist, that has to come to terms with a family legacy that no one wants to tell her about, and figuring out both the past that’s come back to haunt them, and how she fits into it for the future.

In the book, magic shaped by creative acts. Painting is the main form, but some people use magic, and her grandfather used stories to control spirits that aren’t so much fearsome but can be used for good or ill by the people that shape them.

And Sierra, she’s not always right, but she’s bold, and when she makes decisions, other people support her even if they don’t quite agree. The story might be about her, but it also wouldn’t be much of a story without the family and friends who are part of it.

Which brings me back to ‘community’. You get a sense of it from the way Sierra knows the domino players down the street, the multi-generations coming and going from her home. There’s a real sense that everyone watches out for one another, that blood or not, they’re family. That’s something I can relate to in my own upbringing.

And, you know, it was so good to read about a young woman who doesn’t hate how she looks, is opinionated, strong willed, and isn’t punished for it by her family or the circumstances of the story. Instead, she’s rewarded for sticking to what she thinks is right. That feels oddly subversive. It shouldn’t be, but it does.

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