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"What is Genius?" by Robert W. Chambers

Review Round-up: Ravens, Angels, Avengers, Cops & the Apocalypse

Five books, all given less space than they deserve. Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys, David Almond's Skellig, Warren Ellis' Endless Wartime, Katie Coyle's Vivian Versus the Apocalypse and Rachel Howzell Hall's upcoming The Land of Shadows. Young adult, graphic novels, science fiction and a good ol' fashioned serial killer...

The-Raven-BoysMaggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys (2013) - a recommendation from Justin Landon, who occasionally isn't wrong on the internet. And boy, is this fantastic. A group of kids - private schoolboys and a third-generation witch - all go searching for a lost magical something-or-another. Small town silliness plus high stakes mystical weirdness.

The Raven Boys has a lot of the now-familiar tropes that I like in YA: an examination of what it is to be a 'have' and a 'have not', plus poking around at the idea of what it is like to belong (in a school, a group, a family...). The Raven Boys also addresses one of the themes that I find most fascinating in YA (and weirdly absent in adult genre fiction) - what it means to be a "hero". Not in the Chosen One sense, but in the "does that make the rest of us sidekicks?" sense. In The Raven Boys there's a clear, charismatic focal point - someone at the centre of a prophecy, someone that binds the others together. That's great... but how does that make everyone else feel? Too often - again, especially in genre stories for 'grown-ups', do books assume that everyone is happy to subsume their own agency in favour of the Obvious Protagonists. It is a strange and unrealistic behaviour - I much prefer The Raven Boys' model, where everyone is the hero of their own story.

This book also breaks the mold in that the authority figures and family members aren't all evil. Plus, despite the charm and warmth of The Raven Boys, it doesn't hesitate to tackle big, dark issues. Plus, fun - I would've loved this as a kid, and immediately started plotting out ley lines and doing bonkers research and filling notebooks with esoteric nonsense. 

Skellig_coverDavid Almond's Skellig (1998) - was also a recommendation, this from Tom Pollock. A young boy with a lot on his mind discovers an... angel?... hiding in a shed. With the help of his slightly bonkers home-schooled neighbour, he interrogates the angel?, his life and his own feelings.

I wrestled with this one, actually - wrestling with angel, only appropriate). I think - spoilers aside - the ending bothered me a lot. There was certainly a brilliantly poetic weirdness to the entire book and an atmosphere of decay that was wonderfully conveyed. But that, again, didn't really match up with the ending. It seemed to me that everyone was leading in one direction, only to tack back in another. 

I think comparing books is probably a rubbish thing to do, but I wonder how much of Skellig was 'watered-down' for me by having read A Monster Calls already. I think the latter tackles many of the same thoughts and feelings, but - and  'better' isn't the right word here - to a resolution that feels more appropriate and complete. Regardless, a very powerful, very evocative book, and, even if it didn't settle with me properly, I still have no hesitation in recommending it.This book is a fast, poignant read - once you're done, come back and argue with me...

Warren Ellis' Avengers: Endless Wartime (2013) - I don't pretend to keep up with Marvel's various universes any more, but this graphic novel seems an intentionally approachable fusion of several. It is clearly set in some continuity where the Avengers team includes the non-Disney owned Wolverine (?), so it isn't the cinematic universe ('cause, copyright)... but, excepting that, it is pretty overtly presented as something that picks up where the movies leave off. And the dialogue, plot points, etc, make this feel like Avengers 2 more than anything else.Not a complaint, just an observation.

And, hey, how great is it to find an actual stand-alone, no cross-over-or-background-required adventure any more? It even resolves! With an ending! Basically, Captain America once fought a Nazi death machine. And Thor, he once fought an evil dragon monster. Wouldn't it be awful if someone merged the two to create Nazi death dragon monster machines? Cue: FIGHT SCENES. Witty banter, big explosions, crazy technology. Plus a bit of 'drones are bad' messaging and a rather dark anti-government twist that's vintage Ellis (in my mind, he was asked to write a fluffy piece for movie-fans, but JUST COULDN'T HELP HIMSELF). My one criticism, and this is a weird one - but I think the team is a little snarky. They really spend the entire time sniping at one another. It was funny - and built to an emotional pay-off - but it felt a little relentless.

Vivian versusKatie Coyle's Vivian Versus The Apocalypse (2013). I'm not sure how I found this, actually. But I'm very glad I did. The Rapture cometh and, guess what, Vivian isn't taken home to our Lord. And that's despite being a Very Good Girl. Left with her outspoken (not-Good) friend and a kitchen filled with canned goods, Vivian needs to figure out what the hell heaven is going on.

Most of the book, say, 90% of it, is a completely distinctive take on apocalyptic literature. These are ordinary, flawed, vulnerable people who are neither heroes nor villains, trying to figure out where they fit in the new world. And everyone else they encounter? Kind of the same - as Vivian and her friends go on a road trip, they find a world that's just plain confused. There are problems, but it isn't exactly Mad Max - more, "burger places get really expensive". Everyone slogs on with a thin veneer of sanity, but it is clear that, under the surface, people are struggling.

This messed up world reflects, of course, the confusion within Vivian herself - who is she in this new world? For that matter, who was she in the old one? This is an insightful, enjoyable trek that gets extra points for avoiding satire, instead, it treats the topic of Christian conservatism like it does everything else: with sensitivity. Vivian's world isn't one of heroes and villains, instead it is one of empathy and fragility.

That said, there is a 10% infusion of Epicness - mostly at the end - that left me bored. I was very happy with Vivian et al. finding themselves and one another. Finding The Absolute Answer and The Big Villains? That ruined the suspension of disbelief. Vivian's real challenge was to fix her own life, not the entire world (Alas.) Overall? Great book. Multiple un-Raptured thumbs up.

Land of ShadowsFinally, to change genre tacks entirely - Rachel Howzell Hall's The Land of Shadows (2014). This is the first book in a new detective series, featuring Lou Norton and her partner, Colin Taggert. The brutal murder of a young woman leads Lou back into her own past, when her sister disappeared under very similar circumstances. Shadows is best when Norton is doing her police work - Hall has a knack for describing the detail of the procedural day to day, be that the smell of a decomposed corpse (eee) or the breakroom comaraderie.

The casework is also fun, with Norton and Taggert turning up a lot of fascinating characters (including the competing boyfriends of the deceased, both of whom are exactly what they don't appear to be - a lesson of the book as a whole). Norton as seething pit of personal issues, however, is less fun. Her marriage is collapsing, her childhood is filled with dark secrets, and everything seems to be entangled in this one case. Tortured cops aren't anything new, and, if anything, Norton's over the top personal problems undermined, rather than reinforced, the gritty realism of the mystery itself. That said, it bodes well for the sequels - Hall has built an interesting setting, a commitment to strong procedural work and a savvy detective duo (well, one sharp detective plus Taggert, her humorously ungainly foil). 

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