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Review Round-up: Red Rising and Charm & Strange

An upcoming release and a recent one - Pierce Brown's Red Rising and Stephanie Kuehn's Charm & Strange.

Red RisingFirst up, Red Rising. But, before that, a tangent! Proudly introducing - My Theory of the Matrix Trilogy.

The first movie came out, and all the viewers loooooved it. “Holy cow," we cried,"Those special effects! The cinematography! The fight scenes!”. Then we saw it, like, 15 times each, because it had that crazy camera work that we'd previously only seen in Gap adverts but with leather jackets and GUNZORS. Meanwhile, back in Hollywood HQ, the Wachowskis saw all the ticket sales and glowing reviews and immediately misunderstood. “YES! People really like it when we have long monologues about pseudo-existential philosophy! And crazy-complex plots! And Keanu Reaves feigning human emotion! People love him! Let’s give them MORE!”. Then they high-fived. Because that's what they do in my theories.

And thus, the two worst sequels in Hollywood history were born.

So that’s my Matrix theory, and, the best part is, it can be retconned really nicely to fit Orson Scott Card’s Ender series. You know why Ender’s Game is cool? Battle school. Little genius geek kids laying down the whoopsmack on one another in a lethal space-sport. It is oddly empathetic (given that 90% of the readership of Ender’s Game are or were little genius geek kids) and seriously cool. OSC in his infinite wisdom was like, “YES! PEOPLE WANT ME TO TALK ABOUT ETHICS! Oh, and Ender's seriously creepy relationship with his sister! More of that too!”, and thus, he shat out an endless series of sequels.

Other Matrixed series: Harry Potter 7 (“You like Quidditch and school stories? Here, have a subpar epic fantasy scavenger hunt.”); anything by Piers Anthony (“You like my world-building? HAVE SOME CHILD PORNOGRAPHY.”).

Arguably, the anti-Matrix position isn’t that much better - in which authors find their USP and stick to it, no matter how ridiculous it becomes. See, for example, Susanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, in which Collins understood completely that people like teenage deathmatch melodrama (and fashion shows). Accordingly, she came up with a series of increasingly insensible plot twists that kept chucking her protagonists back into Thunderdome. With new clothes. It is silly, but it is a reflection of what readers want. So it is tough to blame her.

What does this have to do with Red Rising? Very little, actually. I just wanted to share. Except, since Pierce Brown also uses a science-fictional-teenager-deathmatch-battleground as the central conceit of his novel, comparisons are inevitable. And, with that in mind... Brown’s first book already seems well ahead of the others.

First, although the setting features a ridiculously implausible dystopian society, that society is kind of awesome - with all the grandeur and power of Imperial Rome, a bizarre fetish for Olympian mythology and a sprawling interstellar presence.

Second, Brown doesn’t pull punches. The Hunger Games does all sorts of plot gymnastics to keep Katniss from ever doing anything that’s not actually perfectly positioned as Neutral Good. Brown’s Darrow doesn’t have that luxury: he’s an ambiguous character and he knows it - and he’s a deeper, richer character for it. Unlike Katniss, Darrow occasionally does bad things. It makes him more unpredictable and it means that his decisions drive the plot, and not the other way around.

Third, stuff happens - Red Rising is a fast-paced adventure serial with Darrow thrown from one desperate situation to the next. In our era of 1,000+ page tepid doorstops in which nothing actually occurs, Red Rising is a welcome return to the days of short, punchy excitement. Whether Darrow is battling his ‘classmates’, tunneling as a helldiver or being forcibly mutated by revolutionary doctors, something’s always going on. It is a bit cheesy and a lot over the top, but, it is never, ever dull. The amount of ground covered over the course of Red Rising is astounding, all building up to tantilising lead-in for the second book.*

Granted, Red Rising isn’t perfect - the early scenes are a little worthy, with Darrow’s angelic sweetheart and her martyrdom a tiny bit too cinematic (and not in a good way) for my taste. And, as noted, the society is so bafflingly impossible that it feels like a long hard look would punch through it (again, similar to the Hunger Games). But Red Rising is a huge amount of addictive, more-ish entertainment with a killer central conflict and enough moral ambiguity to keep the reader guessing. Relentless fun from start to finish.

Charm & StrangeOn the other end of the spectrum, Charm & Strange (2013) is possessed of a different sort of intensity and ambiguity. There are still brutal children involved, but Stephanie Kuehn's debut is focused very much on explaining the horrors of the 'horrendously probable' rather than the entertaining aspects of the utterly impossible. It is also very, very much not 'fun'.

Andrew “Drew and/or Win” Winters is a troubled teenager at a Vermont boarding school. He’s a strange kid with a violent past, something he confesses to quite readily at the start of the book. As a result, he’s an outsider - avoided by his classmates.

At the start of Charm & Strange, Win accidentally makes a friend - or at least some sort of acquaintance. His odd behaviour attracts the attention of a transfer student, a young woman, who, despite his best efforts, persists in talking to him. This doesn’t seem particularly ground-breaking, but her efforts to draw him out begin a series of complicated events that ultimately reveal the terrible secrets of Win’s past.

Charm & Strange oscillates with increasing intensity between the past and present. Win wanders through his school, to a party, even goes yomping about in the woods - caught up in the traditional anxieties of the friendless YA protagonist plus a few new ones (spoiler: he thinks he’s a wolf). The interjections of the past (back when he was “Drew”), however, add more edge, and the flashbacks - of varying length - add a sinister undertone to Win’s otherwise just-kinda-weird behaviour. From his demanding parents to his sweet older brother to his bratty cousins, the more we learn about Win’s family life, the more we start to realise there is something very, very wrong going on.

The two threads weave together well, but Charm & Strange is better at explaining why Drew/Win is the way he is than in resolving it. Ostensibly, there’s some sort of resolution (although Kuehn wisely steers things in a “time will tell” kind of way), but the book’s true climax takes place years in the past. The result is an oddly lop-sided book. Why is there so much emphasis on the (non-)events of the present if the present is largely meaningless? Drew/Win is suffering, and rightfully so, but if the core reveal is ‘why’ and not ‘what next’, it feels like the structure of the book is, well, wrongly-weighted.

Certainly the events of Win’s ‘present’ don’t have the same power to them, partially because the possibly-lupine Win’s perspective is written in a deliberately disconcerting style. His past is recited with a hideous banality, and has all the more impact for it. Charm & Strange is an odd and deliberately disturbing book, one that works with the sinister and off-putting so well that the eventual message of hope seems almost too fragile - almost tacked on, to keep the book from being too bleak. (And, arguably, Charm with a darker ending is a very intriguing prospect.) I can’t figure out if Charm concluded too early (in that, the ‘present’ storyline needed a more dramatic resolution) or too well (in that, the resolution of the present storyline didn’t ‘fit’).

I am, bizarrely, just not sure. This isn’t an enjoyable book as much as it is a powerful one, which is no bad thing at all. And although I didn’t ‘love’ any of the characters, I don’t think that makes a difference - Charm is, with its affected language and distant protagonist, about understanding and its challenges; ultimately striving for sympathy, not empathy. Not a book I’d re-read, or even a book I like, but certainly one that I would strongly recommend, and look forward to discussing further. 

*A fourth point of distinction: unlike Ender's GameRed Rising isn't written by Orson Scott Card. Which, in my eyes, is already a vast improvement.