My "no hardbacks" policy has finally met its end. I had enough trouble waiting for The Rook to come out in paperback, and as I put more reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, I'd like to be able to stay current with new releases.
Rating: 3 stars
Length: Average (429 pages in hardback with ridiculously large print and line spacing)
Publication: May 7, 2013 from Little, Brown
Premise: When she was a baby, Dol lost her entire family on the Day. The Icons came from the sky and killed people everywhere, and she still has no idea why she's alive. When she's about to learn more about what makes her different, she and her friend Furo are ripped from their home in the wilderness Mission and brought to the Embassy, where they find few answers in comparison to the torrent of new questions.
Warnings: psychological and limited physical torture, sudden death
Recommendation: If you have a soft spot for stories about aliens suddenly descending from the skies of Earth and taking over, this might be your thing; it's a little generic, but not bad.
What makes this one promising:
The story opens on the Day, when baby Doloria's family dies around her. It cuts to her life as a teenager in a Grass Mission, where she does her chores and tries to ignore whatever allowed her to survive her family's death. She's far enough away from the cities that she can try to forget about the Icons, the pieces of alien technology that caused so much devastation and keeps the human race controlled. The icons can control human biology and technology, shutting down vital infrastructure and stopping vital signs with equal ease. No one can protest or fight back without simply dying, so the resistance has been driven far underground. Dol herself doesn't want to be involved, but soldiers burst in and take her captive, and her friend Furo naturally follows. He is almost always angry about something and relies on her to be his anchor, grounding his rage with her own mysterious power. They manage to escape temporarily and encounter Lucas Amare, the son of the Ambassador between the alien Lords and the humans who still live. He has powers of his own, as does his friend Tima, and the four teens have to learn to work together in order to live up to the purpose behind their creation.
The worldbuilding flows well because it's done in a compact way-- little pamphlets, messages between Ambassadors, fragments of science notes, and propaganda signs are interspersed between the chapters. One or two of these don't quite work because they come across as one person explaining matters to another who already knows everything involved perfectly well, but for the most part they do a good job expressing the mindsets of people on all sides of this struggle. The powers of the four teenagers are a faint rumor, pursued on all sides. The people of the Grass Rebellion desperately need more power to confront a threat they can't touch and the humans working with the alien Lords want to understand and study what these Icon Children can do and contain them. Humanity is already being sacrificed slowly in pursuit of some mysterious goal in work camps called the Projects, and it's very possible that any open rebellion could result in slaughter. The whole question of how the humans in relative power cope with living between human hatred and alien slaughter could have been excellent with a little more space, but Ambassador Amare in particular barely has any pagetime and spends most of it asking cryptic questions and keeping her feelings locked down. Her son is an Icon Child with extraordinary powers of charisma that verge on mind control; the glimpses of her struggle to deal with that are powerful, but we see all too few of them.
While the main characters aren't bad, Fortis the Merk steals the scene absolutely every time he's on the page. Fortis has his own spoiler-laden motives and background, but he's pragmatic and wry-humored enough to roll with each turn of events. He also has the habit of carrying on both sides of a conversation, thanking himself and then saying "you're welcome" whenever Dol or one of the others needs a favor, like help escaping, and then runs off immediately. The book would have been much stronger if adults on the inside of the establishment, particularly Ambassador Amare and Colonel Catallus, had been drawn with half as much strength of personality. Fortis reads as real-- he's bitter at the hopelessness of the struggle but also willing to play the long game and work with any tool he can find. Dr. Orwell Bradbury Huxley-Clarke (who gets points for the name alone) is also an asset in many scenes-- despite being a self-aware AI rather than a person, he seems to have more flexibility and common sense than many of the human characters. He has an odd sense of humor and comes across as both pitiable and funny in the way he mingles gullibility and strategy.
The red pen:
Despite the fascinating power set of the Icon Children and the worldbuilding, all of it seemed to take second place to a fairly dull set of interlocking love-and-hate triangles. Dol has feelings for Ro and Lucas, Timora (or Tima) is in love with Lucas even though he only sees her as a friend. Tima would like to kill Dol to remove the competition for Lucas's feelings, and Ro would like to kill Lucas for slightly more complex reasons involving Lucas's relationship to the Ambassador....but mostly because he can't stand the idea of Dol loving someone else. It's barely half a step above a soap opera and does a disservice to almost everyone's feelings because those emotions seem to be most intense between Dol and Lucas, who have known each other for barely a few days. Having the childhood friend pairs of Dol and Ro as a counterpoint to Lucas and Tima could have been absolutely excellent, but Dol mostly seems to just not want to upset Ro too badly, while Lucas barely thinks or talks about Tima despite their years trapped in the same place as test subjects who had to lean on each other. Love triangles can work in dystopian fiction; it worked decently well in The Hunger Games, for example, largely because Katniss wanted peace above all and didn't have time to understand her own emotions in the middle of more important pursuits like saving the world. For Dol, it seems like saving the world and exploring her feelings are equal priorities, and the feelings don't add enough to the story to justify the space that they take up.
This emotional dead space is particularly problematic because it warps the decent characterization that exists outside of the proto-relationships. Tima, has the potential to be excellent-- she's smart, strategic in a way that none of the others are, and has to fight to bring that to the surface when she's trapped in a situation where the fear that should be her power is ruling her instead of the other way around. Unfortunately, that goes unexplored because every other scene with her in it is explained as "she wants X because it helps Lucas or gets other people away from Lucas so she doesn't have to share." Furo is worse. In his first scene, he's showing Dol a birthday surprise-- he has set up a hidden shack with a pedal-powered generator so she can see strings of Christmas lights and even use an ancient iPod to listen to the music of days gone by. This is a smart thing that he accomplished by being good at improvisational science, even if he's not worried enough that this technology might be detected. He is obviously in love with Dol, even though she doesn't notice, but has other character traits and goals, like being intelligent enough to make contacts among the Grass Rebellion and earn some trust despite his youth. Once he's out of the Mission, however, he seems to simplify into a crude line drawing of an angry boy who sees the world in black and white and throws sulking fits whenever Lucas looks at Dol. Both Furo and Tima show flashes of being fuller people near the end of the book, but long tracts of the middle are devoted to relationship angst that pulls everyone down to the same uninteresting level.
The Icons themselves do a good job of looming menacingly, but their power isn't conveyed in a way that makes it hit home. Backstory segments explain that people who tried to protest or sabotage the Lords just dropped dead where they stood and died faster if they tried to get close to the Icons, but those effects don't really show up firsthand except in the prologue. Watching Dol's reaction to the way people die around her could have added an emotional punch, but in its current form the nearest Icon is just a vague pillar of evil rather than an active threat. That lack of definition combined with the absence of Icon Children power clarity muddles the whole struggle. We see Lucas's powers clearly but get no indication that the Embassy has safeguards against them, but beyond that each teen has few power scenes. Ro gets angry and smashes things a few times, but Dol only uses her powers to get inside people's minds once or twice and Tima's powers are almost invisible. She throws people apart at one point and appears to excel at precise math and strategy, but her actual powers are....something of a blank, to put it generously. The book ends in a burst of drama and explosions and emotion everywhere, but it's harder to care when the buildup has been so unfocused.
All in all, Icons is fun but not exceptional. The worldbuilding is decent, and it's almost inspiring to see humanity's troubles brought about by something other than humanity itself for once, but the characters just aren't engaging enough to carry the story. Odds are that I'm not bothering with the rest of the series, but I'll probably try Beautiful Creatures (which Stohl co-authored) at some point.
Prospects: This is slated to be the first in the Icons series, but there aren't any details yet about future titles or release dates. At a guess, this is going to be at least a trilogy, maybe more like five books.
Enjoyed this? Try:
~Julianna Baggott's Pure is a very different dystopia, but the hopelessness and questing for purpose are similar and Pure has significantly more patience with real character development.