Cure for the Common Universe: Christian McKay Heidicker

A sixteen-year-old gaming addict is tossed into rehab just as he meets his dream girl in the most unlikely of circumstances; now, Jaxon has to find his way out of the facility before he accidentally stands her up on the night of their big date.¬†Cure for the Common Universe,¬†the debut novel of Christian McKay Heidicker, reveals to us a protagonist who is familiar and not at all likable– which is what piqued my interest as the story went on. Jaxon is a real piece of work. He’s awful to the only rehab resident there who shows any affection for him, a little boy named Soup who’s clearly suffering from neglectful parents and attachment issues. He patronizes their “guild leader,” Fezzik, who has overcome his own addiction. He consistently manages to offend the unassuming and friendly nymphette that is Dryad, and he steps over everybody that offers any kindness to him in hopes of getting his hundred-thousand points and escaping¬†V-hab,¬†as he refers to the facility.

What we see here is a protagonist who embodies the stereotype of a “nice guy,” and this is such an interesting angle to take with a story. Usually, our protagonists are funny, clever, and, you know… engaging. Jaxon might be funny and a bit clever, but overall, he’s pathetic. This sounds like a horrible thing to say about anyone, fictional character or not, but there’s no other way to describe a person who never fails to blame the rest of the universe for all of his terrible choices.
Jaxon does have legitimate problems of his own: probably abandonment issues due to his never-there, addiction-riddled mother, who managed to fail every one of his expectations though he still holds love for her. As Meeki, another V-hab resident, points out later in the book: he uses his mother as a crutch. He blames all of his problems on her, and I believe that there’s one point in the story where she tears into him for acting like he’s the only one who’s suffered in his entire life. Which is true.

The plot is not kind to our protagonist, I will admit this: many characters at the rehabilitation center despise him though, as we realize later on, with the exception of Meeki (who hates him because he’s a straight, white, middle-class guy, which I mean you can envy but to have Hellfire-fueled loathing for him from even before their first meeting? That’s a bit harsh), most others have good reason. Jaxon doesn’t realize how huge of a jerk he is, nor does he care. He is single-minded in his efforts to earn a hundred thousand points, which will get him out of the facility for good– points which are earned through a variety of activities like eating healthy food, exercising, and learning. (By the way, to stick gaming addicts in a rehab facility that draws its inspiration from MMOs doesn’t sound like a good idea to me, but I mean… what do I know.) Jaxon manages to cross a number of lines while trying to earn these points in time for Thursday, when he’ll finally be able to go on his dream date with Gravity/Serena, a sultry siren whose attention he somehow managed to capture. Meeki points out several times in the book how creepy it is that he’s only met the girl once and has managed to build a proverbial shrine to her, placing her on a pedestal and worshiping every one of her imagined moves (because again, he doesn’t even know the chick.) and I appreciate this, because this is incredibly unhealthy behavior that¬†has¬†been exhibited by people of all genders and age: putting the object of their affection on a pedestal. They can do no wrong. They’re perfect and ethereal and impossible, and they¬†are¬†impossible, because people aren’t really like that. Ever.

The book does reference some old gold, though, like¬†Bioshock, Animal Crossing¬†and¬†Metal Gear Solid¬†along with a plethora of other video game cameos. It’s nice to catch them and feel that little surge of triumph like hey, I know what that is. I’ve played it before. And then you remember that you’re reading about someone crippled by gaming addiction and that triumph isn’t so triumphant anymore but that’s okay, whatever.
I think overall, I did enjoy this book. It was a light read, and though most of the time I was criticizing Jaxon, he¬†is¬†sympathetic. Mr. Heidicker makes Jaxon maybe not personable, but certainly understandable. If he was perhaps a side character, there’s no way he would have ever been a contender for the role of the main character, but now that we’re in his head he’s a little more complex than we believe, because he’s really deluded himself into thinking that the things that he does are okay. And I’m happy to assure that by the end of the book, Jaxon sees all the people he’s been treading on and truly feels apologetic, which starts a new chapter of his life.

I would recommend this book to anyone. You don’t have to be a gamer or anything to read it, just someone who enjoys reading through the eyes of an unusual protagonist. And I like that in this book, we see into the mind of a young man. Usually protagonists are female, or male written by a female author, and I do think that there’s a difference in the characterization of a male character written by a male author. So it’s curious. Anyways, check this book out if you’re looking for a not-too-heavy but not-too-light read, a pretty cover (10/10) and familiar references! It’s good. I liked it.

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Ruined: Amy Tintera

Recently, I finished¬†Ruined¬†by author Amy Tintera, who also wrote¬†Reboot¬†and¬†Rebel.¬†I did read through about half of¬†Reboot,¬†but quickly grew bored and didn’t bother finishing it.¬†Since Goodreads, as a whole, seemed to really enjoy¬†Ruined,¬†I figured that it would be fair to give the book a chance. And I’m glad that I did.

Ruined¬†follows the outcast Queen Emelina Flores, whose kingdom Ruina and family were brutally destroyed by their enemies in Lera. Her parents were murdered, her sister kidnapped, and she was left alone in the world. People of Ruina have powers that allow them to commit acts that shouldn’t be possible, like controlling the wind or the sea– Emelina is special because she is the first child to be born without any power. Due to her lack of power, the remaining Ruina people who haven’t been slaughtered by Lera decide that she is of no use, and vouch to extract revenge on their own. Emelina, on the other hand, accompanied by her two oldest friends, conducts her own ploy.

Emelina plans to infiltrate the Lerian royal family from the inside, and she starts off by masquerading as the young prince’s fiance. Mary, princess of a nearby kingdom and the killer of Emelina’s parents, is quickly dispatched and replaced by Emelina herself. After successfully penetrating the palace, Emelina sets about securing her position and finding out as much as she can about the Ruina people that Lera is keeping hostage and killing, and also puzzling out where her younger sister is being kept. Things would go effortlessly, if only Emelina didn’t proceed to fall in love with Prince Casimir.

I really enjoyed this book– the concept of an arranged marriage took on a new twist when the addition of one party hating the other was introduced. Also, this is the most primal form of a hate turned love relationship, and you know I always find those entertaining! So yeah. Right up my alley. And another thing is that Emelina Flores is an incredibly bitter character. I mean, understandably– her parents were killed right in front of her. I think their heads are planted on pikes by Mary, and then she has to pretend to be Mary throughout the rest of the book, eesh.

The novel has a lot of really interesting characters, but I think that the one I liked most was warrior princess Iria of Olso: confident, charming, and quick-witted. She and Emelina are working together to take down the Lera royal family, unbeknownst to them. There’s also Aren, younger friend of Emelina and a powerful user of wind magic. He’s one of the few Ruina who believe in her (one of two) and despite the death of Damian, their more charismatic, rebel-leader friend, Aren takes on the responsibility of being Emelina’s bodyguard.
There are many difficult situations for Emelina in this book: her marriage to Casimir, despite the fact that his parents were directly responsible for the deaths of hers; the aforementioned death of Damian, who she may have had feelings for but of course, these are never resolved; killing Mary; facing the fact that her mother Wenda, known for torturing powerless citizens of Lera and being directly responsible for the discriminatory feelings that arose between the Ruined and the rest of the world, may not have been the wonderful person that she remembers.

To surmise, I would recommend this book to someone looking for a good revenge tale, or someone looking for the love-hate relationship. It’s a good story, the writing is well-done and descriptive, and the characters have soulful backstories that resonate in context with the tale. It’s interesting! And man, that tag line: “KEEP YOUR ENEMIES CLOSE.” It’s very reminiscent of *~Dishonored 2~*
I’ve been stuck on a streak of bad books since– or maybe they just seem bad in comparison. Here’s to hoping for more good books in 2017!

 

A Torch Against the Night: Sabaa Tahir

Having recently finished¬†An Ember In The Ashes,¬†I managed to get my hands on the sequel shortly thereafter. Actually, it was a Christmas present. Whee. The story follows Elias and Laia on the run from the Empire, and trying to break Darin out of Kauf Prison. One thing that I’m pretty amused by is that during my reread of the first novel, I took a moment to look at the map at the very front of the book. Kauf Prison, I noticed, was located next to a massive black space deemed “The Forest of Dusk.” So I figured that¬†ATATN¬†would feature the location extensively, and I was right– The Forest of Dusk becomes a main player in the book, and I say player because it’s not just a forest: it’s a sentient being on its own.

So the story features three distinctive viewpoints: Laia and Elias, as it was in the first novel, but now also Helene, which I was really happy about. I’m going to say right away that Helene’s story was the one that interested me the most. I did like Laia and Elias’s adventures, sure, but far less than everything that was happening to Helene Aquilla, the unfortunate victim of tragic circumstances.

Helene is a punching bag for this series. While Laia and Elias are running around the regions outside the empire, hellbent on reaching Kauf, Helene is cleaning their mess up back in Serra. The first thing she is subjected to is intensive torture at the hands of the enigmatic Northman, the youngest interrogator and Black Guard that Helene has ever met. She is drowned repeatedly, beaten half to death, and questioned about everything from Elias to Laia and the escape that happened in between. Marcus Farrar, newly crowned emperor, has his sights set on her too. Remember in the first book how he was literally always leering at her or threatening rape? Luckily, she isn’t assaulted by the guy… and there’s a reason for that, and that reason might be the ghost of Zak Farrar, which is a whole ‘nother enchilada to dissect. It has to do with the Forest of Dusk, a final resting place for lost souls, but we’ll get to that later.

Helene’s new title as the Blood Shrike comes with its own problems: men that continue to underestimate her; her morals and values constantly being tested; having to work in close quarters with that waste of space, Marcus Farrar, who at one point bites her lip and licks off the blood (bleh); and having her every move reported back to Keris Venturius, the Commandment, thanks to her crony the Northman tagging along and keeping a careful eye on Aquilla. At least Helene is aware that Harper– the aforementioned spy–¬†is¬†a spy. Still, he bears witness to all of her humiliation and the worst period of her life: the unraveling, as the Augurs call it. “You will be a torch against the night, Aquilla,” they say, or something along those terms (and also manage to title-drop. It’s always the Augurs that title-drop.) They explain that before she becomes this “torch against the night,” she will be broken down and her strings “unraveled” and then built back up to be an instrument of the empire. It sounds like a horrible life to me.

There’s something going on between the Northman and Aquilla, the introduction of a romance that I’m actually really interested in. I think that romances that start off with torture and humiliation are always really curious, not that I’ve had the chance to read up on a lot of romances that start like this. I’m rambling. My point is, they started off on “the wrong foot,” to put it in so many words. I was like, “no, Sabaa Tahir wouldn’t do this. No way. This is like an abusive relationship, or at least one built on abuse,” but that’s what makes it really interesting. Harper, Avitas Harper, is this really cold and efficient soldier. As he spends more time with ¬†Helene, he seems to not be growing fond of her, exactly, but respectful of her. We should remember, though, that by the end of the book he’s betrayed the Commandment and so I’m pretty sure that the sequel to ATATN will feature Harper’s mangled corpse. I’m really hoping that this isn’t so– I love Harper. He’s a bizarre character that introduces a lot of tension in Helene’s life. Also, I think that she’s hanging on the edge of a cliff right now, and another death might push her straight off.

Speaking of dead people, guess who died. If you guessed Izzi, you’d be right! Yes, she is stabbed through the chest by a legionnaire while trying to protect Afya al-Nur’s younger brother from being stabbed through the chest by a legionnaire. It’s fantastic. She spouts out a geyser of blood, and her last words to Laia are “I’m afraid…” and then boom. She’s gone. It’s terrible. I got so mad. Poor Izzi, who had to suffer from childhood until now under the Commandment’s wrath– perhaps one of the only slaves to ever live so long under the Commandment. And then there was the whole thing about FINALLY ESCAPING and MAYBE MAKING A LIFE FOR HERSELF. But no. She died.

There were three¬†things that I really didn’t like about this book: Izzi’s death, I feel, was not expanded upon. I mean, the characters suffered for a little bit but it seemed like she’d been entirely forgotten by the end. Helene’s emotional state during the aftermath of the torture was nonexistent, as was her vitriol towards the Northman. She’s a bit¬†too¬†diplomatic. I feel like any sane person, even if they knew they were going to be tortured and had been trained to resist torture, would still resent and be afraid of their torturer post-torture. Aquilla barely acknowledges Harper, and there’s a moment where she cringes back as he pulls his hand out of his pocket because she suddenly thinks he might be pulling out the brass beaters that he used to batter her, but that’s the full extent of her terror. Helene may be the Blood Shrike, but she’s still an eighteen (?) year old girl.

Lastly, I really disliked Laia in this book. I’m not sure what happened, but it seemed like almost every one of her decisions were terrible ones. She spends the first half of the book mooning over Keenan and Elias, and there was way too much drifting between two love interests. I’m sure that it was essential to the story, especially considering later events, but it was really annoying. I didn’t want to read about love triangles. Honestly, it’s 2016, we should stop relying on love triangles as a plot for YA novels. But still, Laia sat there trying to figure out her feelings in regards to Keenan and Elias, all while the world burned around her. I would have liked to see more inner monologue regarding their plans, the scholar massacre, the current state of the world– after all, she’s being hunted down by every Mask, legionnaire, aux and soldier that the Empire has to spare. She was a lot more likable towards the end, when she was actually trying to figure out how to break into Kauf and helped destroy the prison, but up until that point I was tired of reading about Keenan’s dark red hair and how Laia could fix his emotional constipation, or the smell of rain and cleanness on Elias and how he’s all angles and his silver eyes are so beautiful. You know? I wanted to¬†get on with the story.¬†
In retrospect, I think that Laia and Helene are two sides of the “strong, female character” coin. Helene is the invulnerable, powerful, but underestimated warrior woman. Laia is the loving and nurturing, but fierce and prideful–still more feminine– wallflower turned rebel leader. But I’m not sure that it worked for me.

Okay, enough criticism. I really did like this book, it was emotionally draining to read. Especially Aquilla’s parts. She just suffers tragedy after tragedy, humiliation after humiliation at the hands of Marcus and Keris and her own men, but still– she never falters. She fights back against misogyny and disrespect, she fights against odds that are clearly turned against her, and she fails. By the end of the book, she’s failed to save the people she cares most about in the world, and we see that she has been broken completely, but built back up to become the Blood Shrike, as the Augurs desired. The Empire is her mother, father, sister, brother, lover, child, etc, as she states by the end of the book. I’m not sure what this means for Helene, but I really love her and hope that she gets the ending she deserves. I’m banking on Helene becoming the Empress; Dex, Faris, or the Avitas Harper dying (although oh my god I hope it’s not the latter); Tas, the scholar child, being killed; Elias and Laia living out the rest of their lives as magical deities (as Elias is now the Soul Person that guards the Forest of Dusk, and Laia is some kind of creature that the efrit and the Nightbringer have both addressed.) and Marcus and Keris’s lives being ended in a very satisfying manner. I feel like the Nightbringer may be imprisoned or destroyed, or he and Laia will come to an understanding or something. I dunno.

I’m looking forward to the sequel to A Torch Against the Night,¬†hopefully one that isn’t so depressing. Because this book is really depressing, but it’s also really good. Helene. Aquilla. Please, Sabaa Tahir, she deserves a happy ending with Harper. Laia and Elias, I feel like, are dead for sure– well, maybe not dead, but they’ll be freed of their mortal bonds and become godlike creatures as I mentioned before. I guess we’ll just have to find out when the next book comes around.

An Ember in the Ashes: Sabaa Tahir

Happy New Year!

I’ve actually already read this book once and never got around to writing a review, so here’s the review of my re-read from a few days ago. Sabaa Tahir’s¬†An Ember in the Ashes¬†was raved about all of 2015, and the sequel,¬†A Torch Against the Night¬†(which I’m currently in the process of reading!!) has been equally acclaimed. I initially got my hands on¬†AEITA¬†a few months after it had been released, and I’m so glad that I got around to reading this book.

I’m going to start off by saying that I was really glad to see a desi author out there, gaining popularity. I’ve tried reading books by other desi authors, like Jhumpa Lahiri or, you know, that type, but I’ve never really been interested because all their books feature South Asian protagonists in India, or in America, dealing with finding their identity as either an Indian or American or something in between. I don’t like those types of books because I can’t relate to the characters. Also, I always felt a little kitschy reading about India. I guess I can’t explain it. Anyways, I digress; the thing I enjoyed is that the main cast features many Middle Eastern and otherwise brown characters, but since the world that we’re exploring is entirely different from Earth, their lives aren’t those of typical desis. They have entirely different backstories, like being a Scholar, being a Martial, etc. It makes things interesting.

On to the book. The thing that I liked is that the plot is fairly linear, which is good because there’s so much going on that I need the story to go from point A to point B. Even though¬†AEITA¬†isn’t much longer than your average YA novel, it is jam-packed with background for not only each character, but the entire world. You learn about the storytelling, peaceful Scholars being oppressed by the militaristic Martials, ¬†their steel no match against the Tellurian scims of the Martial’s dreaded elite soldiers. You read about Blackcliff Academy and how they train their Masks, the terrifying killing machines that can cut down fifteen people without blinking. You read about the tensions splitting the city of Serra, the Martial Empire, and you discover that Laia and Elias are at the center of these troubles.

There are a lot of really strong female characters. Laia, of course, is this picture of ferocity. It’s cool that she grew from this kind of fragile, nervous wreck into the strong woman of single-minded determination that infiltrates the Commandment’s home and suffers unspeakable torture in order to spy for the Rebellion. She proves to be incredibly brave, which surprises many of the Rebel fighters.
There are two other characters that I really want to expand on, though: Izzi and Helene. I think that they were the most intriguing of the cast. Izzi has been working for the Commandment for most of her life and has the missing eye to prove it– how has she survived for so long? Though she’s constantly beaten by the Commandment, her dignity torn away, she’s still really sweet and earnest. I’d love to see a standalone novella retelling her tale. And then Helene, the only female student of Blackcliff Academy and perhaps the strongest of them all, save Elias, who has to prove to all of society that even though she’s a girl, she can kick as much and perhaps more ass than the rest of her peers. Helene is haunted by another student, Marcus Farrar, a cruel young man that constantly leers at her body and threatens rape more than once. How she stands it, I don’t know– especially since she’s disadvantaged when it comes to Marcus. For reasons unknown, relating to the immortal and godlike Augurs, she can’t murder him.

Rape is something common enough in this society that it provides an undercurrent of fear for many of the female characters. Masks are taught to pillage and rape. Servants fear being raped by Blackcliff students. It’s a terrible place to live, and I’m surprised that Ms. Tahir would note this down– because usually, in YA fiction, you see authors talking about similar environments but only encompassing brutality such as being beaten to death, robbed, etc. Rape is a crime that is hardly mentioned in the YA world, but I think that this is changing quickly. Just something interesting to note.

The male characters in this book are also really interesting. Elias Venturius, our protagonist, is Blackcliff’s finest student and son of the Commandment herself. Unlike his mother, he hates his life. He hates torturing people and he wants to desert, find freedom elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case as the plot progresses. I like Elias because he’s pretty reasonable as a character, and he seems like a genuinely good person that is stuck in an awful situation. The feelings that he and Laia hold for each other are expanded upon in internal monologue, and it’s interesting to see how he worries about the golden-eyed slave at the mercy of his mother, how he fights for her– not because he’s in love with her or anything, but because he feels guilty for ruining so many lives and not saving a single one in the process.

I think that the character I dislike the most is Keenan. He’s a rebel fighter, characterized by his red hair and grouchiness, and that’s exactly what makes him a bit irritating. Not his hair. His grouchiness. It’s explained that Keenan lost almost everyone when he was young– that he has been fighting with the rebels for a long time now– but still. Everyone in this novel has lost someone. That doesn’t give you an excuse to be a jackass, Keenan.
The villains in this book are pretty curious. There’s the Commandment, obviously. What happened to make her such a scary person? Why is she so devoid of feeling anything but hatred? Her history, as much as we know of it, is sad: pregnant by a man who might have tried to kill her, she gave birth to Elias and left him to a nearby tribe. Upon returning home, her father, who later adores Elias, deems her a slut and a streetwalker and it seems that all she ever wanted to do back then was to make him proud. That never happened. Is the Commandment a victim of time? Still, the things she does in the story are unforgivable. There’s no way for her to redeem herself now. The Nightbringer, king of the Jinn, makes the occasional appearance. I don’t know enough about him to make any judgement calls, but he seems like another character that’s fallen victim to his own tragedies. Then there’s Mazen, leader of the Rebellion and the man who betrays Laia. Ms. Tahir created an extremist character in Mazen, someone willing to cross every line in order to do what he thinks is right. Unfortunately, there are some lines that should not ever be crossed.

I really liked this book, this world, and its characters. It’s something that I would recommend to people who enjoy little details and nuances in their stories, those that are rich with history. I’m in the middle of¬†A Torch Against the Night¬†and looking forward to the ending, though it’s definitely one of those nail-biter novels, but more on that later. Happy reading!