Saturday, April 13, 2013

Furnace 01 & 02: Lockdown and Solitary, by Alexander Gordon Smith


 Wow. I think this is a great YA series that exists very comfortably being a strange mish-mash of horror, action and dystopian fiction. There are some genuinely frightening ideas and creepy goings on in the Furnace series, but the books are also clever, suspenseful and involving. I found the writing to be perfect for the tone and style of the book. I read the first one rather quickly and then a few weeks later, I picked the second one up to chill out for a few chapters before doing something else, and then I ended up starting and finishing the book in one night. That hasn’t happened in years.

Lockdown is set in gen pop of the Furnace Prison when Alex is wrongly sent there and begins to experience some of the horrors the prison contains. The second book Solitary sees him in solitary trying to navigate the lower levels of the prison – the levels where the horrific laboratory experiments take place, where a battle is playing out gruesomely between the monsters of Furnace, and where every dark rocky corridor holds another grisly secret.

I think the ideas behind Furnace are fascinating. What I like best about these books is that the writing isn’t pulpy – there’s something very intelligent and emotive behind it. The main characters, who we’re meant to care about – I do care about them. I want them all to get out of the prison. And when some of them don’t, well it’s not like I break down in tears – but there is a sense of ‘oh, damn’, there.

Where the Furnace series is particularly successful is in how it creates suspense – there is a sense of constant anticipation and fear that runs throughout the books. How long till the monsters come for Alex in his cell? How long before the rats break into his solitary hole? Will they get caught before they can blow the cave and escape? How long till they get discovered in hiding? And so on and so on. It is quite harrowing. But it never feels like a cheap tactic to get the reader involved.

The Furnace setting is fantastic – all dark shadows and deep rock far into the bowels of the earth; all creepy laboratories and confined spaces and a darkness that you never know is a blessing or a curse. I understand that in future books Alex manages to break out of Furnace so it will be interesting to see how the story survives once it is set free from the prison.
I really enjoyed these books and think they’re great. I originally started reading them when I had to put together a list of horror books for one of our school library clients at the bookstore. The covers (the American ones) hooked me in. This is a series that I will see out to the finish. I highly recommended for mature teen readers and even horror fiction lovers who want an easy but involving read.

First published in 2009

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Wither by Lauren DeStefano


On a surface level I enjoyed Wither but there were parts of me that remained stubbornly incredulous and even a little bit derisive at times. This is a dystopian YA novel so I’m willing to suspend disbelief but I do feel a little bit of extra work on the world could have made Wither a more fulfilling read. Both the dystopian elements of Rhine’s world and also some of the character intentions felt lazy and frustrating. I also felt a bit iffy about it at times because the concept – one young man sharing three teenage ‘wives’, emotionally and sexually – well, I find that a little wrong, especially for a teenage book.

There are moments of beauty in Wither, which was mainly why I kept reading. I also really wanted to find out if Rhine managed to leave, and take Gabriel with her. There are a few passages where the author really captures that desperate, funked out atmosphere and sense of hopelessness – this I enjoyed. But then nobody ever did anything about it.

I enjoyed the three main characters in Wither – the sister-wives Rhine, Jenna and Cecily. The relationship that develops between them is the heart of the book (not the kind-of-forced twin-brother angle). I probably cared for Rhine the least, and found her the most un-multi-faceted, but I still did want her to successfully escape. Actually all the female characters in the book – from Rhine’s hand-maiden to the head cook to first-wife Rose – all exude some kind of personality. They are all likeable. The male characters don’t fare so well. Hopefully Gabriel will come out of his shell a bit more in future books.

I have heard this book referred to as a young ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ and I can see resemblances. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favourite books and I think the dystopian elements of it are near perfect. The dystopian elements of Wither are not.  I think it is catering more towards the romance element, and therefore YA fans of that will really enjoy it. Wither is quite moody and atmospheric, and actually quite different from a lot of YA dystopian action-based on-the-run books. I guess its uniqueness is a strong selling point. I enjoyed it, but only just.