“Zone 23” is, quite frankly, unlike any other dystopian novel I have ever read. Written as a satirical version of utopia, this novel follows two, well, mostly two, people who are having their eyes opened, their thoughts expanded, and are seeing the world for what it truly is—maybe—for the first time in their lives, or at least a very long time. We follow Taylor who lives out in the Zone, outcast from society as he is deemed undesirable (more on that in a minute) and Valentina, who just so desperately wants to be Normal and to have a Normal baby and to live her Normal life—there is a reason for the caps. The narrative voice of this novel is just wonderful and, really, that’s what you’d read this book for: Hopkins satirical narration. Because otherwise the plot of this book is pretty simplistic and wouldn’t necessitate the 500 pages it takes to complete this story. However, this is an EXTREMELY good read, albeit a difficult one.
This is a surprisingly cute and interesting take on a dystopian fantasy that is almost perfect for MG readers. I say almost because with the characters ages, I believe the author wanted this to be a YA fantasy, but with how the main character, Franklin, views the world and just the sheer whimsy of the mages, warlocks, oceanus, were-panthers, and how the limitations of the magic system and classes aren’t well defined, and are kind of left up to the gods, I think this makes for a much better middle grade book, so that’s how I’m rating it. “Zarmina and the Book of Oceans” is the first in the series, so it spends a good portion of the book introducing the reader to this new world, and why humans live on the star-side—aka, in the frozen dark—of this planet, and why the evil warlock, Javan, has banished them to such a harsh place.
“Arena” is a futuristic dystopian story with some flavors of “Hunger Games” meets “Red Rising” but follows along a more traditional Roman gladiator structure—which shouldn’t be a surprise given the title and cover. The story follows Colston, the son of an abusive drunk and owner of an estate where murderers are sent to fight in gladiatorial combat, as he grows from a lonely 15 year old to the premier trainer of these fighting men. By befriending Cole, a giant of a man convicted of murder by trying to defend his slaughtered family, the two help each other survive in their respective worlds. When Colston falls for Anna, a debtor that his father purchased, he starts to plan for a future away from his father’s estate. Unfortunately, he never really gets to the point where he wants to better or change this dystopian society where those who fall into debt are sold like slaves, and those convicted of murder must entertain the masses in bloody combat, which you kind of expect from a dystopian story. Despite the feel of those other books present in “Arena”, Colston is only ever focused on him and his immediate circle, not changing an inhumane practice the way Anna encourages him, which never sat well with me. Now, some of these plot points are spread out between several books, but this is the omnibus with all three books rolled into one. I liked some of the books better than others, but as I received the whole collection, I’ll be rating it as the omnibus and not the individual stories.
“The Devil’s Backbone” is a crazy, delightful blend of science fiction, action adventure, psycho-thriller, and epic Western fantasy with some of the best dialogue I’ve read in a while from an indie author. Holy cow, did I enjoy myself on this wild ride! We follow Sadie Bishop, who is recovering from a massive trauma, as she embarks on a dangerous jaunt through the Badlands of a futuristic America. In this world, only Citizens (basically people who pay off all their debts and remain good little worker bees) can reap the benefits of society—good food, medicine, and the best technology the world can offer. Gaskill has crafted a world that felt so natural to where our current society might be headed, and I LOVED the social commentary that was tied to that. He does a great job of presenting it “as is” rather than beating the reader over the head with a message that is best left as a tumultuous undertone to this futuristic land. Anyhoo, Sadie is plagued by something deep in her urging her to forgo the comforts of Citizen life and head out into the treacherous no-man’s land, where those dangerous men and women who lost their Citizenship now scrape by in a new Wild, Wild, West. Why does Sadie feel such a compulsion to go out there? She doesn’t know, but she can’t ignore the call, either. While that point got a little murky as the story progressed, I really can’t say enough good things about Gaskill’s novel!
“From the Ash” is not your average post-apocalyptic dystopian book. This isn’t a series about a young woman going on a quest to fix her broken and charred world, she’s not on a mission to put the world back to the way it was before the bombs dropped. No, all Phoenix wants to do is go home. She desperately is trying to get across the barren wasteland that most of the United States has been left in to get back to Maine, where she clings to the hope that those she loves are there waiting for her. Phoenix has no idea if her father or boyfriend are alive, but the idea of them NOT being there and waiting is beyond her comprehension. At its core, “From the Ash” is the journey of a young woman running away from her depression, blindly believing that something better HAS to be on the other end of that tunnel, because if not, then what would be the point of even trying to go on? I love the subtly of that feeling Phoenix has, from someone who has suffered from anxiety and depression, I can relate to that feeling. That irrational hope that you cling to because, if you didn’t, the idea of just getting out of bed in the morning would be pointless. But that’d be a really, really depressing book to focus purely on, so Heron wonderfully bundles that within a physically strong and capable woman, and gives her a task that shows the reader her struggles packaged in an apocalyptic world—that is far more believable then most books out there—and that’s wonderful!
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