Mini Reviews– Dystopian Edition!

Ta-da!  On this installment of Mini Reviews, two out of three of the books we will cover are dystopian– therefore, we have a dystopian edition!  To recap: these are miniature book reviews, simple as that.  At the end, I’ll try to come up with a few things I learned from the book, which might be helpful.  All reviews will be spoiler free.  The three books are Fragments, by Dan Wells; The Maze Runner, by James Dashner; and The Magic Thief, by Sarah Prineas.  Let the reviews begin!

Once again, we’ll begin with a Dan Wells book.  In our last Mini Reviews segment, I reviewed his first novel: I Am Not A Serial Killer.  In a prior, full-length review, I reviewed the first book in his latest trilogy, Partials.  Fragments is the sequel to Partials, the second book of the trilogy.  I enjoyed Partials a lot, though it was quite dark.  (It happens with dystopian books.)  Fragments was just as dark, but  just as good.  The problem with trilogies is well known: the middle books have a tendency to sag, especially when the series confronts the same villain in each book.  This book didn’t.  It used the same villains, but the plot wasn’t as simple as that.  Over the course of any trilogy, the plot is to defeat whatever evil confronts the main characters– but for each book, the plot needs to be “We need to accomplish this so we can do that, accomplish that so we can do that, and then maybe we can put everything together.”  The same thing impressed me in Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles trilogy.

The humor I found very interesting.  One of the main characters is Marcus, quite a funny kid.  I don’t often like funny narrators that know they’re funny– but this guy worked.  Why?  His humor was a flaw of sorts, a nervous habit.  He jokes when he’s upset.  It gave depth to the character instead of making him detestably happy.

Things I learned:

  • The Hollywood Formula works wonders.  I know I talk about this a lot, but it really works.  I think the formula was the main thing that kept this second book from sagging.  In the first book, the main character, Kira, has a very distinct goal– to cure a disease.  In the second, the main character has a different goal– to get information.  Both of those goals are different from the overall goal she has for the trilogy– to defeat the evil.  By the formula, the story can’t end until she has achieved.  By creating three separate goals and focusing on each one individually, the author can justify writing a trilogy instead of a Les Miserables of dystopian struggle.
  • If you have two plot lines that end at different times, the first one to end won’t be as striking as the second.  In Fragments, there are two threads carried by Marcus and Kira, but Marcus’s thread ends with a cliffhanger long before Kira’s thread does.  Perhaps it was the author’s intention to focus more on Kira’s side of the story, but that makes us wonder a tiny bit if Marcus was really necessary.  I would have liked a bit more of an ending for Marcus’s thread, something that carried all the way to the end.
  • When you’re stuck in the middle of a toxic wasteland, burning chemicals to run an engine that will emit even more toxic gas is not a big deal.

Next comes our second dystopian book, The Maze Runner.  I haven’t read anything of James Dasher’s, but his 13th Reality series looks promising.  I enjoyed The Maze Runner, for what it’s worth– I’ve seen some negative reviews from trusted sources, and I was very close to disliking the book.  The world, though, sucked me in.  A giant maze that shifts every night, filled with unspeakable monsters, with an exit that can’t be found, even by those who have lived there for years.  The main character is devoid of memory, riding into the maze on an elevator to join the group of boys already living there.  As much as I hated their slang, the characters were vivid and unexpectedly sympathetic.  With such a world as this, the book would fail if the author didn’t know how to keep things suspenseful– thankfully, he did.

Things I learned:

  • Slang and dialects– even if they’re done correctly, they have the potential to take the reader out of the story.  I think I’ll avoid them for now.
  • Wishing is a nice way to show thoughts in your characters.  I’ve posted about imagination in character– this is essentially the same thing.  The main character in The Maze Runner wished for quite a few things over the course of the story.  None of them came to be true (if they were serious wishes, the main character might become strongly dependent on the wishes, which makes them seem weak), but casual, one-time wishes like “I wish my mouth was bigger” (not real example) can work in your favor.
  • You can use omniscience to your advantage– occasionally.  A few times through the story, I thought the character was comparing his surroundings to things he had never seen, or to people he had never seen; but a side effect of his amnesia was that he could remember all those things to which he was comparing.  It worked out in the end to create a feeling of conflicting memories, but it might not work in other circumstances.

Lastly, we have The Magic Thief.  This is a middle grade fantasy that caught my eye.  It’s been a while since I read it, but I think I can review it accurately.  I enjoyed it.  I gave it to my sister, but she didn’t enjoy it as much.  Her main complaint was that the title didn’t match the story– the main character, though he is a thief, does not steal magic more than once.  He is magical… eventually.  Nevertheless, the “thief” part of the title caught me, and I wasn’t disappointed in that regard.  The main character is a thief, an enjoyable one.

The thing that really struck me about the book was that it kept secrets without letting on that it had secrets.  Some books, like Eon and Seraphina, base their plots around keeping secrets from friends.  The low point is, infallibly, when the friends realize their secret and reject them.  But in other books, the reader knows the secret from the beginning and gets a sense of impending doom as the friends stumble closer and closer toward discovering the secret.  It’s an interesting suspense technique.  This book didn’t use it.  Instead, the reader never knew the secret– we knew the result of the secret, but it was phrased in such a way that we didn’t ask what caused the results.  Then, for the low point, the secret is realized and the main character is rejected.  We feel just as betrayed as the friends, but we also feel the main character’s pain as he tries to set things to rights.  It was an interesting technique, and definitely a fresh one.

Things I learned:

  • The technique for secrets, as I described above.
  • The world must be described accurately.  I had no idea the town was located on a series of close-set islands until far into the book.  I suppose I should have looked at the map at the beginning of the book, but I dislike maps.
  • STRUCTURE IS IMPORTANT!  The Hollywood Formula (again) states that the midpoint of the story should be the switch from reaction to action– asking questions to answering them.  Such a switch would be finding out what the villains are up to, or finding out where they are up to it.  That switch came very late in this book, resulting in a very quick “You don’t believe me” section, which is always healthy for middle grade fantasy.

That’s it for our second segment of Mini Reviews.  I hope you gained something from these reviews.  Ta-ta!

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55 thoughts on “Mini Reviews– Dystopian Edition!

      1. I was going to point this out, too… after I made sure that it was a “y”.

      1. Engie!

        Nevillegirl had already commented about it and I just agreed with her and Amanda.

    1. Speaking of dystopias, I’m surprised you haven’t commented on one of my recent posts, Lliam. Aren’t you going to tell me all the things I got wrong?

      1. I read it. What’s to tell? We have different ideas of what makes a sympathetic character. Of course I’ll grieve when a good character dies– that isn’t the point, though. Your point was that Katniss is to be respected– she has a right to be whiny. Perhaps. She has gone through a lot, yes. But here’s the difference between her and every other protagonist in literature: even though bad things happen, they know when to keep their mouths shut and just fix things. Simba’s entire character arc in Lion King is learning not to whine about things that have happened. That makes him likable– Katniss is just someone who needs character development.

  1. I love how you learn from what you read and then share it with us, Liam. 🙂 Thanks.

    “I wish I had a bigger mouth”–okay, that made me laugh.

    And the secret technique. That sounds really interesting.

  2. I’ve already put The Maze Runner on my Goodreads to-read list. I like the thought of characters wishing and how it shows their thoughts.
    For the Dan Wells trilogy, is Kira defeating the evil by accomplishing the goals for books 1 and 2?
    The Magic Thief— the readers find out the secret when the other characters do?

    1. Each of Kira’s goals helps with the overall goal, yes, but each goal she achieves also tells her that she can’t stop without completing the final goal, or all will be lost. It’s excellent.

      Yes, you’re correct. The readers get some foreshadowing the characters don’t, but it’s hidden cleverly.

  3. I didn’t like “The Maze Runner” as much as I thought I would. :/ Something about the setting depressed me and I had to force myself through the terrible slang words that confused me for so long. It was distracting having to read through all that to get to the good parts (which were the parts near the end with the most adventure, in my opinion)! ;P

    1. Yes, I agree– there were definitely things lacking from the language. I found I enjoyed the depression, because it’s so much harder to win when you’re depressed. I suppose it’s just a desire for a better story.

  4. Yay, you finished Fragments! I did not like it quite as much as I did Partials, but it was good. Interesting point about Marcus’s humor. I hadn’t thought of that.
    Did you catch the big plot hole with Ariel’s character? It kinda bugs me.
    Also, Team Marcus. That whole thing bugs me too, but it was sadly predictable.

    Funny you mentioned The Magic Thief. My sister wants to read that.

      1. RANDOM COMMENT STALKERS, BEWARE THE SPOILER BELOW.
        In the very first scene of Partials, Ariel loses a baby. During the course of Fragments, you learn that Ariel and Isolde are whatever Kira is, but when Isolde’s baby is born, Nandita says that Isolde’s baby is the first human/partial hybrid. What about Ariel’s baby? Wouldn’t it have been the first?
        Also, in Fragments, Ariel says she got pregnant two years before the Hope Act required her to, but at the beginning of Partials, it says she’s 18, not 16. Now it could be that they lowered the age from 20 to 18 while she was pregnant. I don’t remember, and I’m not sure he mentions when they lowered the age to 18.

        Yeah, Afa was just sad. Fascinating, but sad. Also I got a little bored when they were crossing the Midwest. Oh no, we’re going to die! Evil river! We just made it past the river with our lives and nothing else! But look! That bridge is out, and it might be laced with explosives! Oh no, we’re going to die! It kept things suspenseful, though. Even if you did know that at least Kira was going to make it Denver.
        SPOILERS END HERE. I DIDN’T LEAVE ANY NON-SPOILERS FOR YOU TO READ, MWHAHAHA!

      2. I thought Ariel was the same person from the beginning of Partials, but it didn’t seem to fit when she was introduced in Fragments. I thought they were different people, and that made all the stuff Ariel said in Fragments make sense. But you’re right about the human/Partial hybrid thingy.

        The Midwest stuff was interesting as a setting sort of thing. We get to see how everything is trashed, which was pretty cool.

      3. True! Though the description of a lack of plants didn’t make sense to me. But I don’t know what the northern half of this state looks like, so I could just be being picky. Down here, everything would have been covered in honeysuckle and bindweed and Virginia creeper and poison ivy and there would be trees everywhere. But like I said, I’ve never lived up north, so I don’t have a good feel for what it looks like, other than it’s flaaaaat.

        I thought the acid rain was an interesting concept, though. It hadn’t occurred to me that that could happen.

        Also, I started Mistborn. Love it so far.

      4. I used to be an environmentalist nerd, really into all that save the planet stuff. (It isn’t that I love pollution and wouldn’t hesitate to dump toxic waste into freshwater rivers nowadays, but I’m no longer an activist.) Acid rain is one of the big points people make for pollution and nuclear radiation. Of course, what most people don’t know is that rain is already acid, though not enough to burn as in Fragments. That sort of thing isn’t that far from the truth.

        Ah, good. I’m just beginning the third book of the trilogy, and it’s great.

      5. I think we’ve all gone through a “save the planet” phase, thought mine lasted probably two weeks back in “elementary school” and consisted of me making little posters that said “save the wetland”. And then it ended.

        I remember reading about acid rain when I took chemistry. As I recall CO2 in the atmosphere dissolves in the water in the clouds, the result being a dilute solution of carbonic acid. I think. And with the extra blech in the atmosphere from the burning oil refineries, killer acid rain makes sense.

        Wow, you read fast. I just started part 2 (still in book 1), and already I can totally see why you’d cosplay as Kelsier.

      6. Amen. Though I’m critiquing someone else’s story now too, so that sorta counts as reading. Reading where I get to fix the typos and grammar-nazi to my heart’s content. All the extra summer chores equally distracting.

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