The Grace Year by Kim Liggett

The Grace Year Cover

Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 10 October 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 416 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

From the brilliant mind of young adult and horror author Kim Liggett comes one of the most thought-provoking reads of the year, The Grace Year.

In Garner County, a seemingly isolated town in the middle of vast wilderness, women are taught that they are magical beings whose eldritch powers are the root of all sin and whose magic can control the actions of men, causing them to do all manner of debauchery. In order to rid themselves of their magic, each girl in the village must participate in the grace year. At the start of their sixteenth year, all of the town’s young women are transported to an isolated compound deep in the woods. There they must spend an entire year together, using all their magic to survive amidst the harsh elements and the dangerous things lurking outside the fences. Only if they survive their grace year will they emerge as pure women.

Tierney James is just about to enter her grace year. As something of a rebellious soul compared to the other girls in the village, Tierney dreams of a better society in which women are not forced to survive amidst the bitter whims of the men nor pitted against other women. Hoping for a quiet life in the fields after she returns, an unexpected betrothal from her friend paints a target on her back from the other girls travelling with her. After arriving at the compound, Tierney attempts find a way for everyone to survive the harsh year. However, between the lack of food, the vicious poachers waiting outside the fence and the growing instability of the girls trapped with her, Tierney’s odds are not looking good. As the grace year continues, Tierney begins to suspect that she does not have any magic within her, and that the grace year is a lie. Can she convince her fellow participants of this before it is too late, or will Tierney be the latest victim of the grace year?

The Grace Year is a really interesting piece of fiction that features some stimulating examinations of modern society that has been getting some understandable comparisons to books like The Handmaid’s Tale. Liggett is a fantastic author who has produced a number of compelling young adult novels since her 2015 debut, Blood and Salt, each of which has some intriguing elements. Her latest book has more of a social commentary slant, as it takes a look at how younger women are viewed within our modern society.

I received a copy of The Grace Year a few weeks ago, and I have to admit that before the publisher contacted me, this book was really not on my radar. While the plot synopsis of this book sounded really interesting, it is a little outside of my usual review wheelhouse. However, after diving into this book, I found that Liggett has created a complex and creative tale in a unique setting filled with vicious action, social commentary, a moving romance and even some horror elements.

The central focus of the book is on how the world views young women and how it is capable to manipulate a society in order for certain people to remain in power. Liggett apparently based the story on a scene she witnessed in a busy subway, where a young teen girl was appraised by various people passing by her. As a result, her book is set in a rather disturbing dystopian society where a large female population is controlled by a smaller group of males and women are barely treated as people. The protagonist’s story unwinds the various methods that the men use to control the women, including through myth, religion, ceremonies, banishment and the events of the titular grace year. However, as the book progresses, there are some examples of female empowerment and thoughts of revolution that start to change the tone and direction of the book. All of these various elements ensure that The Grace Year is filled with quite a lot of social commentary that is incredibly relevant in modern times and which can be analysed in a number of different ways.

Liggett has done a great job telling her story in a well-paced and exciting manner. I found the initial parts of the book intriguing, especially when Liggett explored the various elements of the Garner County community, but my favourite part of the book covers the course of the actual grace year. There is a lot of apprehension built into the short amount of story before this point, as the narrator, Tierney, has very little actual idea of what actually occurs in the isolated compound during the grace year. In order to get to the compound, the young women have to traverse a landscape surrounded by poachers who make a legal living killing and harvesting the bodies of the grace year girls. While these poachers are a major threat, the real danger appears to come from the mental strain and manipulation of the isolation as the girls turn on each other. All this conflict and the resulting tribalism is reminiscent of Lord of the Flies and makes for some powerful and dark scenes. There is also a rather curious and tragic central romance that takes up a lot of space in the centre of the book, which not only makes for some great reading, but which also helps highlight another aspect of the author’s crazy and inventive universe. All of this makes for a very compelling story that will appeal to a wide audience of readers who will love all the excitement and the really unique fictional society that the protagonist lives in.

The Grace Year is probably one of the more complex and unique books that I have had the pleasure of reading this year. It has some compelling ideas of society and gender identity that are interesting to unravel, all wrapped up in an excellent and captivating story. This is definitely a book that needs to be read in order to fully understand it, and I would wholeheartedly recommend this book for anyone looking for an intriguing piece of literature.

Annex by Rich Larson

Annex Cover.jpg

Publication Date: Orbit

Australian Publication Date – 25 September 2018

World Publication Date – 24 July 2018

 

From exciting new author Rich Larson comes an absorbing young adult science fiction debut that makes use of creepy alien elements, excellent characters and fantastic LGBT inclusions to create a powerful and creative read.

When a gigantic alien ship arrives above Earth and isolates an entire city, all the children that are trapped with the aliens are kidnapped and infested with parasitic life forms, while the adults are clamped and inserted with mechanical devices that turn them into mindless drones.

For the small group of children that escape captivity, the disappearance of all the adults offers them a life of fun and adventure.  Falling under the leadership of the charismatic Wyatt, this group of survivors, the Lost Boys, are living the high life, with their newly attached parasites giving them the ability to vanish objects for brief periods of time.  While life is fun, they must continue to avoid the mechanical whirlybirds, the pod-like spaceships and the terrifying Othermothers hunting them in the streets.

For Violet, this new world allows her the opportunity to live the life she’s always wanted and to be the person she’s always wanted to be.  But Violet’s new life on of the city streets changes dramatically when she finds a new escapee, Bo, and takes him under her wing.  Bo has the most powerful parasite the group has ever seen and is capable of permanently vanishing larger objects.  It also appears the alien invaders want him back and are deploying hordes of their creatures to capture him.

Sensing an opportunity, the Lost Boys use Bo to fight back against the aliens while trying to uncover what plans they have for the rest of the planet.  Breaking into the massive hovering mother ship, Violet and Bo team up with the mysterious Mr Gloom to end this alien threat once and for all.  But these two young people will quickly find that the biggest threat to them may be far closer to home than they realise.

Annex is the first novel from Rich Larson and is the first book in The Violet Wars series, with the second book of this intriguing series, Cypher, already on its way.  This is a wonderful debut from Larson, which contains a surprisingly intense and at times dark story that will prove to be enjoyable to a wide range of readers.

There are a number of great features of Annex that readers will enjoy; however, one of the most noticeable features is the creepy and well-written descriptions of the aliens and events that the book’s main characters encounter.  There are a lot of inventive and twisted creatures, technology and even body modifications that can be found throughout this book, and Larson’s skilled writing helps brings them to life in the reader’s imagination.  I was particularly impressed, and a little freaked out, by Larson’s unique creation the Othermothers.  The Othermothers are unsettling clones of the escaped children’s mothers, perched upon long skeletal metal legs, who chirp out random phrases in the mothers’ voices in an attempt to lure the escaped children to them and then capture them.  Because of Larson’s descriptive writing, these creatures are horrifying and really stood out for me among the other alien antagonists the heroes encountered.  Special mention should also be made of the shadowy Mr Gloom, a strange adult they encounter whose appearance is not quite human and who has a range of powerful abilities.  I am not going to reveal too much about Mr Gloom because he appears about two-thirds into the book and I do not want to spoil too much about him.  I did find him to be quite a fun character.  Larson’s descriptions of Mr Gloom are fantastic, especially when it comes to exploring his shadow based abilities, which are a treat to read about.

In addition to the alien creatures and characters that are encountered through the book, readers should also keep an eye on the leader of the Lost Boys, Wyatt.  Wyatt is at first presented as a talented leader who has managed to bring the Lost Boys together and keep them alive.  However, there is much more to this character than he initially presents, and his real personality begins to be revealed to the heroes and the readers as the book progresses.  This is some incredible character work from Larson, and the revelation of Wyatt’s true motivations and persona is done perfectly, resulting in some excellent dramatic scenes and some really dark twists.  The author’s use of two separate point-of-view characters, Violet and Bo, works really well when it comes to viewing Wyatt, as the reader is able to observe his different manipulations, his moods and the cracks that appear in his outer façade.  This is a very intriguing character that dramatically changes the narrative of Annex in a number of ways, and the scenes exploring Wyatt are some of the best written in the entire book.

One of the key aspects of Annex that will prove to be an interesting addition for the reader is one of the main protagonists, Violet.  Violet is a tough–as-nails kicker of alien ass who is also a young transgender girl who has used the lack of adults following the invasion to finally live her life the way she always wanted to.  This is an amazing portrayal of a transgender character, as the author creates a stimulating backstory for Violet that examines her past and explores how she became her current self while also exploring the fears and people that stopped her from fully expressing her identity.  The book also explores how intrinsic this identity can be and how devastating attacks about identity can be, even during an alien apocalypse.  Violet is a well-rounded character, and Larson skilfully displays her other fears, her independence, her new friendship with Bo and her relationships with the other Lost Boys.  Violet helps to elevate this book to the next level and make it into a terrific piece of young adult fiction.

This book is an interesting addition to the young adult genre that definitely highlights the empowerment of young people.  The human characters of this book are all quite youthful and yet manage to thrive in a hostile alien landscape that has incapacitated all of the adults.  Watching these young people come together as a tight-knit group is an intriguing part of this book, and it is interesting to see the subtle techniques Wyatt uses to turn them into his own little army, such as with initiation rites, slogans and other forms of manipulation.  Overall, watching this group overcome without adult help the obstacles of being among the aliens oppressing them is a great part of the book.  This makes it an interesting read for the young adult audience, especially for those who love to see transgender characters in fiction.

Annex by Rich Larson is an excellent debut and is recommended for those younger readers looking for a science fiction adventure that they can relate to.  With some creepy aliens, intriguing characters and a deep look at transgender issues among today’s youth, this is an exhilarating read from a promising new author.

My Rating:

Four stars

Jinxed by Amy McCulloch

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Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date – 9 August 2018

 

Creative young adult fiction author Amy McCulloch returns with a fun and compelling techno-thriller that takes an incredible and entertaining look at the potential future of your favourite devices and combines them with a unique idea of how to make them even more user-friendly.

In the near future, the must-have technological device is the baku, your brand new best friend.  Bakus combine all the features of your smart devices and internet connection with a constant companion in the form of a robotic animal that is customisable to your needs and price range.  Low range bakus take the form of small creations like insects, while the most advanced baku are created to look like birds of prey or large land animals.  Not only are bakus the most popular form of communication device, but in this day and age, even basic bakus are needed to fully experience day-to-day life.

Lacey Chu has big dreams of working for Moncha Corp, the company which designs and creates the baku, as well as working for her idol, Moncha’s founder, Monica Chan.  However, the only way to achieve that dream is to get accepted into the exclusive Profectus Academy, the elite tech school whose graduates become the designers, coders and creators of the next generation of baku.  When Lacey is rejected from the academy and can no longer afford her dream baku, she is crushed.  That is until she finds Jinx, a ruined cat baku that appears to have been abandoned at the bottom of a canyon.  Bringing it home to fix, Lacey’s fortunes appear to immediately turn around when her application for the Profectus Academy is suddenly accepted and Jinx is listed as the advanced baku she is required to have for classes.

Arriving in the academy, she finds it a very different place than she imagined.  The students and faculty are obsessed with Baku Battles, the academy-sponsored fights between bakus that help determine a student’s rank and prestige in the academy.  Finding herself drafted onto a Baku Battle team, Lacey starts to learn all about the inner workings of the baku.  The more she learns, the more she begins to realise that something is very different about Jinx.  Jinx is not the usual mindless machine; Jinx can think for himself, has his own personality and is even starting to communicate with Lacey.  As Jinx begins to mess with parts of Lacey’s life, she begins to fully comprehend the implications of Jinx’s existence.  What shadowy secret lies at the heart of Moncha, and will Lacey and her friends be able to save Jinx from them?

Amy McCulloch is a well-established young adult fiction author who has written a number of books since her 2013 debut.  McCulloch also writes under the name Amy Alward and mostly focuses on young adult fantasy novels as part of her Potion and The Knots Sequence series.  Jinxed is her first foray into the science fiction genre and represents an exciting techno-thriller that explores an intriguing piece of future technology and the exciting adventure that happens around it.

The overall story of Jinxed is an excellent mixture of science fiction, thriller and teen drama elements, all set within a captivating academy background.  As a result, throughout the book, there is a ton for the reader to enjoy as they are introduced to the technology around the baku and see the narrator investigate a conspiracy centred around the creation of Jinx, all while dealing with the highs and lows of school life.  It is a fun combination of different story elements that works towards a great overall narrative.  I was able to work out what one of the twists was going to be quite early in the book, but it didn’t really impact my enjoyment of the story.  There are some great moments throughout, as well as a surprising ending that makes me very curious to read any sequels that McCulloch brings out.

The baku are an essential part of this story and are a really interesting element that McCulloch has chosen to use.  Many science fiction and technology based authors are currently attempting to predict what the next big piece of technology will be in the world, with many of them focusing on what the next ground-breaking piece of communications technology will be.  While many of these suggestions seem quite plausible and seem to support the current trends in technology, this is the first book I’ve seen that suggests combining a person’s smart device with a robotic pet.  The narrator suggests that the fiction justification for the creation of the baku was to give people a companion that is both helpful and which also limits their dependencies and addictions to mobile phones and smart devices.  It’s a rather fun concept and it is cool to see how McCulloch imagines how these creations would work.

The baku are broken down into various levels of sophistication, from the basic models which look like insects and can only do the most basic of tasks, to the ultra-sophisticated versions which come in the form of some very powerful creatures.  It is also intriguing to see how many of the book’s various characters start to care for their bakus like they are real animals, and the bond that they form as a result, even if their bakus aren’t sentient.  The bond that forms between Lacey and Jinx is fairly unique, however, as Jinx is an early form of artificial intelligence, and it is nice to see it develop through the course of the book as Lacey risks her life to help Jinx.  There are a few great scenes which show Jinx trying to come to grips with his existence, whether he is helping other bakus, questioning how baku are made, or by attempting to exist among a group of real life cats.  A truly intriguing postulation about future technologies, McCulloch has created a unique and fascinating idea that works well within this narrative.

Most of the action of this book is contained within fights between the bakus rather than between any of the human characters.  This is mostly done in the Baku Battles tournament at the school, where several bakus fight each other in a free-for-all brawl.  I love a good fictional tournament, and each of the bakus has various techniques.  As a result, the fights within the book can become quite fun and energetic as eagle, boar, tiger, cat and frog bakus all fight in various ways.  I also enjoyed the scoring concept that McCulloch came up with for this tournament, as the surviving team receives all the points, but their opponents can steal them if they can repair their team’s bakus sufficiently by the next day.  This is an intriguing stipulation for a tournament which allows McCulloch to show off several scenes of the narrator doing advanced repair work.  These tournament battles do a good job of moving the plot along and work into the books various elements very well, whether by giving the narrator access to certain locations to investigate secrets, or by bringing her closer to or further apart from other characters in the books, to allowing a closer examination of the workings and mindsets of the book’s technological elements.

Amy McCulloch’s latest book, Jinxed is a high-octane technological thriller that makes use of amazing science fiction elements to create an enthralling adventure.  Aimed for a young adult audience, the lack of any substantial violence, except between the book’s distinctive robotic animals, makes this a perfect read for a wide range of younger readers.  At the same time, the intriguing concept of future technology and its wide range of applications, including for high-stakes gladiatorial battles, makes it intriguing for an older readers.  This is an absolutely fantastic book from McCulloch.  I really enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes next.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars