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Unwind by Neal Shusterman

November 23, 2008 Author: Anthony Pacheco Category: Atmosphere, Awesomesauce, Plot, Setting, The Craft  4 Comments

UnwindMy book reviews are targeted towards novelists (my prior book review can be found here).

Neal Shusterman’s Unwind is a near-future science fiction horror tale that can be summed up in one word: delicious. Quite simply, Shusterman goes where few dare to tread. If you have a love of edgy Young Adult fiction, then look no further. This book belongs on your shelf for several reasons, one of which is the intense questions that get asked, each one more thought-provoking then the last.

For an older gentleman like me, Neal Shuterman’s Unwind can be compared to a John Christopher novel written by Steven King.

The plot goes like this: abortion is illegal… on unborn children. During their teen years, parents can decide to send their child away to be “unwound” where 99.44% of their body is harvested.

The book centers on three teens that are now “unwinds”:

  • Connor, chosen to be unwound because he is a rebellious teen
  • Lev, who was born to be unwound based on his parents religious beliefs of tithing
  • Risa, chosen by the state to be unwound simply because they decided that they could not afford to keep her alive

These three escape their fates in a fortuitous freeway pile-up. Now all they need to do is survive until they are eighteen, when they no longer can be unwound. Capture means not death (so they say), because all the parts are reused, the unwind is divided into parts for a cheerfully waiting populous where the art of doctoring is rare but surgeons rule the health scene.

Sound positively hellish? Well it is. The undercurrent of unstated horror is relentless in Unwind and then BAM! It goes from the unstated to the all too real like a punch in the gut. Literally, I felt vaguely ill at the end of the novel. The subtleness of the cruelties with smiles suffered on these children builds to an epic crescendo that cumulates in one of the most terrible bits of sheer creep that I have ever read.

If you care to write edgy fiction, then look to this horror novel because that is what it is. There is little gore in Unwind worth mentioning, oh no. Like a Japanese horror movie, there is a sense of malevolence running through this sick and twisted society that looks so much like our own—yet is so different.

Or is it?

Consider if you will, the teens that were dumped at Nebraska’s hospitals. The mirrored reflection is not a dark twin of our light. Far from it, the parallels in this dystopia are sometimes all too familiar, and all too normal. And that is what makes it a chilling read for teens and adults.

For the Young Adult novelist, this study of unrelenting intensity warrants your attention. There is more here to scrutinize, than just pacing, atmosphere and plotting.

Unwind asks tough questions rarely found in a book targeted for teens. What is the beginning of life? When exactly does life end? What is the nature of consciousness? What are the consequences of anarchy when the law is so very flawed? In a world of villains, who is the true villain?

What are the ethics of compromise?

This, my friends, is a book that never talks down to the audience it was designed for, as the questions posed above compose a heady literary wine. You will be hard-pressed to find an action-packed book filled with such teen reflective goodness.

Another important part of this book is the voicing. Written in the third-person present tense, the word-smiting lends a flare not often encountered. The way the book is crafted lends itself to a sense of urgency; I was dubious going into it, but Shusterman pulls it off with his screenwriting experience shinning through.

If it seems like I am gushing, I guess I am. I do have some minor faults and quibbles with the novel, none really I feel necessary to drag out for the sake of being fair and balanced. If you write Young Adult fiction, it’s a must read simply because it does something rare: For the reluctant teen reader, it is a novel that will draw him in and leave him wanting to read more—because the type of entertainment given by Unwind can be found nowhere else. For the already fan of outstanding Young Adult fiction, it is euphoric lifeblood for the mind. There is not a bit of fluff betwixt its pages.

That’s a win-win combination of awesomeness that deserves your purchase and study. For what better result could there be for an author of Young Adult speculative fiction?

A reminder

November 07, 2008 Author: Anthony Pacheco Category: Awesomesauce, The Craft  3 Comments

The Young Adult Science Fiction blog is updated every Friday, with today being no exception.

Anybody who writes Young Adult speculative fiction should put this on their read list. It’s like a free box of bon-bons every Friday!

Enchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Louise Engdahl

October 12, 2008 Author: Anthony Pacheco Category: Awesomesauce, Not Exactly Random, The Craft  3 Comments

This book review is for novelists. If you simply have love a reading, John Grant does an excellent review on Infinity Plus.

Enchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Louise Engdahl is an extraordinary Young Adult novel—an entertaining, thought-provoking story and a fine technical achievement. The novel itself encompasses not one or two genres—but three, one for each point of view. From the forward by Lois Lowry:

“How rich a literary landscape is the one that enables the reader to enter several worlds and make a home in each.”

Reviewers throughout the decades have attempted to define this gem as a blend of science fiction and fantasy. This, perhaps, is an incorrect interpretation of the novel. Enchantress from the Stars is a book that deftly switches between three points of view: Elana, the daughter of a field agent from an advanced galactic civilization, Jarel, a medical officer from a space faring race and Georyn, the youngest son of a woodcutter whose life is turned upside-down when the Dragon invades the Enchanted Forest.

The plot is thus: A space-faring race has invaded a planet where the inhabitants are in a primitive, medieval state.  They go about clearing their landing site of their future colony with little thought to the impact of the people already there. The Dragon is a mechanical demolition machine, but to the natives it is a fearsome beast. Above both these two peoples, Elana, her fiancé and her father must try to save the primitive civilization, but they must do so in a way as to not interfere with the cultural advancement of the colonists. Simply, without a doubt, a marvelous bit of plotting.

One point of view in the book comes from Georyn, and as such is “fantasy.” The other point of view is from Jarel, and could be classified as “science fiction.” The third point of view, and the most important, comes from Elana, and is, in my humble opinion, visionary fiction. The three genres come together in a rapturous conclusion that is both harrowing, contemplative and finally, bittersweet. If you do not become misty-eyed, or at the least wistful at the conclusion of the book, then you heart is hardened to the likes of love gained and love lost in sacrifice for a noble purpose.

As a writer this technical achievement deserves your study, for Engdahl carries it with finesse and a unique style that has stood the test of time and is without peer. That is only the half of the reason I recommend this novel.

You will never find me disparaging the Young Adult novels that have reached a resounding success yet never come near the thoughtfulness offered by Engdahl. How many new-writer doors have opened because of Rowling and Meyer? Not just from a commercial perspective, but simply from an audience-building standpoint. This week, there is agent calling her client with a book deal that never would have seen the light of day without the expansion of the teen market. No matter how much the protagonist personally grates on one’s nerves, we owe that literary vampiric mouse of a girl a debt. Would the reprints of Enchantress from the Stars be possible if Harry Potter only existed in an Edinburgh coffee shop? It is not for me to say, but the influence of Rowling’s speculative work on publishers is as obvious as the sun rising each morning.

This is the heart of my review. There is, in my mind, the achievement of this novel from 1970 and the commercial success of the contemporary mega author. Like a greedy child, I want both. I demand both. I want novels that meet the standards presented by Engdahl, while commercially fulfilling the dreams of agents and publishers because their audience is legion.

Enchantress from the Stars explores personal ethics and morality and presents a cosmos that demands personal sacrifice not just for the good of who we know, but also for a greater purpose beyond our immediate universe. The personal growth of Elana through her great efforts, sacrifice and loss was awe-inspiring as it was a heartbreaking journey to behold. I could go on and on about the little gems inside this book, such as the psychological insights offered to the reader on human nature and matters of the heart. Nevertheless, I will not for that is not my purpose in writing this review. What I will do is toss down a literary gauntlet.

Dear writers, this is my challenge to you. If you are a fantasy author, there is much to learn from Enchantress from the Stars in the creation of legend and myth and the personal trials of the human spirit filled with curiosity. As science fiction, it is a wondrous universe filled with more questions than answers. As a Young Adult novel, it is, simply, without equal. Read this novel and then read your work in progress, and attempt to rise to a higher measure.

Firebird reprinted Enchantress from the Stars in paperback. I encourage you, however, to order the signed hardcover edition published by Walker, and send the author a note thanking her for her efforts. If you already have a copy, blow the dust off it. Enter once more a universe that does not talk down to you, assumes you can handle characters that grow and wonder despite hardship and love lost, and, ultimately, expands your mind to new horizons.