Review: Dangerous by Shannon Hale

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8585924(Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire)

When you think of authors who write “books for guys,” the name Shannon Hale probably does not come to mind. Better known for her more feminine offerings (Princess Academy, Goose Girl, Ever After High),  Hale is one of the big names in the middle grade to YA fantasy market. But her latest book, Dangerous, is a departure from the land of fairy tale and into a world in which Joss Whedon and Michael Bay would find themselves at home.

The protagonist of Dangerous is Maisie Danger Brown — yep, Danger is literally her middle name — the only child of a pair of eccentric scientists. Despite having been born with only one arm, Maisie dreams of being an astronaut and is elated when she wins a scholarship to an elite space camp run by a goofy, “mad scientist” character. It quickly (I’ll come back to that) becomes clear that there is more going on than teen education at the space camp. Maisie and her companions end up accidentally absorbing alien technology, develop superhuman abilities, and stumble into their own version of a Fantastic Four comic book.

Dangerous is a casserole of “team of superhero” stories with a bit of an Ender’s Game aftertaste. The bulk of the book deals with the kids being pursued by various agencies (commercial, scientific, political) who want to harness their superpowers for their own purposes. Maisie, who is scientifically brilliant but who has little experience with other people her own age, finds herself trying to navigate the tricky waters of friendship, destructive peers, romance, betrayal, and sacrifice at the same time that alien technology uses her mind and body as a playground. In the end, as is expected in this sort of story, the fate of the world is in her one hand.

This novel is populated with interesting characters of both genders and several ethnicities. One of my favorites is Dr. Dragon Barnes (yes, Danger and Dragon; Hale was clearly having fun here) who works for the “mad scientist” and whose devotion to her, and later Maisie, is truly touching. Plucked from a group home into adventures with extraterrestrial technology, he provides wisdom and a parental sort of love while Maisie’s own parents are out of the picture. (Maisie’s parents are fun characters, too, although as an adult reader I wished they had been a bit more fleshed out.) There’s an odd dynamic between Maisie and her male best friend, Luther, that will probably irritate many readers but is an excellent strike for those who believe that girls and boys can, absolutely, be Just Friends. Most of the other kids in the book are a little one-dimensional, but since they (spoiler alert) seem to exist mostly as filler and/or cannon fodder, that didn’t strike me as much of an issue.

The best part of this book, in a lot of ways, is Wilder. He’s a formidable character with complicated motivations, mysterious and alluring and funny and powerful and utterly untrustworthy. Up until the very end of the book it’s near impossible to decide whether he belongs in the Justice League or the Legion of Doom. His emotional ties pull him in two different directions, and ultimately (from an adult perspective, anyway) the question of how his story will eventually end is much more interesting than the requisite-to-YA-books-with-female-protagonists romance between him and Maisie.

Earlier, I mentioned how quickly the gist of the plot solidified. If I have a criticism of this book, it is about the pacing. Obviously, the important part of the story occurs after the superpowers are acquired — but when weeks of the long-anticipated space camp are zipped through in a matter of paragraphs, I find myself disoriented and struggling to maintain my suspension of disbelief. In Ender’s Game, we understand the characters and their motivations better for having read chapters full of practices, tests, and dormitory skirmishes. Dangerous fast-forwards through all of that, and I missed it.

Many reviews of this book focus on the thinness of some characters and the plot holes left after, I presume, paring the book down to its essential comic book plot line. I agree that Dangerous leaves something to be desired for the adult reader, but as a book written for young teens, I think it’s very successful. And although the protagonist is a girl who suffers the misfortune of losing her heart, the violence, action, intrigue, and technology will captivate male readers. Fans of The Avengers and X-Men will find plenty to enjoy in this novel.

Reading Update 28

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SGF Reading

Reading Update: Today is Thursday, July 17. As of today, I have read 69 books toward my goal of 100; two of them have been since the last update. The two books I’ve read so far are:

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Siege and Storm is the sequel to Shadow and Bone. I like this series, although it falls in kind of a strange zone for me. For the most part, it seems to be middle school level — but then there’s this undercurrent of darkness and sexuality that makes it more YA. I mean, there’s nothing happening or anything, but there’s this sort of sense that it will, y’know? Anyway, it’s a pretty great dark fantasy sort of thing, with interesting characters (albeit somewhat thinly written).

Dangerous is the latest by Shannon Hale, and it’s science fiction! It’s a superhero story, an alien story, a love story, and an adventure story. It reminded me of both The Fantastic Four and Ender’s Game. I liked the characters, especially the strong female protagonist, and I liked how it wasn’t nice and neat and whitewashed. I didn’t like the way that huge spans of time were wiped away in a single sentence, but I guess that comes from trying to edit a book down to a length and pace appropriate for young readers. It wasn’t the greatest book I’ve ever read, but I’m hoping for a sequel.

Currently Reading/Looking Ahead: I need to find a good read to review for GLW. I put Ready Player One in my bag this morning but am not enthused.

Virtual Shopping

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For some reason, I’m having a really hard time organizing my thoughts into blog posts this summer, so instead of getting to read about the various fascinating things going on inside my head, you’re getting a heaping dose of “things I thought were adorable when I saw them on Zulily.” Hooray for window shopping! Just about as fun as real shopping and a lot easier on the bank account.

First off, how precious is this? Definitely a must-have for every one-year-old’s back-to-school wardrobe, don’t you think? [link]

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In love with this sweet little t-shirt. I’ve seen camera shirts before but this is by far my favorite that I’ve seen. [link]

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How completely sweet are these personalized wooden buttons? I’d have to figure out something I could sew to use them — or since they’re 2″ across, maybe they could just be keepsakes/playthings. [link]

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What’s the best part of these pajamas? Is it that they’re superhero pjs? That they’re orange? Or is it that they have Daddy’s initials on them? Would be pretty awesome when he’s big enough to understand. [link]

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I’m fascinated by these magnetic wooden blocks. They cost a ruddy fortune but they seem like a really wonderful idea, don’t you think? [link]

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A fair-isle-style sweater with robots. What’s not to love? I die. [link] (I’m also pretty crazy about the gray and blue version, gotta admit.)

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Choo-choo pants. What’s not to love? [link]

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I’m a complete sucker for hoodies with critter ears. [link]

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I love this bear so much that I’m pretty sure this is at least the second time I’ve shared it. I love the texture of it (baby crack!) and the facial expression and the cute color (H’s favorite word right now is “blue”). Kind of pricey but hey, imaginary money, right? [link]

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H has a tool belt and a workbench, so he probably needs this, don’t you think? Just wish it were a t-shirt instead of a onesie, though. [link]

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More fantastic onesies that I wish were t-shirts: his favorite song, his parents’ favorite way to respond to essay questions, and awesomeness. [link]

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And finally, come next Halloween, H’s Daddy is going to need a Halloween costume, don’t you think? [link]

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Okay, I’d better return to the real world now. And yes, I know there’s nothing on here for me (unless you count enjoying baby clothes “for me”) but that’s because everything I want right now is on Zillow, not Zulily…

 

 

Reading Update #27?

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SGF Reading

Reading Update: Today is Thursday, July 10. It is hard to remember to blog during summer break, especially when I am prepping for and teaching summer school, and also doing a bundle of other things… oops. But here I am. As of today, I’ve read 67 books toward my goal of 100 for 2014.

Since last time, I’ve read the following eight books:

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Not so very much to say about Corduroy and Pooh Loves unless you’re reading to a toddler…

The Assassin’s Blade is a collection of prequel novellas in the Throne of Glass series. I was expecting them to be dreadful, but they were pretty good, and made me all the more eager for the next book to get published.

Graceling is one of those books that had been recommended to me several times by various friends. It focuses on a young woman who has the Grace (think Xanthian Talent, or superpower) of near invincibility. She’s a powerful fighter and nothing seems able to hurt her. In rapid succession she rebels against her king, rejects her suitor, chops off her hair, falls in love, and runs off on an adventure. It was interesting enough that I read it very quickly, and would like to read the other two books in the series so far, but I don’t really see what all the fuss is about. It felt thin, and I feel like other books have done the same basic story better.

Shadow and Bone is the first in yet another YA fantasy trilogy, this one taking place in a fantastical Russia-ish land. Its protagonist is a orphaned girl conscripted into her country’s military, who discovers an unrealized magical power when she and her beloved friend are attacked. From there she is swept up into a world of glamour and intrigue — and betrayal. I thought this was really well done; I actually cared about the characters, even though they were written in simpler strokes for younger readers. For the first 3/4 of the book I felt it was a pretty great middle grade fantasy in the Narnia vein; later, some more adult situations complicate things, and the very end of the book felt quite rushed and thrown together. Altogether, I quite enjoyed this one and am anxious to read the next book.

The Daughter of Smoke and Bone series was recommended to me by J, and I’d heard a lot of positive chatter from other sources. Here is a place where the hype was right! SUCH a good story. Karou is an eccentric art student in Prague, but of course this is one of those classic “quirky character is more than s/he appears to be and is in fact a messiah figure” tales. The character writing is fantastic, and the complicated moral ground and romantic subplot make this sophisticated enough for adults.

Currently Reading/Looking Ahead: I picked up The Season last night but I’m not impressed. May go by my library this afternoon and pick up Siege and Storm. As long as I’m catching up with my MG/YA collection I probably ought to pick up some realistic fiction, but I’m just not in the mood right now.

Review: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

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[Cross-posted at GuysLitWire]

Let’s face it: we are all of us, but perhaps especially young guys, guilty of judging books by their covers. That’s why books have cover art, after all, and it’s why we have terrific, heated conversations about that art when it doesn’t match up to reader — or worse, author — expectations. (An example.) It’s no surprise that a book with a really kickbutt cover can gain wings to fly off the shelves, which is how Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas got selected for my middle school library and why I had to wait until summer vacation to get my hands on a copy.

The ingredients:

  • a ferocious, sexy female assassin
  • two male best friends, both smitten by said assassin, neither willing to violate Bro Code by pursuing her since the other also likes her
  • an evil king
  • a rebel princess
  • political intrigue
  • a competition to the death
  • a mysterious power lurking in the bowels of the castle
  • a fairy tale land that has lost its magic

This book, its sequel (Crown of Midnight), and its collected prequels (The Assassin’s Blade) proved enormously popular with my male readers, so I was imagining that it was an action-packed magical gorefest. By the time I finally got the chance to read them, I was surprised to find that these were much more feminine than I would have guessed. The heroine, Celaena, is almost disturbingly vain and girly, and the love triangle takes up a significant chunk of the story. Celaena is obsessed with her appearance and uses it like any James Bond femme fatale would — as a weapon. And as the series progresses, things in that love triangle heat up to a degree that had me running for my roll of YA stickers.

And yet, despite being clearly focused on things more commonly attributed as “girl” interests, they remain a hot commodity among my guys. There’s a lot of good fighting, dark mystery, and a thread of high fantasy running through the tale. Yeah, the guys are starry-eyed for their pet assassin, but they don’t stop acting like dudes — they still fight, they still notice other girls, they do their jobs, and they don’t forget to think about their guy friends. There are weapons, enchanted objects, duels, and betrayals aplenty.

It also bears mentioning that this series has a prominent, powerful, female PoC character, it passes the Bechdel test, and the courting behavior of the male characters would be a pretty decent example to the young men who read it.

In all honesty, this series started weak to me. Book 1 (Throne of Glass) is kind of disjointed, with an assassin who worries about breaking her nails and a bunch of bad guys with murky motivation. Something about the characters and premise made me go back for more, though, and I am SO glad that I did. Crown of Midnight was outstanding, and left me anxious for book 3 (to be released this September; Maas anticipates writing 6-7 in total, thus breaking the oh-so-common Rule of Three in YA literature). The prequels were surprisingly good as well, and did a lot to round out Celaena’s character development.

I’d recommend this series for teens and young adults, probably grade 8 and older. Guys and gals alike will find something to love about these books.