American War by Omar El Akkad

Hello my lovelies!

I’ve been pretty busy over the last little bit, so this is going to be a quick one, but this book was too good for me to not write anything about it.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know I went through a bit of a thing with literary post-apocalyptic fiction (I’m just going to call post-apocalyptic PA from this point forward, because I think that might actually be the longest genre descriptor of them all) not too long ago. It seemed like something I should like, the world building of PA mixed with the language use and more nuanced, restrained look at humanity that usually comes along with a literary novel (I know, I know, that was really pretentious. I’m King Snoots of Doucheville and I’ll make no apologies for it!). But I had two in a row, Gold Fame Citrus and California, both of them critically acclaimed and well-beloved, that just didn’t do it for me. At the time I thought that maybe it was the literary aspect of it, the toning down of the intensity of some other PA fiction that I’ve read, that might be the problem. I like bonkers fiction, out there and unbelievable stuff set in a world that I myself couldn’t have come up with. Maybe these novels just lost something by trying too hard to remain grounded and realistic.

After reading American War though, I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. It’s incredibly realistic, sometimes unsettingly so, with characters that feel like actual people, put into situations that you could easily see arising out of the current political climate. But here the realism doesn’t blunt the edges of the drama or tension, it enhances it. Because these situations and characters felt so legit (I have no idea what the refugee experience is like, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are people out in the world right now going through exactly the things that these people go through) I got really invested in them. I didn’t always like them, I rarely ever agreed with them, but I felt like I understood them. I sympathized with their points of view and genuinely cared about whether they lived or died.

Speaking of which! Sort of spoiler alert? I know I just told you that it’s really easy to get invested in these people, but…try your best not to, okay? Because no matter who you get behind in this book, they are probably not going to make it. I mean, the book opens by telling you that most of the population of the country was killed by a bloody war, followed by a terrible plague, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but I figured I would warn you anyways. 

This book was soooooo brutal you gals. And super, duper fucking sad. And harsh. And bleak. It takes an honest and realistic view of war and what it costs, and it doesn’t stint on body count or emotional trauma. Everybody pays, again and again and again, often until they have nothing left. As rewarding as this book is, it can also be pretty hard to read at some points.

Hmmm…I feel like the last part of this review is coming across as me trying to convince you not to read this, but that wasn’t my intention. This book is good as hell and (if you’ve got the stomach for it) you should definitely check it out.

Recommended for people who’ve got thick skin when it comes to watching characters you like being tortured, physically and emotionally, pretty much to death, those of you who are into scarily realistic and dark visions of what could happen to the US over the next fifty years or so, and anybody that’s been having trouble with literary PA fiction up until this point and thought that maybe the problem was with them and not the books, but actually it’s not you at all. Because you’re great.

VBR

 

Ps. As a sidenote I know this novel doesn’t reaaaaally fit into PA. It’s sort of halfway in between Dystopian and PA, but I didn’t want to type out “sort of Dystopian, sort of PA literary fiction” that many times, so I didn’t.

 

Phantom Pains by Mishell Baker

Hey ya’ll!

So after reading Hunger, a great book that’s also reaaaaally difficult, I felt like I needed something light and fast and fun. I’d eaten my veggies, cleared my whole plate, and it was time for some dessert. I really loved Borderline, the first book in this series (you can check the review out here), and if this one was anything like it I figured it would do the trick.

And it did, sort of. I liked this one, I still enjoyed myself while reading it, but I can’t help but feel like it didn’t really live up to the promise of the first one. At first I couldn’t really figure out why I wasn’t having quite as much fun, it still had all the major key points of the first one (fast-paced action, a sort of mystery, weird faerie shit), but I think I’ve managed to narrow it down to two things.

The first one is Millie. Maybe it’s just me, but she seemed a little different in this book. It could be that the character herself is just growing up and coming into her own a little more, but she seemed a lot less unstable this time, a lot less confrontational (she mostly shuts down when people in the book either critique her or push back against her), and just a little more…bland? Generic? Maybe those aren’t exactly the right words, but it seemed like a lot of her sharp edges, the things that made her so interesting in the last novel, were blunted. I get that it’s important to move a character forward, but if it’s done properly it should be satisfying to watch a character grow and stabilize and come into their own. Here I feel like we missed a step or two and it just doesn’t really sit right.

The second thing is the plot. I have a few minor winges about it (mostly to do with nobody ever believing Millie eeevvvveerrrrrr, even though she’s constantly right all the time. Eventually you’d think that they’d just start taking her at her word, but I guess you have to get your drama and suspense from somewhere), but I’m going to focus mostly on the main problems: how unnecessarily complicated it was, and consequently, how long that made it feel.

As a side note, just to start this off, I just went to my bookshelf to check how many pages longer this one was than the first one, convinced that it was going to clock in at around a hundred pages more, and was surprised to find that they’re basically the same length. If you’d asked me right after I put this one down I probably would’ve bet money on it being atleast fifty pages longer, if not more, that’s how sure I was. That, in and of itself, has got to say something.

I think the major problem lies mostly in how complicated she made the plot. She tried to stuff waaaayyyyyy too much into this one novel and it really changed the dynamic. In the last book it wasn’t exactly a slow reveal, but there was still tons of mystery involved. You felt like she was uncovering information about the fey and the existence of the other world bit by bit, and that no matter what she found out she was still missing most of it. In this one you get exposition dump after exposition dump and by the end of it, I wasn’t sure what else there was to reveal. I left feeling like there wasn’t really anything hooking me into reading the third one. I know that this might just be personal preference, I’m always inclined to a slow reveal leading to a big payoff, rather than just dumps of information along the way, but this website is called verybiasedreviews so…I dunno, what did you expect?

Anyways, don’t write this book or this series off completely. The first one is great, and again, despite it’s problems I still had a pretty good time with this one. I’ve seen worse when it comes to the sophomore slump. I’m definitely going to come back in for one more go, but if the third one is more like this one than the first I might have to leave it after that.

Recommended if you like foul-mouthed, no bullshit lady protagonists, are fond of stories that are even tangentially related to hollywood, or if you like your exposition given in big, straight forward, indigestible chunks.

VBR

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