Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

Under the Never Sky by Veronica RossiUnder the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi
Narrator: Bernadette Dunne
Series: Under the Never Sky #1
Published by Harper Audio on 1/3/12
Genres: Post Apocalyptic, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Story: B
Narration: A-

The Setting (macro):

A post-apocalyptic earth where, beginning roughly three hundred years ago, Aether storms spent six decades funneling down to the ground in a destructive fury: setting fire to the earth, causing gene mutation, and helping new diseases evolve and thrive.

The Setting (micro):

On one end of the spectrum is a society of pod dwellers who escaped from the Aether by building sealed compounds and creating a virtual reality (called the Realms) to remind them of what they left behind. On the other end are Outsiders who roam the surface and survive primarily in tribes, their survival aided by new abilities that occasionally manifest in some people at a young age. These people (called Scires) have abilities such as super-hearing or sight, the ability to scent other people’s “temper” (emotions,) and the ability to “render” (mystically bond but not in a fated mates kind of way) with others due to Aether-caused mutation.

The Main Characters:

Aria lives in the pod named Reverie. Her mother has been out of contact for a week after she went to another pod to gather information for her medical research. When Soran, the son of the Director of Security for Reverie, suggests a group of friends unplug from the Realms and take an illicit trip into one of the agriculture domes that supports the sealed pod, Aria jumps at the chance to get on Soran’s good side. She hopes to convince him to ask his father to find out what happened to her mother. Unfortunately, Soren’s deranged desire to experience ‘the real’ has deadly consequences for everyone but him and Aria.

Peregrine is an Outsider, usually referred to as “Savages” by those who live in the pods. His brother is Blood Lord of their tribe and Perry is dissatisfied with his leadership and wishes he could challenge him for rule. Holding him back is his love for his nephew, Talon, with whom he has rendered. When he tries to sneak into Reverie in search of something to help heal the seriously ill boy, he is unable to stop himself from coming to Aria’s rescue, even though she is a Dweller, before making his escape.

In a bid to protect his son from Aria’s testimony, Reverie’s Director of Security drops Aria in the middle of the Outside to die. On their way back to the pod, the guards who dumped Aria off encounter Perry and Talon out for a hunt and kidnap Talon. As he sets off to rescue his nephew, Perry crosses paths with Aria and the two form an uneasy alliance in order to retrieve Talon and discover what happened to Aria’s mother.

My Thoughts:

Told in chapters that alternate points of view between Aria and Perry, this post-apocalyptic story has a strong sci-fi vibe and held my interest completely. It was a good story with excellent narration and I look forward to the next in the series. With a bang-up couple of opening chapters that are reminiscent of a futuristic version of Lord of the Flies, the author’s ability to create and maintain narrative tension is established. The world Ms. Rossi has created is atmospheric and well thought-out and isn’t so much delivered in descriptive sentence bunches as it is defined by the way the characters interact with it.

I imagine the author’s method of world-building may not suit every reader. Some books take you by the hand and gently skip down the world-building path with you, happily pointing out every scenic spot along the way and that’s OK; some great stories are told that way. Some books put a boot in your backside and kick you right into the middle of a lake, to sink or swim on your own. Although I think some readers may feel like they are drowning, I found the way the world was created and described to be a strong frame around which I could wrap some of my own conclusions. I enjoyed the sense of discovery along with the characters and the intimation that there was a lot more to be explored in the world Aria and Perry lived in. If your reading tastes lean towards a world that is clearly and fully defined upfront, you may find this book frustrating. I was comfortable learning bits and pieces as the story progressed. For example, I enjoyed taking the author’s descriptions of Aether (such as “The flows ran above the clouds. They were beautiful, like lightning trapped in liquid currents, thin as veils in some places. In others, they gathered in thick bright streams.”) and combining it with the tornado like strikes of destructive Aether storms and creating a post-apocalyptic world in my head where I imagined the earth was affected by unusual solar activity to such an extent that the atmosphere itself was changed, making life in enclosed habitats preferable for those who could afford it and leaving those who remained in the open to be changed on a genetic level. That wasn’t spelled out and I could certainly be over-thinking it but I enjoyed piling my own creativity on top of the author’s in this instance.

Ms. Rossi does an excellent job defining her characters, even in short sentences. When she speaks of Soren and “The way he watched people when they laughed, like he didn’t understand laughter.” She builds an instant character sketch that is then amply backed up by his creepy actions. There is a familiar pattern here that I see in many novels featuring YA characters, where the female protagonist is sheltered/less competent/needs protection and the male protagonist is the immediately accomplished one. While she was initially a somewhat frustrating character for me because she was so sheltered, this was offset by Aria’s mental strength and her refusal to complain as she toughened up as well as the fact that Perry and Aria are understandably at odds for half the book. I enjoyed watching Aria travel a great character arc from sheltered to independent. Also enjoyable was the romance between Aria and Perry, which was very sweet. While it didn’t blow my socks off, I left the story with a sense of deep satisfaction at the density of the tale.

The Narration:

This audiobook put me in mind of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife series and while I could make a strong case for some similar story elements, it’s equally valid to suspect that I made the comparison because they both employ the same skilled narrator: Bernadette Dunne Flagler. I feel like I repeat the same comments when a narrator does a really great job but while I go off to think up some crazy new and unique ways to describe a skilled narration, have some of the same ol’ same ol’… Ms. Dunne has a distinctive voice so it’s worth listening to a sample if you are unfamiliar with her work but she delivers the kind of narration that transcends her own voice and transmutes it into the individual characters in the story. The cast is distinctively voiced, the emotions feel real, and the pacing is perfect.

Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

Shatter Me by Tahereh MafiShatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
Narrator: Kate Simses
Series: Shatter Me #1
Published by Harper Audio on 11/15/11
Genres: Post Apocalyptic, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Story: C+
Narration: B+

Shatter Me is the story of Juliette Ferrars, a seventeen year-old girl who has been confined to a room in an asylum for a bit less than a year. Even before her incarceration she was isolated and denied human contact because, as she discovered in the most horrible way possible, her touch can kill. The world outside Juliette’s window has undergone a drastic change since she was a child. People are, for the most part, grouped together in compounds and food is hard to find. Human actions have had a profound effect on the world. Sea-level has risen until water is everywhere, animals are dying, people are dying, and weather patterns have been drastically altered. Not only has the ecology of the planet been significantly damaged, the political structure has crumbled. After the panic caused by the ecological disaster, a group called the Reestablishment took control with promises of order and solutions to diminishing health and rampant starvation but as Juliette notes “…more people have died at the end of a loaded gun than from an empty stomach.”

The sudden introduction of Adam Kent as Juliette’s cellmate is both a welcome and unwelcome surprise. The two have a short-time in which to get to know one another and explore their shared past before the Reestablishment, in the person of Warner, extracts both of them and seizes upon Juliette as his perfect weapon. Warner, the son of the leader of the Reestablishment, maintains control of his troops through fear and torture. He believes Juliette is…well, something like his soul-mate I would guess but he certainly believes that by his side, she will come to relish the freedom and power her deadly touch can give her. Juliette is horrified by her power. She has a degree of inner strength that allows her to stand up to Warner to a certain extent and she refuses to give him a taste of the power she unwillingly harbors so he begins a campaign to manipulate her into recognizing that together they can rule their little corner of the world. The only hope for Juliette is escape but to where?

There are two aspects to the writing in this book that should be mentioned before I go much further. The author uses strike-through text to indicate thoughts or comments which Juliette is choosing not to voice or is avoiding thinking about. This leads to sentences that look like this:

“She is a walking weapon in society, is what the teachers said. We’ve never seen anything like it, is what the doctors said. She should be removed from your home, is what the police officers said. No problem at all, is what my parents said. I was 14 years old when they finally got rid of me. When they stood back and watched as I was dragged away for a murder I didn’t know I could commit.”

The audiobook uses a scratching sound to indicate the presence of just-delivered strike-through text and that worked surprisingly well for me. I say surprisingly because I have an intense dislike for sound effects in audiobooks but it was clearly necessary in this case and not at all annoying although I did wish for some method of determining how much of the previously spoken part was strike-through. I really liked the way this allowed the author to provide both additional insight into Juliette’s mind and graphically display a character’s internal conflict. (Speaking of surprise, I was, surprisingly, able to restrain myself and not write this entire review using strike-through text to give you additional insight into my thoughts on this book. I’m not sure how I managed that.)

The second aspect worth mentioning is the amount and type of descriptive language used as part of Juliette’s character. I have a love for evocative or uniquely phrased descriptions but I found the vast majority of what was employed in this book to be distracting and somewhat over-wrought. An example being:

“The air is crisp and cool. A refreshing bath of tangible nothing that stings my eyes and snaps at my skin. The sun is high today, blinding as it reflects the small patches of snow keeping the earth frozen. My eyes are pressed down by the weight of the bright light and I can’t see through more than two slits, but the warm rays wash over my body like a jacket fitted to my form, like the hug of something greater than a human.”

I had an intellectual understanding that Juliette’s choice of words when describing things was likely reflective of the fact that she was isolated, had little direct human interaction, lived much of her life through books, and was living in a world so changed it almost required new language to talk about but it added a degree of “emo” to an already young and sheltered character that put me at one-remove from her story, a state I recently determined has a significant impact on my rating for a book. At a guess, this will work better with a young adult audience than with the adult cross-over audience.

I like the set up for this story and while it wasn’t necessarily a refreshing twist on Dystopian/Post-Apocalyptic (yes, I know they aren’t the same but there are elements of both in this book) themes, there were intriguing hints of a broader implication to the development of Juliette’s power that showed up at the end of the story. The first half of the book revolves around Juliette, Adam, and Warner with almost no secondary characters of note. Granted, it is a first-person narrative but the limited scope of characters for half the book emphasized everything about Juliette’s character that didn’t work for me. It wasn’t only the way Juliette’s thoughts and descriptions were structured, I also had a hard time finding a personality trait to relate to or sympathize with. Let me just riff off this particular incident and then I’ll get back to the main part of the review… OK, you’re captured by a semi-crazy guy who wants to use you to torture people with your touch. He’s already forced you to come into contact with one of his soldiers, causing significant harm to the man. He’s demonstrated that his idea of discipline is killing one of his soldiers who was accused of consorting with townspeople. He had your “crush” severely beaten. You’re trapped, monitored, sexually-harassed, and all he wants in return for agreeing to your request that he remove the cameras from your room is for you to touch him so he can experience your power first-hand. Our heroine’s reply? No, I won’t touch you. I can’t bear to harm someone with my touch, even though you are a creepy-stalker-psycho-killer. My reply? Buddy, show me some skin so I can put my deadly hands all over you! OK, thanks for letting me get that off my chest. Where was I? Oh, right… The second half was where the action began and the introduction of additional and more fully-formed secondary characters added some amusing dialogue and took some of the focus off Juliette’s thoughts, which was a welcome relief. I wish the whole book had been the second half.

Narrator Kate Simses does an excellent job. She has the ability to deliver an authentic sounding teenage (and younger) character voice and is an excellent example of when a minor change in pitch can still make the male/female voice differentiation sound authentic. Although her Juliette irritated me, it was strictly due to the already mentioned traits because Simses delivered her character with an ideal mix of the uncertainty of youth and inexperience combined with just the right amount of backbone when pushed. The inflections she gave Warner were excellent, allowing the complexity of his character to really shine through. Rather than falling into the trap of painting him purely as a bad guy (vocally) she allows the listener to hear his confusion when Juliette won’t use her power and there are a number of other multi-layered delivery choices that I appreciated.

Overall, this book was not as enjoyable as I was hoping and occasionally it was irritating although the action that developed in the second half combined with the slight character development that Juliette experienced saved the overall experience for me.

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick

Ashes by Ilsa J. BickAshes by Ilsa J. Bick
Narrator: Katherine Kellgren
Series: Ashes #1
Published by Audible, Inc. on 9/6/11
Genres: Post Apocalyptic, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Story: B
Narration: B

Alex is a terminally ill seventeen year-old girl who has ditched school, left the home of her aunt in Illinois, and headed for the woods of upper Michigan in an effort to make peace with her past and what’s left of her future. Her trek to spread the ashes of her parents at Lake Superior is interrupted: first by her encounter with an old man and his eight year-old granddaughter and then by an initially unexplained event that kills the old man and briefly disables Alex and young Ellie. As Alex and Ellie struggle to reach help they encounter Tom, a soldier in his early twenties who is on leave from a tour in Afghanistan. As the trio begins to make their way towards civilization they determine that the event that changed their lives was an electromagnetic pulse attack. That attack and the resultant nuclear explosions have irrevocably altered not just their world, but also the people in it.

Despite some issues with the structure of the story and the discovery that the narration didn’t align with my preferred style, I enjoyed this audiobook quite a bit. The descriptions, while not lyrical, are evocative and avoid the common mash of overused similes and descriptors. Ms. Brick has done an excellent job creating events and characters that, although neatly skirting probability, certainly contain the seeds of possibility.  Either her life-experience or solid research makes for a story where the possible is made more believable by a solid grounding in facts.

As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that the EMP was deadly to most people between the ages of (roughly) thirteen and sixty and the teenagers/younger people who did survive have been turned into almost-mindless creatures ruled by hunger and violence.  As we see the “brain zapped” in action, there is a decent amount of gore in the descriptions. For me, it came across as horrible but not true horror. It is described in such a way that it feels more like flipping by The Learning Channel and seeing a surgery in progress: gross, but in a “yep, that’s what it would look like” kind of way rather than scenes written to squeeze the maximum amount of “ewwww!” from events. Additional information is worked into the story in a very organic manner that explains the why, how, and who of those who survived the EMP and I enjoyed the gradual development of the hypotheses.  Alex also finds herself changed but, refreshingly, she doesn’t suddenly develop superpowers. Instead, she gradually comes to understand what is different about her while leaving a lot of room for her new skills to bloom into a larger part of the story.

The characters are well-developed and very human in their mix of positive and negative characteristics and actions. The dangers that Alex, Tom, and Ellie encounter drive action scenes that are well written and very effective at ratcheting up the tension for the reader. In addition to physical drama, Alex’s emotional struggles make her more sympathetic than I might otherwise find her. When Alex reaches the community of Rule, the divide between old and young generates some interesting dynamics. Generation Z (which in this book may as well stand for zombie) is almost completely reviled by the older generation that she encounters on the road. They are viewed as a universally dangerous group and because of her age, Alex faces as much threat from the unchanged survivors as she does from her altered peers. When the community of Rule takes her in, Alex is torn between the seductive lure of safety and a rebellion against the level of control the community and its elders want to exert over her. The cult-like aspects of the community and Alex’s increasing awareness of how she has been changed by the EMP are just two aspects of the story that I would have liked to see developed further in this book.

That segues into what bothered me structurally about the story. Alex and her struggle to navigate through a changed world makes up the core structure of the story but there are several well-developed characters and the start of some very interesting ideas that travel along with her and add their own framework to the plot. There were several times it felt like that framework was stripped away and we once again start with Alex and have to add additional structural components. It was as if the story line that was driving the book forward was shifted off course by new events. Then, rather than moving on to a new section that continues to build tension in anticipation of returning to the previous plot threads with a resolution, new situations and new information is introduced. These new plot lines start building, needing their own resolution, and I lost the narrative tension for resolving the first issue. Then the plot would fracture again. The fact that the tension immediately starts to build again for the new situation is a mark of effective writing but after a while, plotus interruptus becomes frustrating.

I don’t mean to imply that the story is episodic, only that there are quite a few storylines that are unresolved and a lot of really great ideas that aren’t expounded upon. The ending is, in fact, a huge cliff-hanger. Overall, that gave me a certain sense of dissatisfaction although I also have the feeling that if the author can bring it all together and finish building on what is present in the first book of this trilogy, the whole will be significantly more than the sum of its parts (and the first part is pretty darn good).

I find myself very conflicted in rating the narration. Objectively I can recognize the tremendous amount of skill Katherine Kellgren brings to the story. Fully voiced characters, a pleasing voice overall, a nice cadence to the delivery, and the ability to voice the tension that permeates the story were all strong aspects of her delivery but it is that last aspect that tripped me up. There’s room in my listening tastes for narration other than subtle but I found Ms. Kellgren’s to contain a theatrical element that didn’t suit me. Theatrical in this case isn’t meant as a pejorative but simply that it seemed better suited to a stage or radio drama than an intimate listening experience coming through my earphones. During dramatic scenes there was tremendous energy poured into the delivery and I could hear how the building inhalations and exhalations had to be worked into the lines, leaving me expecting a vocal explosion at the end. Representative of that is the last vocally dramatic scene in the story that suddenly sounds muted and actually has a waveform that looks like it had to be artificially modified to lower the decibel level.

My analysis is more a reflection of my personal tastes in narration because I certainly don’t regret going with the audio version over the text version. Consider it my recommendation, if your listening tastes are similar to mine, to listen to this audiobook in the car or at least via speakers rather than earphones. If your preferences aren’t similar, I think the narration will probably wow you.

I found this to be a very good post-apocalyptic story with narration that, for most listeners, will significantly enhance the story. I’d argue that the category of Young Adult applied to this book is done more because of the age of the protagonist than the writing or content.