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.

Mastiff: The Legend of Beka Cooper #3 by Tamora Pierce

Mastiff: The Legend of Beka Cooper #3 by Tamora PierceMastiff by Tamora Pierce
Narrator: Susan Denaker
Series: The Legend of Beka Cooper #3
Published by Listening Library on 10/25/11
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult

Book: B+
Narration: A

In the final installment of Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper trilogy, Beka (a member of the Provost’s Guard who are colloquially and collectively known as Dogs) is summoned from her bed in the middle of the night by Lord Gershom and sent on a secret mission. She finds herself crossing the kingdom with her partner Tunstall, the scent hound Achoo, the lady knight Sabine, the Provost’s mage Master Farmer, and of course the cat (who is really a constellation) Pounce. The four year-old Tortallan prince has been kidnapped and as Beka and her group follow the trail of a slaver’s caravan, they discover enemies who will stop at nothing in their attempt to take control of the throne. There are physical travails along the path in addition to the concerted attempts by the mages involved in the kidnapping to bring magical weapons to bear on the team.

I’m not sure there is such a thing as a young adult sensibility but this series of books has a lot of the aspects I like to see in novels intended for that demographic. A strong (and in this case female) protagonist who has a discernible arc of character growth, friendships that run the gamut from supportive to combative, a splash of romance with no fated insta-love, an exciting storyline that doesn’t stint on recognizing bad things happen but doesn’t spend too much time describing every gory detail, a core world where gender equality is shown as a given (and so has even more contrast when we encounter a splinter group with the opposite opinion) and lots of adventure to keep a reader interested. Tamora Pierce has created an engaging world with a protagonist whose daily job has the feel of a medieval police station but with magic involved. There are well-developed characters who even speak with their own cant, although it’s easily understandable in context (the downside of which might be, say, your thirteen year-old wandering around the house calling the dog a “craven canker-licking sarden arseworm.”)

As an adult reader of books that fall in the Young Adult category, I found this to be a fun story. All three audiobooks in this series have been great listens and it’s been surprisingly enjoyable to watch Beka’s character mature from a painfully shy and earnest “puppy” in the Provost’s Guard who learned the ropes with the help of two great partners, to a “bloodhound” who was given a chance to work an investigation into counterfeit money, and now to a mature young woman who lives by a code of honor that sometimes requires she make difficult choices. I was initially thrown off at the start of the story because there is a two or three year gap in story-time since the end of book two but I quickly settled in and was swept into the fast-paced investigation. In addition to the great characters, there is tremendous texture to the world Pierce has created (the downside of which might be, say, when I find myself forgetting that calling someone a “cracknob looby” only has meaning if you’ve read the book.)

To add the icing on top of this literary cake, Susan Denaker’s narration is perfect. She utterly embodies the various people in the story, becoming transparent to the listener and allowing them to simply engage with the characters. Her use of varied regional dialects and accents (many with a Nordic sound) combined with the vocal characteristics she uses to differentiate class helps create that immersive experience for the listener. Excellent pacing, the appropriate emotional delivery choice for every scene, and just lovely character voices make this a book I consider enhanced significantly by listening rather than reading.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini TaylorDaughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Narrator: Khristine Hvam
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone #1
Published by Hachette Audio on 9/27/11
Genres: Fantasy

Book: A-
Narration: B+

Meet Karou: a seventeen year-old art student in Prague, she spends her days easing her way through life with the small wishes she carries like beads on a string and entertaining her classmates with her sketches of inhuman figures.  Those sketches, however, are portraits of her family. She earns her wishes from a creature who has been the only father she remembers – the horned Chimaera named Brimstone who runs a shop where he trades in teeth (both human and animal) and wishes. The errands Karou runs on behalf of Brimstone take her through magic doors to the farthest reaches of the world, where she bargains for merchandise for the shop. It is on one of these errands that Karou is spotted by the angelic Akiva and he attempts to kill her as part of an ongoing battle between the Seraphim and the Chimaera. Wounded, Karou returns to the shop but is soon cut off from her family when the magic doors close for good. So begins Karou’s journey of discovery – of who she is, where she comes from, and how she can get back to her family.

After finishing this audiobook I felt a bit like Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I picked up what I thought would be a “candy bar” of a book and ended up with a golden ticket to an amazing world and a lot more than what I was expecting. If I had to pick one word to describe this book it would be “refreshing”: in setting, use of language, and in world-building – to name just a few aspects that captured my imagination.

There’s a terrific over-arching mythology that develops describing the conflicts of two worlds, two species at war, two star-crossed lovers… but it is all made not just relatable but completely engaging by the sheer humanity of the characters. The interactions between Karou and the beastly, horned, teeth-buying creature that she thinks of as her father are resonant with the emotions any teen/parent interaction would have. Along with what seems to be a magical fated love affair, there is (in contrast to most YA paranormal/fantasy) a vignette where, far from aggrandizing the loss of virginity, the potential awkwardness of that moment and its after-effects is deftly captured with subtle strokes. (Also, if I had daughters they totally would have been given the speech about “inessential” things. I imagine it was amusing in text form but in audio it was a priceless scene.)

There is a surprising depth to the conflict between the Chimaera and the Seraphim, not because the cause of the war is complex or unique but because rarely have I seen an author take the time to move beyond a simple good vs. evil paradigm and really map out the way in which each side has constructed their own mythos about how the war started and who is the cause in addition to how the ripple effects of that war and prejudice impact the characters.

Before you get the wrong impression, let me assure you that the story is not all war, creatures, and conflict. There are some truly amusing sections of dialogue, particularly between Karou and her friend Zuzana. I was also enchanted by the mental picture the author’s words built of the city of Prague, which became a character in its own right. Even if I had been inclined to take issue with some particular plot point (which I‘m not) the writing was amazing. There were such lovely moments of description in this book and they were made richer by the fact that in addition to highlighting and adding depth to the characters and storyline, as good writing often does they also served as small moments of illumination into the character of the reader and their world.

I’ve encountered Khristine Hvam’s narration skills before (most notably with Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series) so I wasn’t too worried about her ability to provide good character differentiation and story delivery but there were several facets of her performance that worked particularly well for me in this book. I found the flow of dialogue to have a very natural feel and Zuzana’s amusing banter was delightful in both content and delivery, providing outright laugh out loud moments. Hvam also does an amazing job at voicing a single character in both youth and maturity with a pitch-perfect (in both the figurative and literal sense) tone.

In summary (in case I was in any way vague) I loved this audiobook.

Infinite Days – Rebecca Maizel

Infinite Days – Rebecca MaizelInfinite Days by Rebecca Maizel
Narrator: Justine Eyre
Series: Vampire Queen #1
Published by Tantor Media on 8/25/10
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult

Book: C+
Narration: B-

I found the premise of this novel to be an interesting take (as over-used a phrase as that is) on vampire mythology and the YA paranormal genre and I wanted to like this book but in the end, I didn’t so much dislike it as it simply left me indifferent. It was a unique premise that ultimately failed me in the execution.

Lenah Beaudonte has been a vampire for just under 600 years and is the queen of the most powerful vampire coven in existence. In Maizel’s mythology, the vampire is a soulless being whose body has been sealed by black magic into an unchanging state. Emotions and senses for a vampire have narrowed down to acute vision, an enhanced sense of smell, and a sort of E.S.P. – all of which aid the vampire in hunting down prey. Their sense of touch is almost non-existent and a vampire’s emotional palette is limited to pain and suffering on a seemingly constant basis. After tiring of a life of endless pain and increasingly reckless behavior, Lenah learns her creator (a vampire named Rhode) has discovered the secret ritual for removing the vampire curse. She coerces him into performing the ritual for her and after a 100-year hibernation Lenah wakes up as a 16 year-old human. Rhode advises her to immerse herself in her reborn human existence and avoid anything that might bring her to the notice of her coven. Thus begins her life as a student at Wickham Boarding School with the requisite boyfriend, best friend, and mean girls included.

My primary frustration with this audiobook was that I didn’t feel enough narrative tension. Although the threat of discovery by Lenah’s coven is a thread introduced early on, it never becomes more than a vague possibility until about two hours before the end. Lenah herself has some interesting characteristics but only in an objective sense. I admired the creepiness factor of Lenah habitually identifying the location and quality of the veins in the people she first meets as a human but only in a . o 0(that was a nice perspective for the author to include) manner rather than being actually creeped out. With little in the way of the vampire mythology or world-building revealed until the end, I had to rely solely on engaging with the characters in the story and I had a distinct lack of empathy, sympathy or connection of any kind with them because with the exception of Lenah, they are almost all cardboard cut-outs with little to no background information or insight into their thoughts or daily life. The only other character with a somewhat fleshed-out background turned out not to be the love interest and faded away for the middle of the story.

Lenah’s relationship with Justin, the hunky and wealthy LaCrosse player that every girl on campus admires, didn’t give me a warm romantic glow or even a hot sexy blaze.  Other than his having three brothers, nice parents, and love of adrenaline, I know nothing about him. I didn’t get any real idea as to what draws him so strongly to Lenah or why a girl/woman with 592 years of life experience is so entranced by this young man/boy.  I know the intent was to make the attraction on Lenah’s part tied in to how Justin has the ability to bring out her human side and the reduction of Lenah’s vampire senses as her humanity asserted itself made for a nice plot construct but the descriptions of the events that trigger these changes (bungee jumping and the single sex scene in the book) didn’t convey a sense of excitement, wonder, or life-changing drama.

I should reiterate that although I mostly have complaints about this book, it isn’t a bad book: It just didn’t reach me on anything other than an analytical level which is not what I look for in my entertainment listening. I did find that the last two hours of the story really picked up the pace and held my interest. Danger, a new location, a bit more emotional insight into Lenah and a greater knowledge of her coven helped engage me but by then it was too late to save my overall impression of the book.

I’ve experienced Justine Eyre’s narration skills previously with Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter series and enjoyed it immensely. I initially thought this an odd match between narrator and genre/book and I still feel it was not the ideal casting choice. I’ve always felt that the tenor of Ms. Eyre’s  voice is more suited to mature characters and in one respect that worked surprisingly well for Lenah, given her 500+ years of existence and experience. Where it didn’t succeed for me was in the moments of Lenah’s great life-changing events. The vocal inflections she gives Lenah at each one was more “how odd that happened” rather than conveying any real sense of awe or transformation.  In addition, I often heard a tone of ennui in Lenah’s voice which again, was appropriate for the character given her history but which also aggravated my sense of disconnection with the character. Lenah’s English accent worked well for me although I had an unintentional moment of amusement when Lenah was describing light emanating from her palms. She described it as shining from her very pores which, with the English accent, sounded like “paws” and I found myself wondering when we had switched from vampires to werewolves. Not a bad narration but, to my mind, miscasting.

A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan

A Long, Long Sleep by Anna SheehanA Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan
Narrator: Angela Dawe
Published by Brilliance Audio, Candlewick on 8/9/11
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult

I stumbled upon the audiobook of A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan (narrated by Angela Dawe) by chance and am glad of it because I found it to be a compelling listen. It is one of those audiobooks that my mind kept returning to days after I had finished it. It falls in the genre of YA Dystopian fiction (although it could also be termed speculative fiction or soft sci-fi) but is very different from any in that category that I have read and is my favorite read in the genre so far.

Rosalinda “Rose” Fitzroy is awoken (a la Sleeping Beauty) after 62 years in stasis and although the world she wakes to is a future landscape altered by plague, genetic plant modification gone awry, and the monster of UniCorp, the story is not about the Dark Times the world has undergone but about Rose, the gradual revelation of how she ended up in stasis, and an exploration of what happens to those “Sleeping Beauty” left behind during her long sleep. There were some action scenes but so much of my enjoyment with this story was the slow peeling away of the layers of Rose’s past and to reveal any of them in this review would, I feel, diminish the enjoyment of anyone who hasn’t read the book. I admire Ms. Sheehan’s ability to drop the reader into a story with a lot of unanswered questions immediately in play and let the story organically unfold in a manner much more engaging than if she had dropped clues leading to a big reveal at the end.

Rose is a character I could easily have found irritating but instead found sympathetic as she begins to grow and evolve. The flashbacks to her past are perfectly paced throughout the story and give the patient reader a growing understanding of how Rose’s character was formed. In fact, I can’t think of another novel where flashback scenes are more skillfully and less obtrusively employed. There are parts of this story that provoke the reader to consider some typical dystopian themes such as large corporations and the power they wield, genetic manipulation of plants and people, ownership of intellectual property, social infrastructure and its potential failure but at its heart I found this book to be a disquieting meditation on parenting (or rather dysfunctional parenting). It also posed a situation that made for a disturbing metaphor for parenting via medication and what that may teach a child about methods of coping.

My initial thought on the narration was that Ms. Dawe was able to stand aside and let the story speak for itself but really, I think that is a disingenuous analysis of the performance in its implication that little effort was needed/taken by the narrator. This was a very skillfully delivered audiobook. A large part of my sympathy for Rose during the beginning of the story was due to Ms. Dawe’s ability to voice Rose with the weight of her entire past present in her character, even though the listener is unaware of the events that shaped her until much later and will only subconsciously recognize the vocal characterization… or maybe I’m just trying too hard to explain that most narrators would give Rose more whine and a poor-me tone based on her circumstances at the start of the story and I’m glad that wasn’t there. The narration captures the characters’ vocal tics as described by the author and I was particularly pleased with the natural sounding voices of YA characters and the delivery of the lines that encapsulate the uncertainty and emotional exigency of youth.

Character-driven, compelling, and disquieting; this was an excellent audiobook.