Ransom Riggs – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

miss-peregrines-home-peculiar_book-cover
The world has its outcasts. They often have unique talents, like creating fire out of nothing or transforming David Bowie’s music into worthwhile. This gives them power. Emma can burn you down, and Marilyn Manson has sold a lot of records. Power makes people to react to you in funny ways. Some hate you just because you’re weird, others because you’re a danger. Some follow you, either because they’re afraid or they think you’re some sort of badass God.

How the outcast manages their situation is a question for many authors to answer. After all, not all powers are the same. The hatred people have for Justin Bieber is vastly different than the hatred people have for Manson. People hated Manson because he ruined kids, told them God isn’t real and that they should remain weird. As for Justin Bieber, people hated him because girls loved him. How does this work I don’t know – maybe they were simply jealous. The X-Men series is supposed to be an exploration of this question. It’s about two factions with two different views on their position. Riggs’ novel features almost direct copies of these factions.

Now, the common platitude of “everything’s been done before!” will rear its head if you’re inexperienced in literature. That’s not how originality works. Copy a template, fine. Just fill it with different materials. For a while, Riggs is successful at that. His characters, in a way, live up to their ‘peculiar’ title. Their powers are small, often coming off as genetic defects. The levitating girl doesn’t control her levitation. She’s like a balloon and has to wear weighted shoes so she won’t slip off. The invisible person takes advantage of that, but it’s a radically different life when people can’t see you.

For a while, Riggs is interested by what being an outcast is like. Our hero is thrown into that position and everyone around him calls him mentally ill. They either feel sorry for him or reject him. He’s too confused in that position, so all he can do is shoot everyone including himself. His only solid connection is with his grandfather who’s an outcast like him. He can only connect to peculiar children like him.

There’s an interesting parable here to mental illness. Look at subreddits like Sanctioned Suicide. Many mentally ill people can only connect deeply to people in the same boat as theirs. Pro-ana communities develop their own culture and jargon. We’re so quick to judge them. X-Men was meant to parallel the struggles of LGBT people, but mental illness is different. Even with social acceptance, anorexia and suicidal thoughts and self-harm are weights people carry. Even with social acceptance, peculiar people are a minority. No amount of acceptance will give the floating girl the ability to control her power.

Too bad all these ideas are blended with a dull mix of genres. If Riggs wanted to write a multicolored story, hopping from genre to genre for fun then fine. It never feels like this. He never throws the story convincingly into the elements. There’s some conviction when he dabbles in horror. The spooky monster remains shrouded in mystery for a while, and even pushed aside for some pages. Focusing on the uncertainity of the spooky monster makes the horror aspect more convincing. Unknown things are pretty scary.

All mysteries dissolve when a character just spits out exposition. In fact, no information is actually discovered or figured out. People just hand over the answers to the questions when it’s time to advance the plot. It’s like a Game Master telling you the background and name and disposition of every NPC. The knowledge descending on your character makes it stronger, but also makes the game more boring.

The bad guys want to take over the world and subjugate humanity. That’s fine, since a lot of people in real life actually did that. Why, though? Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Caligula were real people. They had philosophies, personalities, and inner lives. They didn’t laugh maniacally when they ordered massacres but saw their vision of their bright future taking shape. The villains may view themselves as right, but we never get the philosophy behind their desire for power. The reason they want power isn’t because power is attractive, but because that makes them evil and useful antagonists.

Their disease infects all other characters, too. Very few characters have unique reactions or talk style. Some are silly quirks that can’t be taken seriously. The two rapper dudes are straight out of a horrible John Green novel. The natives of an island talk with broken English because that’s how people in the sticks must talk like. Others fare a little better, but Enoch’s cynicism is never elaborated upon.

He’s a great potential wasted. His power is to put actual hearts in material and make it kind-of alive. That’s the sort of power that leads one to view the value of life differently. He can bring back people from the dead but only halfway. He uses hearts as tools. Enoch often slides into a cynical, detached speech. Even among the peculiars he’s an outcast. Yet Riggs never expands on that. What is his philosophy? To which kids he relate to more, to which less? What kind of things did he do besides building a miniature army?

The protagonist is the worst insult to character development. Again, there are seeds of something worthwhile – a little cynicism, insecurity and pessimistic worldview that might lead to something. It plays instead like a side-quest in a cheap RPG game. Person meets dying man, dying man leaves some clues and person goes on to explore these clues to discover a bigger mystery. Video game protagonists are rarely well-written since it’s the player doing all the acting. Fifty pages or so into the novel, Jacob loses all personality and follows clues. He’s sometimes not sure whether he can do something, but the only drive for his decision is the reader’s desire to know more. There’s even a silly romance there that doesn’t pretend to be profound. Green mined the trope of weird girl loving a skinny dude who’s sure he’s ugly (despite skinny people being all over magazines), but Riggs merely puts a few make-out scenes. It’s too boring to be creeped out by the fact the girl is actually 80 years old or so.

The last pages of the book are a long-winded action scene. This is too sad to talk about, because it makes the book seem entirely worthless when it isn’t. The idea of a loop is quite brilliant. These kids may live long but they haven’t matured a bit, and here you have a chance to mediate about time. Riggs occasionally paints a pretty picture in his prose. The few paragraphs about the bombs and reset have enough to suffice for a short story. Why does he fill the last pages with chasing the bad guy, shooting people and a cliffhanger that relies on reading the rest of the trilogy?

Riggs’ prose is easy and pleasant enough. It’s fast, sometimes slides into introspection but never too much. That makes a decent story bearable. It’s not offensively boring, just kind of ‘there’. If Riggs did something wild with his ideas and failed, fine. He barely tries since it concludes in info dumps and shoot-outs. The photographs are actually real, which is cool but doesn’t add anything. Riggs intergates them by saying “here’s a photograph” and showing them. It’s like illustrations, only pictures instead. Maybe if Riggs tried to write a single short story surrounding them, he’ll have a safer but wider space to work his ideas.

It’s not a terrible book but not a great one, either. Maybe, as a distraction, it’s good enough. There are good ideas that may stick around and the prose is pleasant. Life is too short for distractions, though. If you like X-Men or stories about hidden strange worlds just beneath our own you might enjoy this. It’s too inoffensive for me to tell you to avoid, but also too unremarkable to offer it to anyone.

2 photographs out of 5

Ally Condie – Matched

matched
Describing Matched will make you run away. It’s the serious person’s worst nightmare. Think of every recent Young Adult cliche, and it’s here. Matched Is a story of an ordinary girl in an oppressive-benign society caught between the Stable Guy and Mysterious Dude. There isn’t even something underneath all these cliches to justify it. The novel doesn’t use these tropes in a new, original way.

Yet it’s charming and a pleasant read. Instead of being a chore, that type of novel that makes you visibly angry it’s fun. It’s as if someone stripped City of Bones of the overwriting and Divergent from the pretense. Matched never, for a second, pretends it’s important. It’s a band that gets on stage, kicks some catchy riffs for half an hour and gets off.

Is that worthy of praise? I don’t know. The novel’s roots are in a genre driven by meaning and depth. Dystopian literature doesn’t exist to romanticize revolutionary and shooting people. Dystopian is a genre of ideas. Matched isn’t interested in exploring its ideas even if the big organization is given a few moments to express itself. It cares more about its love story and the excitement of being a teenager.

Condie’s strength is that she never, for a second, pretends it’s anything other than a love story filled with teenage silliness. Every idea and symbol are explained, and it feels like Condie strips the wrappers to show us there isn’t a new idea here. It helps to refocus us, to remind us we’re not in here to explore the dystopia.

She can’t even come up with unique names. Her big organization is called the Society and everyone already said that its idea is basically The Giver. To her credit, it’s a better version of that book. That one was anti-communist agitprop. The Society in Matched still has plenty of inequality. Its flaws aren’t just sentimental, ‘equality makes us all boring’. It shows that in order for some people to live well, others have to sacrifice themselves.

Don’t let it fool you. These little bits are nothing like the romance which is the novel’s true purpose. Oddly, no matter how cliched it is, it’s successful. The story is focused and well-paced. Since it never pretends to be meaningful, it devotes all it sources to capturing those stupid feelings when you’re first in half.

The writing, if not unique, gets the point. There is a youthful energy and sentimentality to it. Cassia may not be developed or unique, but the writing does make her a believable teenager. In fact, the cliched ideas contribute to it. Teenagers are ignorant and their deep thoughts are often more passionate than deep. The writing has all this passion and none of the depth. Perhaps it’s an accident, but it’s fairly realistic.

Since Condie is concerned more with teenage life, the novel doesn’t punish the reader with action scenes. Action scenes rarely work in novels. They’re mostly vague descriptions about bullets flying and people screaming from pain. The story in Matched is more personal, more concerned with relationships developing and changing. That gives it a little humanity and puts it above novels like Divergent. Condie may not be able to develop these characters, but at least she treats them like human beings and let them act like ones. The novel’s focus on the characters’ emotions makes it more thrilling and engrossing than a long-winded blow-by-blow account of a fight.

It could’ve been profound, but it’s shallow. No one actually has a personality. The situation she creates rely on character interactions, though. So with enough passionate writing, she manages to create the illusion of character-driven story. At least it’s a better way to progress the story. Instead of jumping from action scene to action scene, each scene is a clear progression in the relationships.

The romance itself is the strongest part, but I’m not sure if it’s praiseworthy. Common criticism of teen romance don’t apply here. The two dudes are decent people. The mysterious guy is mysterious in a benign way. He knows more about the outside and he likes poetry, but he’s never aggressive or stalking. The love triangle almost makes sense. Cassia has a reason to be attracted to both of them since both have different, but good traits.

Is it good though? It’s fun and the youthful exciting is charming, but that’s all it has. The characters have no personality whatsoever. The world is slightly better than The Giver, but not by much. The storytelling is focused and not rambling, but it doesn’t lead to anywhere.

The charm of Matched is good enough to make it bearable. It’s a novel that takes all the YA tropes and knows how to make them work just enough. If you want a pure, silly YA novel with no depth that’s not annoying this is it. But, in a way, it feels like we’re praising the novel more for not being City of Bones.

3 dystopias out of 5

James Dashner – The Maze Runner

mazerunner
Did Dashner ever read a book? There is potential here, but for the most part the Maze Runner is a bad narration of a video game. It’s a bad idea at heart, but a talented author can narrate a Point-and-Click game and capture some of the energy. Dashner makes literature and video games collide, forgetting the strengths of either.

In a typical Adventure game, your character has no personality. Its purpose is to follow your command. You are the one experiencing things. Adventure games are one huge and colorful puzzle that are fun not only because we’re in the dark, but because we have to do the navigation. In Maze Runner, we’re also in the dark but we’re lead through it. We never make a choice.

Since literature robs the viewer of participation, it uses other techniques to make the story feel alive. The main one is, of course, developing characters. Give them a personality, wants, needs and other things that govern their behavior. We start to see people like us. We may not make the choices, but we still see choices being made.

Even when we’re playing Adventure games where we have a clear, singular purpose our personality still governs us. Our psychology influences how we approach the problems. So even if your story is a puzzle the characters solve, you need these characters developed enough to show us how they reach their choices. That’s why puzzle stories like Cube or some of the Saw films are exciting. Not only there is a mystery to solve, but we see its effect on people.

Dashner never comes close to developing his characters. His puzzle is cool enough. Mazes are badass by nature and the moving wall is a nice twist. Yet Dashner never builds a society around this, even though he has potential. He tries using some made-up slang, but it comes off as stupid. Why would they come up with another word for ‘shit’? Slang develops because there is a direct connection between the new word and the meaning, but the new word needs to add something. ‘Horrorshow’ tells us something about the society in Clockwork Orange and its obsession with violence. What does the word ‘klunk’ adds? It’s not even a useful reference for Klayton’s (AKA Celldweller’s) band. That one is spelled Klank.

A society trapped in such an odd situation should develop its own culture. Its main attributes are roughness. Dashner gives the society a structure and never explore their interaction. The Glade is fairly similar to a small military base. It has its leaders, the maintenance workers and the frontliners. The relationship between these are complex, since all roles are necessary but some are harder than others, and there are those who have a higher purpose. Some of the bosses get a few lines, but the focus is where the excitement’s at – with the runners. The job isn’t presented as too glorious, but half of the Glade is forgotten.

Not that the main characters get attention. The camera is on them, but they’re video game characters. They do what they do because it’s convenient. Trapped settings, contrary to popular beliefs, don’t limit character growth. Just because the characters only has one choice doesn’t mean they don’t have a personality. The people who vote for the only party in the country still have an opinion on it. In fact, it’s very interesting to explore the feelings of being trapped, of being confined and not having any choices. Isn’t it what’s commonly considered a fate worse than death?

The problem with Thomas isn’t that he’s a Gary Stu and extremely moral. The choices he makes are convenient to the plot, but there’s never another reason other than convenience for it. Some people are extremely moral and righteous, but if your character is like this you have to answer some questions. What does it feel like to be so moral? What drives a person to be so moral? Dashner touches on how society perceives heroes, but don’t superhero movies beat the ‘don’t trust the good guys’ shtick to the ground?

The rest of the cast does nothing. You have a bumbling friend, a girl who dispenses information, and two leaders, one rougher than the others. The only unique thing Dashner does is make the obligatory rival more understandable. There’s always a mystery surrounding it, as if all the hatred he holds isn’t just because he’s an asshole. It’s revealed there is more to it than that, but the answer is not satisfying.

At worst, this could’ve been a fun and weird adventure. As I’ve said, the setting is charming enough. Dashner cannot mine its coolness, though. The main technique he uses is withholding information. In fact, Dashner is so in love with this technique the characters use it, too. Pages and pages consists of people refusing to answer Thomas’ questions, and why? They admit being just as confused as he was the first time. It’s not like the setting is complex. Yet everytime Thomas asks a question, they answer with ‘shut up!’. I know they’re teenagers, but they’re teenagers who built society in a weird pseudo-dystopia.

It’s a shame, because Dashner occasionally creates a sense of mystery. Besides moving walls, there are steel plates with writing on them, an invisible hole and a carefully constructed facility. It’s obvious someone’s in control of the whole thing, and Dashner should’ve played on it. He should’ve made the Creators do more things, affect the setting more. There’s something unnerving about being trapped in a place where the people in control don’t want to kill or torture you. Dashner never plays on that.

He spends most of the time telling us things we already know. That’s a weird way of withholding information, but it’s still a bad technique. Dashner’s prose is often annoying. At worst, authors of such Young Adult books have minimalist prose without bullshit. Condie and Roth may not be great prose stylist, but they never ramble. The prose here feels unedited, with explanations accompanying every line of dialogue. Why is that?

The book only survives on its charm. The ending and the setting are imaginative enough. With Dashner’s dead prose and non-existent characterization, I doubt he will build on the potential here. Slightly better authors than him fell in the sequels. I still have hope, but that’s my demon.

2 mazes out of 5