Tag Archives: dystopian fiction

The Severed Tower: Review and Giveaway

26 Nov

Today’s book review is for The Severed Tower, by J. Barton Mitchell, published by St. Martin’s Press. I received this book directly from the publisher, for free, in exchange for an honest review. I also received an extra copy, which I’ll be giving away in a raffle. Keep reading after the review for details on how to enter to win.

The Severed Tower book cover

The Severed Tower is the second novel in J. Barton Mitchell’s Conquered Earth series. Earlier this month, I reviewed the first book of the series, Midnight City. The second installment didn’t let me down.

The book picks up with Holt, Mira, Zoey and Max journeying to the the Severed Tower in the center of the Strange Lands so that Zoey can fulfill the prophecy revealed to her by the Oracle. They know that reaching the tower will be difficult, but it proves to be more than they expected. To begin with, the Strange Lands, a dangerous region where the laws of physics don’t always apply, seems to be expanding. Then, the Assembly aliens, who usually avoid the Strange Lands, continue their pursuit of Zoey. At the same time, the pirate group that has a bounty on Holt arrives on the scene. And as the team gets closer to the tower, Zoey grows progressively weaker. Fortunately they’ll find unexpected help along the way: Mira’s old Freebooter associates, the White Helix (a cult that reveres the Strange Lands), a reluctant Menagerie team, and even a mysterious Assembly walker who has been stripped of its colors. Will it be enough? Holt and Mira don’t know, but they’re willing to sacrifice everything to ensure that Zoey reaches the Severed Tower–not just to fulfill their promise to her, but because they’re starting to believe that she just might be the key to overthrowing the Assembly once and for all.

As before, Mitchell has crafted an action-packed novel that keeps you on your toes from beginning to end. Since that was one of the things I loved about Midnight City, I was pleased to see that the pacing didn’t suffer from the sequel slump. Instead, he presented even more sources of danger to keep readers on the edge of their seat. I especially loved the introduction of the Anomalies in the Strange Lands, which were presented as puzzles that could kill. They definitely added a new level of suspense, especially since their appearance was unpredictable.

I also liked how Holt and Mira were forced to confront their pasts–and how it brought old weaknesses and self-doubt to the surface. They could easily have ridden high on the confidence of their victory at Midnight City. Instead, we were given more opportunity to see complex emotions and character development. By introducing people from their pasts, Mitchell also provided the audience a window onto why they behave as they do. And I especially liked the parallel development, that Holt and Mira are both confronting their issues at the same time.

Most of all, I enjoyed getting some more points of view in the narration. The first book was mostly from the perspective of Holt and Mira. Technically, this one might have been, too. However, this time we got much more from Zoey, as well as sections told from the perspective of the Assembly Hunter, Avril (from the White Helix), and an Assembly walker called “Ambassador”. This inclusion of more perspectives helped to flesh out Mitchell’s Conquered Earth world even more.

There were a couple of minor issues with the book. First, there were some flashback chapters that I found a bit jarring. The first time that I encountered one, I wasn’t sure what was going on–if it was the result of a Strange Lands anomaly or what. They could have been set up a little more effectively, so that readers didn’t have to expend so much energy trying to figure it out (since there are so many more interesting things to speculate about). Second, I was a little unsure about how well the book stands alone. As someone who enthusiastically read and enjoyed the first novel in the series, I was able to follow along with no problem. Names, place, and terms specific to the series were already familiar. I do think that people who haven’t read the first book will be able to read and enjoy this one; I just wonder if it might be a bit confusing at times. It’s always a challenging situation, though. Too much rehashing alienates established fans, too little alienates new readers.

Overall, I loved it. I’m a fan of the blending of dystopia, sci-fi and fantasy elements. I like the themes of alien invasion, survival, friendship, social organization, and morality. It’s not only one of the most unique stories I’ve read, it’s also one of the most exciting. The Severed Tower earns 4 stars and my enthusiastic encouragement that you get out there and read it, so I have someone with whom to discuss it!

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads. And, if you have a US or Canadian shipping address, you can enter to win a copy of your very own!

Click the following link to find out how to enter: a Rafflecopter giveaway



21 Nov

Today’s book review is for Contaminated by Em Garner, published by Egmont USA. I received an electronic copy of this text from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Contaminated book cover

Contaminated is a novel for young adults and teens, set in a dystopian near-future. When a trendy diet drink started to turn people into shambling, murderous creatures unable to control their impulses, society starts to crumble. Luckily the government is able to step in to round up those who have been contaminated and neutralize the problem–the first step to getting back on track. Since the contamination, 17-year old Velvet Ellis has been juggling school, work, and parenting her little sister, Opal. Then, after months of searching, Velvet finally finds her mother at one of the “kennels” for the contaminated, and her life is turned upside down again. She’s told that her mom will never recover from what happened, but it’s not long before Velvet starts to question that assertion. Is it just foolish hope, or can the contaminated improve? And will she be able to hold her family together when the world seems to be doing everything in its power to tear them apart once more?

I have to say, Garner has come up with an incredibly compelling plot. As soon as I read the book synopsis I was eager to request a review copy. Not only was it an interesting twist on the zombie trope, it also pulled in the moral questions of dystopia. Heck, there was even a little jab at diet culture and consumerism. What’s not to love? Unfortunately, quite a lot.

First, the pace was ploddingly slow. From the description, it sounds like the sort of book that would have a lot of action and intrigue–but it doesn’t. Very little actually happens. I was halfway through the book when I had the realization that nothing really significant had happened. Then, I realized that all of the cool-sounding plot stuff wasn’t the primary story. The primary story was the story of an adolescent, Velvet, having to grow up before she was ready–learning how to navigate the world of adulthood. She spends most of her time worrying about laundry, the food budget, keeping her sister in school, how to support her family, all while caring for a mother who has essentially the same problems as a patient recovering from a major stroke. It wasn’t a bad story–it just wasn’t the one that was advertised.

Then there was the problem of Velvet. The entire story is told in first person from her point of view. The problem with this is that Velvet isn’t all that interesting or likable as far as narrators go. She’s too flat, too catty, too irritating. Fortunately I liked Opal and I was interested to discover what would happen with their mother. Otherwise, I’m not sure I could have tolerated the narrative voice. Velvet’s inner monologue is incredibly redundant and exceedingly boring. That’s because, as mentioned earlier, she spends a lot of time thinking about mundane things. She’s also so judgmental and catty that when other characters are hostile toward her it’s hard to feel much sympathy. I think it’s supposed to be an indication that she’s hardened by the trauma of her experiences, but it read as mere pettiness.

Here’s the thing, though. In the last hundred pages or so, stuff started to get interesting. New cases of contamination started to appear. The media started to shut down. Soldiers and police started asserting more control. And even though Velvet was still focused on her family, it raised a lot of questions for the reader. Then, it ended before any of those questions were answered.

So, even though there were some problems with this book, I’m hoping that there will be a sequel. I don’t really care about what happens to Velvet, but I do want to know more about the world she’s living in. Which means I’m giving Contaminated 3 out of 5 star rating. Because, for all that I didn’t like about it, I still liked it enough to want to read more.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.

External Forces First Chapter Reveal

8 Nov

Today I am pleased to have the opportunity to share the prologue and first chapter of External Forces, by Deborah Rix. Last month I posted a 4 star review of the book. Since then I’ve been talking with the author about her research, her publishing experience, publicity, and life in general. One of the things I love about reviewing books is that sometimes I stumble upon a work that I really believe in–and I can help to share it with the world. If the chapter reveal piques your interest, keep watching the blog for a follow-up interview with the author, and information about a giveaway.

Treason, betrayal, and heartbreak.

A lot can happen to a girl between her first kiss and her first kill.

It’s 100 years since the Genetic Integrity Act was passed and America closed its borders to prevent genetic contamination. Now only the enemy, dysgenic Deviants, remain beyond the heavily guarded border. The Department of Evolution carefully guides the creation of each generation and deviations from the divine plan are not permitted.

When 16-year-old Jess begins to show signs of deviance she enlists in the Special Forces, with her best friend Jay, in a desperate bid to evade detection by the Devotees. Jess is good with data, not so good with a knife. So when the handsome and secretive Sergeant Matt Anderson selects her for his Black Ops squad, Jess is determined to figure out why.

As her deviance continues to change her, Jess is forced to decide who to trust with her deadly secret. Jess needs to know what’s really out there, in the Deviant wasteland over the border, if she has any hope of making it to her 17th birthday. Because if the enemy doesn’t kill her first, the Department of Evolution probably will.

External Forces book cover Title: External Forces
Author: Deborah Rix
Publisher: Dime Store Books
Pages: 268
Language: English
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction
Format: eBook and Paperback

Purchase at Amazon


I haven’t slept in forty-eight hours.

It’s part of the Special Operations Assessment and Selection course, twenty-eight days of grueling work. The two days of no sleep are meant to disorient us, part of discarding our former selves. There are three hundred of us trying to figure out how to do what we’re told, when we’re told to, and how to do it correctly. Jay and I weren’t assigned to the same platoon, which was unexpected. I’m in the “civilian” platoon; we’re the ones with skills that don’t generally require brute force. I think Jay is in some kind of elite group because I haven’t seen him, I’ve only seen the G-men platoon. They are all about brute force; they’re the ones that opted for genetic enhancement at age thirteen without the supervision of the Devotees. But Special Forces is, well, special, so they have to prove they’ve got more than muscle and I’ve gotta prove I’ve got more than a quick mind.

If I don’t make it to Special Forces, my life expectancy in the regular army could be pretty short. And if I’m a complete washout, I’ll have to go to my assessment with the Devotees and they’ll find out about me, making my life expectancy even shorter. I seriously need to pass.

Zero dark thirty is when I have to haul myself out of bed in the so-called morning. My drill sergeant has been yelling at me for most of the past two days. The word “why” has been surgically removed from everyone’s vocabulary. Any individual hesitation in following orders means at least one private is getting smoked, if not the whole platoon, which usually means push-ups. We’ve done a lot of push-ups. I stare straight ahead as the drill sergeant walks by me and continues down the row of privates. I made the mistake of “eyeballing” him yesterday.

Never. Eyeball. A drill sergeant.

First Chapter:

Continue reading

Midnight City

6 Nov

Today’s book review is for Midnight City, the first book in the Conquered Earth series by J. Barton Mitchell, published by St. Martin’s Press. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, through the Goodreads First Reads program, in exchange for an honest review. The second book in the series, The Severed Tower, is scheduled to be released later this month.

Midnight City is a science-fantasy novel set in a dystopian future where aliens have conquered earth. When the aliens invaded, they were able to subdue the human population through the use of a strong telepathic signal called the Tone. However, the signal only works on people once they’ve reached adulthood. The result is that children have organized themselves into a new society, doing what they can to survive until they finally succumb to the Tone. The story follows Holt Hawkins, a loner bounty hunter, whose only companion is his dog Max. But when Holt and his target, wanted treasure hunter Mira Toombs, discover a young girl in a crashed Assembly ship, his life is turned upside down. As the three companions make their way to Midnight City, they must evade feuding alien armies, deal with pirates, and escape mutants. Meanwhile the mysterious young girl, Zoey, starts to display amazing powers that just might be the key to defeating the Assembly once and for all. Holt must decide: is he going to continue to go it alone–or will he work with his newfound companions for something greater than mere survival?

Mitchell’s debut novel starts in the middle of action and never relents. It is a fast-paced and gripping story that I didn’t want to put down. The plot and pacing were both masterfully executed. And, yet, for as much action as there is, there are some wonderfully executed characters. Not only do they feel dynamic and real, but they also grow over the course of the story. It’s nice to see that sort of development in a work that is so heavy on plot and action.

I was especially drawn in by Mitchell’s world building. I loved the empty landscapes, the crumbling remnants of civilization, and the strange new settlements built by the surviving children. I liked the descriptions of the Assembly, cloaked in spindly-legged walkers, true forms always obscured. Even the descriptions of the Strange Lands, which are never visited in the course of this novel, still pop with life and energy. This world is broad and complete–especially the descriptions of the expansive cave metropolis known as Midnight City.

This is a compelling young adult read with elements of dystopia, science fiction, and fantasy. It explores themes of alien invasion, survival, friendship, social organization, and morality, among others. Although the descriptions of the aliens were reminiscent of War of the Worlds, the overall story is refreshingly original. I give it 4 out of 5 stars for being such a strong and engaging novel. I can’t wait to read the sequel.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.

Book Review: External Forces

6 Oct

Today’s book review is for External Forces, by Deborah Rix, published by Dime Store Books. I received an electronic copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

External Forces is the first installment in the new teen dystopian science fiction series “The Laws of Motion.” It’s been 100 years since the United States passed the Genetic Integrity Act and closed its borders. Genetic deviants now roam outside the borders, but within the Department of Evolution guides the creation of each generation. So when 16-year-old Jess Grant discovers that she is starting to display signs of deviation, she decides to enlist in the Special Forces with her best friend, Jay, to avoid detection. Although Jess is amazing with data, she’s got lousy combat skills, so she’s surprised to be recruited to Black Ops by handsome Sargeant Matt Anderson. Resolved to discover why, Jess builds friendships, unravels mysteries, develops a romance, faces betrayal, and questions everything she’s been taught–all while struggling to hide the frightening changes taking place within her own body.

Rix has crafted a truly gripping tale. The first night that I started reading, I stayed up far beyond my usual bedtime telling myself that I’d sleep as soon as I finished “one more page,” “the end of this chapter,” “once I see what happens with x.” That, I suppose, is what is meant when people say that a book was a real page turner.

First, let’s look at the world building here. When I’m reading a story set in a dystopian future, it’s important that that future be plausible. After all, what gives these types of stories power isn’t absurdity, but rather that you can believe them. Rix wrote a future that I could easily envision as a reality. As each new element was introduced, I was able to connect it to current world events and track the path from point A to B. Economic collapse, influenza pandemics, crop failures, natural disasters–she draws upon the anxieties that currently plague us to build a bleak future.

The choice to tell this story from the point of view of 16-year-old Jess is perfect. Jess is someone who has been a part of this society since birth, so she can offer the perspective of an insider. Yet, at the same time, she is an outsider like the audience–genetically impure and on the brink of discovering what the world is like underneath the propaganda. I like Jess. She’s so human. For all of her unique powers and abilities, she’s still insecure, doubtful, irrational, short-sighted, clumsy, and distrustful.

Which brings me to the romance subplot… it’s the one aspect of the book that I just can’t make up my mind about. At times I found it really irritating. Other times, I found it perfectly reasonable that a teenage girl would spend so much time obsessing over a boy. Ultimately, I think that it wouldn’t have bothered me so much if the romance element hadn’t taken up so much space in the story. There was a lot of fluff in there that didn’t really add much to the plot or to character development.

Still, Rix does do an excellent job at populating her world with a diverse cast of developed characters. She’s got plenty of strong women who can hold their own, whether they’re snipers, pilots, medics, or politicians. Jess’s best friend is gay. There are characters with roots in ethnic minority communities. There’s no doubt that this book passes the Bechdel test–sure, sometimes the female characters talk to each other about men; they also talk about shooting guns, data retrieval, science, treason and prophecy. Nearly all of the characters acted in ways contrary to my expectations at one point or another. And I liked that. Because it made them feel more human and less like stock characters.

I’m particularly glad that this is just the first book in a series, because the narrative ended rather abruptly. Of course, I expected that there would be plenty of unanswered questions to set the stage for the second volume. It’s just that when I thought I had come to the end of the penultimate chapter, I discovered that I had actually come to the end of the book. (The fact that I didn’t expect quite so much end matter might have influenced this impression, since I saw that I still had several pages left in the book). Since then, I’ve revisited the ending and decided that it’s not as bad as I thought it was on first impression–but for many readers, that first impression is the only impression. On the positive, it certainly leaves you hungry for more.

Great books manage to entertain us, while simultaneously challenging us. In this debut novel, Rix dislays her capacity to do both. External Forces is a complex and intriguing read for teen readers. There are some graphic depictions of violence, so I recommend it for mature readers. I’m giving it 4 out of 5 stars, and won’t be at all surprised if her second volume earns full marks. Rix has raised the bar for YA indie authors.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.