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Weekly Reviews: Speculative Fiction

Today we review three thrillingly original works of speculative fiction.

Let’s start with a post-apocalyptic, dystopian debut novel. The Office of Mercy is being marketed as a Hunger Games readalike. (I’ve also seen comparisons to recent Alex Award winner, Pure). However, debut author Djanikian is more concerned with ethical questions than fast-paced action. The Alphas had good intentions — they wanted a world without suffering. What they do to maintain that world, however, sits uneasily with Natasha, our young (24-year-old) protagonist.

Next up, a mystery with elements of horror and the supernatural. The Burn Palace is an intriguing mix of smalltown character study and speculative fiction. Teens will revel in the Salem Witch Trials-like atmosphere as things go downhill in Brewster, Rhode Island. Dobyns includes dark humor too — this brings to mind the genre mixture I found in The Six-Gun Tarot last month (well, minus the western!).

The Uninvited has a cover that might inspire nightmares, but it’s perfect for the subject matter. This science fiction thriller has a bonus for teen readers — an investigator protagonist who might (as Carla mentions in her review) remind them of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

DJANIKIAN, Ariel. The Office of Mercy. 320p. Viking. Feb. 2013. Hardcover $26.95. ISBN 9780670025862.

The Office of Mercy e1361560229332 Weekly Reviews: Speculative Fiction

Adult/High School–In this coming-of-age-after-the apocalypse story, it has been 305 years since the Alphas took control of a deteriorating world by eliminating most of its 59 billion citizens and starting over in high-tech domed underground cities. Natasha lives in America-Five, where she works in the Office of Mercy. Her job is to watch the monitors that scan the Outside and put into practice the values of her society: World Peace, Eternal Life, and All Suffering Ended. To these ends, when the Office of Mercy discovers tribes living outside–remnants of the extra-settlement survivors of what the Alphas call “the Storm”–they grant them mercy by “sweeping” them in order to end their inevitable suffering. The problem is that Natasha has a hard time maintaining the necessary “Wall” in her mind that prevents her from having “Misplaced Empathy” with the tribespeople who are swept. Then one day she is assigned to a team to go Outside to mop up the stragglers from the last sweep. While there, she has an encounter with tribespeople that changes her life and her perceptions about what is true and what is right. Teens will be drawn to this compelling story that goes beyond the typical dystopia by creating a world in which there are no clear distinctions between good and evil. It is a tightly written piece of speculative fiction that poses–but doesn’t answer–questions about the ethics of survival and the far-reaching consequences that one person’s actions can have.–Sarah Flowers, formerly at Santa Clara County Library, CA

DOBYNS, Stephen. The Burn Palace. 480p. Blue Rider Press. Feb. 2013. Tr $$26.95. ISBN 9780399160875.  Burn Palace e1361560209464 Weekly Reviews: Speculative Fiction

Adult/High School–Brewster, RI, is a small, sleepy town until a baby is stolen from the neonatal unit and replaced with a corn snake. Then a visiting insurance investigator is stabbed and scalped. Soon there are competing police jurisdictions and several widely divergent lines of inquiry, at the heart of which are state troopers Woody and Bobby. How these mysteries are related to “The Burn Palace”–the nickname one of the workers gives to the local crematorium–is only revealed at the end of this wonderfully written book. The characters are well drawn, from Hercel and his “magic tricks” to Baldo and his penchant for practical jokes; from Carl Krause, suffering from lycanthropic schizophrenia, to Nurse Spandex and the many others that Dobyns introduces  as the various, seemingly disparate problems plaguing Brewster start to intertwine. As the two strongest characters, Woody and Bobby, are drawn deeper into the lives of the townspeople, their investigation encompasses the differences between coyotes and coywolves, Wicca and Satanism, and how body parts are harvested. It’s the last that leads to the thread that unravels the entire mystery. Especially interesting is the writing style, which ranges from suspenseful “you are there” passages to chapters reminiscent of the narrator from Our Town’s remote tone. The Burn Palace is a horror/mystery, blending the best of both genres and a perfect read for a dark winter evening.Laura Pearle, Venn Consultants, Carmel, NY

JENSEN, Liz. The Uninvited. 320p. Bloomsbury. Jan. 2013. Tr $25. ISBN 9781608199921.  The Uninvited e1361560248867 Weekly Reviews: Speculative Fiction

Adult/High School–Young children are turning into feral murderers, and adults, claiming to be coerced by spirits, are committing acts of industrial sabotage. At first these events seem unconnected; actually, they are all part of a DNA-level change affecting the entire planet. Readers follow the case through the über-rational lens of Hesketh Lock, a fraud investigator assigned to investigate the first acts of sabotage, whose Asperger’s Syndrome makes him uniquely suited to study the facts without distraction. As the frequency of violent acts committed by pre-pubescent children increases and Hesketh begins to understand the connections among events, the story evolves from intriguing mystery to sci-fi thriller. His close relationship with his ex-girlfriend’s seven-year-old son makes the process of accepting the truth particularly difficult, but as the reason for these dramatic changes is revealed, it finally makes sense even to Hesketh’s “…logical, rational, scientifically inclined mind.” Hesketh’s Asperger’s makes him an engaging character, reminiscent of Christopher from Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Doubleday, 2003), and readers will be drawn in by his habit of describing the things he sees through the color charts he’s memorized, and his reliance on both physically and mentally folding intricate origami structures when overwhelmed. Teens will also be intrigued by the novel’s exploration of a question many of them ponder–can the world as we know it survive?–Carla Riemer, Claremont Middle School, CA

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Angela Carstensen About Angela Carstensen

Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.

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