Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Unwanteds (Lisa McMann)

The Unwanteds
(The Unwanteds series, Book 1)
Lisa McMann
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In the harsh land of Quill, where barbed wire stretches across the sky and great walls defend against jealous enemies, only the strong survive. Every year, High Priest Justine and her Governors conduct the Purge, eliminating thirteen-year-old Unwanteds lest they become a disruptive influence and a drain on dwindling natural resources. Though both twin brothers Aaron and Alex Stowe committed the creative crime of drawing in the dirt, only Alex is shackled and sent to the Lake of Boiling Oil beyond Quill's gates. Alex doesn't want to believe his own brother reported the infraction, but there were no other witnesses... though it won't matter for long, as the dreaded Death Farmer awaits him and his fellow Unwanteds.
Beyond the walls of Quill, however, Alex and the others find something quite unexpected. The "Death Farmer" Mr. Today is no monster, but a wizard. He created the colorful domain of Artimé as a haven for Unwanteds, teaching them the forbidden arts of singing, dancing, and more - along with powerful magic channeled through their talents. Everything the children thought they knew about the world and Quill turns out to be wrong... but the danger of discovery is more real than ever, and the magic they learn may well save their lives when the Quillians who wanted them dead come to finish the job.
Meanwhile, Alex's twin Aaron's future in Quill seems secure, his rise through the ranks swift. If only he could forget about his brother - and his strange, haunting dreams that Alex is still alive...

REVIEW: The cover likens this series to The Hunger Games meeting Harry Potter, a not entirely inaccurate summary, though for me it falls a little short of the mark. Quill seems modeled on modern-day North Korea more than Panem, with an isolated dictatorship actively encouraging citizens to rat each other out for the glory of the state (and personal survival, as water supplies continue to dwindle), while many aspects of Today's realm of Artimé feel sillier than anything Rowling concocted for Hogwarts. Perhaps the silliness is meant as a counterweight to the grimness of Quill (and later sections where actual death is on the table, not the faked version of the Purge), but it starts to strain credulity in too many places. One of the core main characters, Meghann, was branded Unwanted over an infraction for singing and dancing... but how would she even know what either was in Quill, where all forms of artistic expression are outlawed? This isn't the only thing the kids seem awfully familiar with that they really shouldn't be, given their origins. The narration, perhaps to skirt around such flaws, tends to drift into omniscient, despite often hopping into a character's thoughts (then zooming out just so the audience isn't privy to important conversations.) Maybe it's because of this style, but I had a hard time connecting with McMann's characters, whose motivations sometimes seemed to come and go out of the blue. Alex in particular seems bound and determined to be stupid and mess things up, and I grew increasingly exasperated by his inability to figure out very simple things. Aaron, on the other hand, quickly establishes himself as a cunning social climber, every inch the ideal Wanted in Quill. The two sides of this story - the whimsical Artimé, with its talking statues and its flying tortoises and its "squirrelicorns" (squirrels with unicorn horns) and "platyprots" (rather useless platypus/parrots) and obnoxious sapient blackboards, and the bleak Quill, with its barbed-wire sky and paranoia and obsession with killing off its own populace - just never quite seem to click together like they should. A climactic confrontation at the end becomes a mess, wherein it's hard to figure out just who resolved what issues, though at least it's not entirely clean-handed - there is death dealt out here, not always by the enemy and not always on what one may deem honorable terms. Since this is the first in the series, though, certain characters are guaranteed safe passage, even if all of them (even the bad guys) are not the same people as they were at the start. (I also took issue with the misleading cover: the statue Simber is described in the text as a winged cheetah, and the cover quite clearly depicts a lion. There's no mistaking a cheetah for a lion, even in stone. And the fact that this bugged me shows just how irritable I was growing by the end.) Overall, despite some promising pieces and an interesting setup, I just plain felt disappointed by the execution here.

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