Sunday, September 15, 2013

Grave Mercy

We were asked as a class to assign a genre to the YA novel, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers.   The choices we were given were Fantasy and Historical.  When it came time for me to vote, I was very frustrated because I did not want to vote for either of those choices.  Why?

Because for me, Grave Mercy was clearly a romance novel.  Certainly it was set in a historical time period and had a number of paranormal elements, but at its core, I felt this was more a romance than anything else.  In fact, if this were marketed for an adult audience, I believe it would have been placed in the romance section, rather than in fantasy or even historical fiction.

Having said that, I would be more likely to label it historical romance than paranormal romance, which is what led me to choose the genre of historical novel, rather than fantasy/paranormal.  The history flavors every page, the plot line is woven with political intrigue, and we have a hero and a heroine who warily circle around each other, uncertain whether they can trust the other.  They worry about betrayal to be certain, but they also struggle against trusting the other with their heart.
At its core, the story is about love and trust.  Our heroine learns much about herself and essentially grows up through the course of this novel, which helps to place it in the YA genre, but truthfully, it would fit quite neatly amidst any number of historical romances on the shelves today.

I don’t think the cover art influenced me either way, nor did the jacket copy because I began reading this story expecting one thing and ended up with something else entirely.  It truly was the story itself that led me to my conclusion.  The jacket copy led me to believe this would be a historical novel embedded with political intrigue.  The cover made me think “kick-ass heroine-assassin” and I was several hundred pages in before I finally clued in to the fact that I was basically reading a historical romance.

I think the beautiful thing about the YA market right now is that it transcends genre.  People who affiliate themselves with one genre (mystery, romance, sci-fi, etc.) end up reading books outside of “their” genre because YA does not really attempt to classify its novels.  You end up with a mish-mash of genres, which in many ways, enriches the stories we read.  I think YA offers writers the opportunity to write those cross-genre novels that they’ve always wanted to write.  That paranormal-mystery-western-romance that’s been plaguing them for years.  Set it up as a YA novel and you have an instant market.

Does genre matter?  I think genre only matters in the mind of the reader.  The industry has created an expectation for what a mystery novel will contain.  It has created that expectation of the happily-ever-after in romance.  What expectation is there in YA?  We certainly expect a great story.  And if there’s a girl on the cover in a long flowing gown, we expect a bit of romance, even if she is carrying a crossbow.

Ultimately though, a well-written story that defies genre may go further in the YA market than in the adult one.  It’s what I love about YA.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Unwinding Unwind

I ended the novel Unwind by Neal Shusterman with only one certainty - that despite my compulsion to finish the book, I would not be recommending it to ANYONE.  Trying to figure out why has been a struggle.  Why, if it was such a compelling read, do I not also feel compelled to recommend it to others?


In the end, I think it came down to the underlying main idea or theme of the novel, which in my opinion centered on the value and nature of both life and death.  For much of the novel, the reader understands that unwinding is death.  Proponents of unwinding couch it in politically correct terms, claiming that those unwound will continue to live in an altered state.  We as the readers, however, understand that this is simple posturing, a justification that has no basis in reality or fact.  We are rooting for the children of this novel, whether that child is a tithe, a ward of the state or a bully, because we understand that at their core, each child is a potential victim.

Although the author poses a number of questions and seems not to provide any answers, the reader is guided by the narrative toward an understanding that those who support unwinding are either misguided or self-serving or evil.  The concept of storking on the surface may seem acceptable, but once we have been exposed to its dark side, we understand it is yet another corrupt facet of this society.  We understand, perhaps even more clearly than the protagonists of this novel, that children are being killed in this world - not unwound - but murdered for their parts.  We understand that the harvesting of organs, tissue and body parts is clearly big business, just as we understand that those who have been unwound are no longer alive, in any sense of the word.

As a result, the themes of this novel completely break down for me in the culminating scene with Embry and the admiral.  When I am suddenly witness to a scene with hundreds of people acting as one body, providing the admiral and his wife with one final moment with their son, my entire understanding of life and death, at least as they occur within this society, have been turned around.  I am left with a foul taste in my mouth as I wonder - has the author just proven the enemy’s point?
I am complete aghast that I am now witness to the “altered state” proponents of unwinding have been spouting all along.  The fact that each body part somehow retains the memory of its original owner does nothing to alleviate the horror of the unwinding process.  However, I am still undeniably disturbed that the counselor’s final words to Roland were somehow true ones:  “You’re not dying — you’ll still be alive, just in a different way.”

I honestly believe that this novel was attempting to accomplish too much.  First, we are treated to a society that has gone to extremes when dealing with issues like abortion.  There are convoluted (and at times completely unrealistic) laws regarding storking, tithing and unwinding.  Questions regarding the soul and life after death are raised.  And no real answers are ever given.  Perhaps this is the strength of the novel, though for me, it is its ultimate weakness.  All kinds of questions are raised and we think we have our answers, at least in light of the unwinding and what it is truly accomplishing (spare parts for the wealthy and death for those unwound) and then we are slammed with the truth - Wow.  The unwinds really are still alive in an altered state.

In the end, I am left wondering what will happen to Embry after his unwind’s brithday celebration - will he get to go back to being Embry?  Even worse, I am left with the disturbing image of Conor with Roland’s zombie-arm (after all, if it still retains a part of Roland’s consciousness, even if it’s only skin-deep, what else can it be but a zombie?)

The result is that I am convinced that the themes of life and death that are pervasive in this novel have been undermined completely by the author’s unexpected decision to turn this unique concept into yet another zombie story (though I suppose it could be argued that zombie stories are masters at death themes… and yet).