There is no shortage of Feminist power fantasies these days. In fact, I read one such novel back before COVID broke out: part one of Suzanne Young’s Girls With Sharp Sticks trilogy. It was good, but it was so generic and predictable, I’d rather not spend my time finishing it, because I figured a better Feminist power fantasy would come up. Sure enough, that happened in 2021, when Xiran Jay Zhao published their debut novel: Iron Widow.
In Iron Widow, we are taken to an alternate version of China, set hundreds of years in the past but with futuristic technology (what is this, Star Wars?). The alien menace known as the Hundun threatens the nation of Huaxia. Fight fire with fire, as they say, and by “fire”, I mean they build Gundams out of defeated Hundun. These mechs, known as Chrysalis, must be piloted by a male and female team. However, unlike those anime where the mech is powered by sex, the Chrysalises are powered by sexism, and the woman pilot more-often-than-not can’t handle the strain of her husband’s qi. Wu Zetian’s older sister was killed, not in battle, but murdered by her husband Yang Guang. Naturally, Zetian voluntarily sells herself to him just for an opportunity to murder him. What could possibly go wrong?
Unlike Blood Like Magic, the disclaimer at the beginning is fully needed. No, that’s an understatement. The only other book this viscerally brutal that I read was Legendborn, and even then, the searing social commentary was only prevalent like 60% of the time. In Iron Widow, every page is a reminder of the twisted world in the book, not too different from the twisted world that men created. I won’t spoil anything more about this aspect of Iron Widow’s worldbuilding, but just know it’s beyond brutal.
The main draw with Iron Widow is the very anime-inspired SF world, versus Girls With Sharp Sticks’ nothing. Zhao did their homework with this one, that’s for sure. The terms are easy to follow, and there isn’t an overabundance of Things That Have Common Nouns With Capital Letters As Their Names. I admit that I was enthralled by the mechs, especially Guang’s, which is a kyubi; Zhao knows the fastest way to a weeb’s heart is to make a yokai Gundam.
The writing is great to boot. I had a great sense of 3D space and what stuff looked like. Plus the battles were spectacular, with no shortage of anime flair. Like I said before, the portrayal of sexism is unrelenting and bludgeoning, written with exquisite and tormented poetry. The only problem I had is that I couldn’t quite picture the Hundun. They seemed to be a generic robot menace, though.
Anyway, how’s the plot? Well, it’s a YA novel, so it’s predictable. However, Iron Widow manages to be one of the best YA novels of 2021 all the same. Like in Wings of Ebony, the book cuts out the fat to get to the good stuff. Exactly seventy pages in, Zetian successfully murders Guang during the first major battle. She then becomes the rare instance of an Iron Widow (title drop), which is something that is—naturally—covered up. In order to maintain control of her, she is paired with the strongest guy they got: Li Shimin, who happens to be a convicted felon. The bulk of the story is her building a relationship with Shimin, while trying to survive the system that’s so jerry-rigged against her.
Boy-o-boy, the cast is… something. Zetian is so manufactured it’s almost funny; but you know what, women get so much crap, I’m not even mad. She is as uncompromising and fierce as it gets. Nothing—and I mean NOTHING—breaks her. She’ll slander anyone who disagrees with her, and has no remorse when she murders Guang. Most of the men are one-dimensional sleazes, but like in Girls With Sharp Sticks, there’s that one likable guy. And it’s Shimin of all people. Whoda thought that the guy who’s hyped up to be a monster… isn’t? I never predicted that exact thing as soon as his name came up for the first time. Another predictable thing is Gao Yizhi. He’s the childhood friend, who spends a good portion of the book abandoned by Zetian so she can pursue her goal. However, he uses money to get into the camp, and exists as the good boy to contrast Shimin’s naughty boy. This sounds like the start of a cringy relationship, but to my pleasant surprise, these three protagonists’ relationships with one another ended up being one of the best takes of the love triangle trope I have ever seen.
Final Verdict: 9.8/10
Xiran Jay Zhao has single-handedly made me give a crap about YA novels again. Iron Widow puts them in my book as one of the most promising new writers going into this decade. My butt’s already clenched waiting for the sequel, and more importantly, the possibility that Zhao can actually follow-up. If only they would write a middle-grade novel to tide me over… oh wait, they are, and it’s coming out later this year. Anyway, Iron Widow is my favorite YA novel of 2021 (too bad it isn’t 2021 anymore so no one cares), and I highly recommend it.
My job will have fully opened by the time you read this, but at the time of this writing, it was only partially opened. This gave me the chance to squeeze in one more Western animated series while my shift is substantially reduced. But what to pick? Steven Universe was a very emotional show, and I’m still caught up on DuckTales and The Dragon Prince, waiting for new episodes. Since I didn’t find the CG of the latter to be so bad, I thought I would watch a more… (in)famous CG series: Rooster Teeth’s RWBY. Even from beneath the rock I’ve been living under, I’m aware of the heated debates that occur over this franchise. So, because I love controversial media (for some reason), I thought I’d give the show a whirl to see what the hubbub is about.
In the world of RWBY, people rely on some magic junk called Dust (which is basically Sepith from Trails of Cold Steel), and that’s their only way to fight these monsters called Grimm. One night, a girl named Ruby Rose takes on some criminals with a crazy scythe-gun, and is sought out by Ozpin, the headmaster of Beacon Academy. He decides that “you’re a wizard, Ruby!” and instantly bumps her into the prestigious school, two years in advance. There, she meets three more color-coded girls (her older sister, a tsundere, and an emo girl) and they go on adventures together.
Like with Dragon Prince, I must discuss the visuals of RWBY first and foremost. “The Dragon Prince looked great,” I thought. “RWBY shouldn’t be so bad,” I thought. Oh, how wrong I was. I understood that The Dragon Prince was made with the backing of Netflix, one of the biggest entertainment distributors in the world, and also five years after the premiere of RWBY. But even with that in mind, RWBY takes some time to get used to. While the character designs are fine, everything else about the visuals is horribly wrong. I complained about The Dragon Prince’s choppy and inconsistent frames, but RWBY showed me that the smoother framerates of its animations look more stiff, unnatural, and awkward than in The Dragon Prince.
Fortunately, the visuals improve substantially over time, with it finally looking legitimately good by season 4. The fight scenes in RWBY are when it’s at its best… sort of. The camera swings too wildly for humans to possibly keep an eye on, and it relies entirely on pure spectacle. However, as a fan of over-the-top battle shounens, I love it. The animation is at its most fluid and impactful here. Also, the show is truly anime for one reason: everything is a gun. Scythes, gauntlets, even suitcases; they’re all guns.
To be honest, the visuals served to make RWBY one of the funniest battle shounen I have ever experienced. The humor was legitimately on point in the show, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they had influence from the best of Weekly Shounen Jump. It’s the kind of stupidity that I’ve grown to love ever since I started reading manga all those years ago. The awkward movements made it even funnier for some reason.
However, despite the anime influences, RWBY is still a Western fantasy, and a modern one at that. And if you couldn’t tell, it is qualified to fall into the Harry Potter knockoff category. In the early seasons, the plot is mind-numbingly simple, with typical gag-shounen-meets-school-drama antics coupled with some YA awkwardness; a very difficult combination of tropes to get used to.
Being a modern fantasy, RWBY does another common thing: making its world an overly obvious mirror to our society, i.e. racism. The people who get targeted for discrimination are the Faunus. They are essentially furries, which ironically, adds another layer of social commentary. Anyway, the big problem with the Faunus is the White Fang, a terrorist organization that has resorted to rather… harsh methods of ending racism (which isn’t at all ten times more relevant in 2020 for any specific reasons). Honestly… I didn’t really care much for this line of narrative. It’s a topical topic for a reason, but this is one of the things I enjoyed The Dragon Prince for not having. I like adventure fantasies the best, and there really aren’t enough of them in this day and age.
Like any gag shounen, RWBY inevitably makes the transition to a more serious and plot-driven story. However, it’s not that simple. During production of the third season, the original creator of RWBY tragically passed away. The rest of the team has been carrying on with the series since, but it’s at this point where the show became the divisive debate-starting show it is today. It makes a transition that’s extremely risky for the genre: from gag shounen to straight-up seinen.
There are a couple of issues with this. One is that the transition is not at all organic. Normally, most shounen start out with short arcs, some of which last only one volume. Then, an arc goes for two volumes to make the reader think, “Finally, they’re actually doing something substantial with these characters and ideas.” Then, there’s an arc that’s really long and is generally considered the best, followed by a unanimously hated slog to the end. I get that not all battle shounen are like this, and RWBY definitely does not follow this pattern either (but in a bad way). There is a very visible instant in which the show completely changes with no build-up whatsoever: Season 3 Episode 6. After that, it packs on the emotional baggage to no end, and it becomes very hard to take seriously if you’re not super-emotional.
Also, Eastern angst and Western angst are two completely different things, and if you’ve read any of my YA novel reviews, you’d know I don’t entirely enjoy the latter’s company. While a lot of edgy stuff from Japan can tackle some uncomfortable themes with surprising elegance (Chainsaw Man, Torture Princess, Tokyo Ghoul, Monster, etc.), I’ve found a lot of the same from Western culture to be pretentious and heavy-handed. Additionally, some of the voice acting has enough gravel to pave a whole interstate highway. At the point I’m at, the few gags they do use feel jarring instead of something meant to break the ice. But in all honesty, it’s not terrible. The show is still enjoyable, and if I had liked the characters better, the feels would’ve actually struck a chord with me. However, due to the fact that it gets more and more controversial from here, I can’t guarantee that my opinion isn’t going to sway drastically in later seasons.
Regardless of the narrative, there is a somewhat great cast of characters to motivate you to keep watching. Each of the four girls are typical tropes: Ruby, ditz; Weiss, tsundere; Blake, YA protagonist; Yang, brash. But they all have genuinely good interactions with each other, and overall truly feel like a ragtag team of young’uns. They go through a lot of character development, even if it makes them come off as typical YA drama queens. Unfortunately, their fellow peers are similarly tropeish but with less… interestingness. A boy named Jaune is a typical underdog, a girl named Pyrrha is a typical hyper-justice-girl, a girl named Nora is Ruby but with a hammer, etc. Even when they all go through big emotional crises in season four, I didn’t care for any of the kids besides the four main ones.
However, the adults make up for it. My favorite character ended up being Ruby’s uncle, Crow. He’s your typical bad-ass, trollish, yet down-to-earth father figure guy, and it’s hard not to like him. There’s also a fast-talking professor named Oobleck, but he’s- sadly- a pretty minor character. Also, this one guy named James Ironwood has the best worst name (I’ll leave society’s many euphemisms to explain why).
I can’t say the same for the villains, though. As much the show really tries to do a moral ambiguity angle, the major antagonists fall under the typical Saturday morning cartoon villain category, at least up to where I’ve watched. This one swindler named Roman Torchwick is entertaining enough, but it’s not the case for the people he’s getting his fat stacks from. He reports to this woman named Cinder, who is literally Azula from Avatar. Her two minions, Mercury and Emerald, are just about as uninteresting. Cinder reports works under the true mastermind of the series, some alien(?) named Salem, but there’s not yet enough information to really say anything about her.
Before I get to my current score, I must clarify that I’m not criticizing RWBY because it stopped being what I wanted it to be; it’s just that the show felt more generic after the tone shift. I wholly understand that not everything can be original, but a lot of the content felt like it was ripped right out of How to Make Your Audiences Bleed Tears in Five Easy Steps with no finesse or variation. Compare the portrayal of the Faunus- which is the same exact allegory to American history that’s been done eleventy other times- to something like Eighty-Six. Both are commentaries on the exact same topic, but Eighty-Six does it in a way that feels much fresher than what RWBY does.
Television is also a deceptively limiting medium for visual storytelling. Once in a blue moon, you’ll have someone like Satoshi Kon who can do something interesting with film as an entertainment medium, but RWBY is not a Satoshi Kon film; a lot of it had bog-standard cinematography, such as those “hard-cut-to-black-with-some-kind-of-distressing-sound-effect-cliffhanger” techniques. I suppose I’ve been spoiled by manga, which have billions of combinations of panel layouts that all subtly contribute to the mood of a scene, or books, which can use the written word to at times convey more emotion than an image ever could. Also, Legend of Korra taught me that I should be examining television through an entirely different lens, as a lot of things I find typical are less common on TV. I’m even willing to bet that RWBY wouldn’t even have been allowed to air on network television, and could only exist as an indie program, for whatever dumb bureaucratic reason.
Current Verdict: 8.35/10
RWBY is a typical battle shounen in presentation and plot structure. It is great mindless entertainment, and I honestly don’t see why so many people take it so seriously. The food fight at the start of season two shows what I believe RWBY is at its best: over-the-top action with goofy slapstick. Unfortunately, I don’t entirely like the darker turn it took, mainly because it took it too fast. RWBY seems to be trying to be a fantasy epic on the scope of something like Trails of Cold Steel, but without the foundation that those games took time to build. Overall, the show is pretty middle-of-the-road, and I do not understand either side of the arguments with this show (but like I said, that could change). These seasons are stupid short, so I should be able to see RWBY through to the end without much hassle.
Escapist fantasy is often panned by critics and cynics as “childish crap for babies who want to avoid their real life issues.” But, you know, sometimes it’s important to just turn your brain off and stretch your neural legs in some fantasy world. The Map to Everywhere series, written by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis and published by Hachette Book Group, is just that; escapism at its finest.
On paper, Map to Everywhere is a pretty generic isekai. Marill Aesterwest is worrying about her sickly mother when she follows her cat to an abandoned drug store. In the parking lot is a magic body of water called the Pirate Stream, and she ends up going on a journey with a cool wizard guy and the unremarkable Fin to find the pieces of the Bintheyr Map to Everywhere. And even when they complete the it, that’s only the beginning.
If you couldn’t tell from the names I mentioned, the Map to Everywhere has a lot of clever word puns in it. It doesn’t stop at the words either; the multiverse of this series is one of the most imaginative that I’ve seen in a while. The Pirate Stream connects a whole mess of different worlds together, and they’re all very interesting setpieces, including an ice cap that’s so cold your breath will freeze into the words you say, and a sinking city that’s constantly reconstructing itself. Additionally, the Map itself is also more than just a couple of MacGuffins. The pieces of the Map actually have very meta functions, such as the compass rose finding other pieces, or the margins being able to hold impossible structures together.
The characters are also pretty darn good. I’ll get to Marill later, so let’s discuss Fin first. Fin is generic, but the authors twist the trope by making his genericness into a superpower; everyone he sees forgets about him. However, Marill doesn’t forget about him because… of love, I guess (their dynamic is my least favorite in the entire series). Supporting them is the wizard Ardent, shipwright Coll, and eventually the sassy Naysayer. But out of the bunch, my favorite character is Remy, introduced in the second book, City of Thirst. Remy is Arizona’s best babysitter, and she ends up tagging along on the Pirate Stream. She is the only other person who remembers Fin, and it’s simply because she’s a babysitter and not something as contrived as love.
The writing is pretty solid, with a lot of dynamic font style changes to represent different things. However, the multiverse of Map to Everywhere also shoots itself in the foot. While the setpieces are inventive and descriptive, sometimes they’re just too insane to describe in human language. One of the worst offenders is a place that has chunks of land literally getting sucked into a whirlpool, and the gravity fields there make Super Mario Galaxy look logical.
The multiverse of Map to Everywhere itself also has issues. Magic in modern fantasy often violates its established ruleset, and they end up expecting you to suspend disbelief because “it’s magic.” Map to Everywhere constantly tells you that the Pirate Stream behaves however it feels, and this enables the authors to kind of do whatever they want and get away with it.
But the biggest problem is freaking Marill! She’s not just generic, she’s also annoying. Her entire driving force in this series is to be able to cure her dying mother’s sickness, but her drive gets way out of hand. There are a lot of times where she argues with Fin over whether or not the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and it’s as contrived as heck. It only gets more ridiculous in the final book, along with an additional Mary Sue stipulation, and ultimately solidifies how much I didn’t like her.
Final Verdict: 8.5/10
The Map to Everywhere is a flawed, but fun and corny fantasy romp that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s sure a heck of a lot better than stuff like Five Kingdoms! As long as you don’t require any insightful, intellectual life message to enjoy something, then there should be no harm in picking up the Map to Everywhere series.
Before I get into this post, I should remind you that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is one of the most popular franchises in the world. And popular means marketable. Therefore, many other authors have tried to duplicate the series’ success. Some of these Harry Potter wannabe cases have resulted in book series such as Keeper of the Lost Cities and The Unwanteds, which are only appealing on extremely superficial levels. But sometimes, a little touch of a thing called “thought” can actually give a Harry Potter knock-off some of its own merits. Let’s see if that’s the case with Holly Black and Cassandra Clare’s Magisterium series, published by Scholastic.
In the modern world, magicians select random adolescents to test for magic potential. Anyone who tests positive is taken to Magisterium to learn to fight the Enemy of Death and his Chaos magic. Callum Hunt is taught to fear Magisterium, and is compelled to throw the examination. But he doesn’t just fail; he fails so spectacularly, that he passes with flying colors, and it’s off to Magisterium for him!
As much as he’s told to resent Magisterium, it doesn’t take long at all for that Stockholm Syndrome to set in, for the school isn’t just “Hogwarts-again”. While it’s not as defined in terms of its layout, Magisterium at least has a well defined (and simple) system. The years are labeled Iron, Copper, Bronze, Silver, and Gold, in that order, which also happens to be the order of the books, making it easy to remember.
There is also the magic system: Fire, Water, Wind, Earth, and Chaos (spoiler, the fifth one is evil magic). It’s not very inventive, but it’s at least not like Keeper of the Lost Cities‘, “Hey, let’s have five billion different types of magic at once, because Sophie needs to be POWERFUL so that all the teenage girls will be inspired to be like her or whatever.” As you can expect, Chaos magic is the dark-type magic that can corrupt souls and junk.
The final decisive advantage that Magisterium has over the rabble is… that it’s SHORT! Hallelujah, holy shit! There are only five books in the series, at approximately 250 pages apiece, much better than Keeper’s “Lord of the Rings x10” length. This means that it can focus on just plot progression (i.e. what we actually care about), and not stuff like Keeper‘s stupid Sophitz Vs. Foster-Keefe drama, or Harry Potter‘s own #SaveTheDobbies subplot. And it’s actually a good plot to boot. The writing wasn’t the best, but it was at least enough to keep me wanting more.
Unfortunately, the short length also means that things end anticlimactically. Harry Potter had an epic final battle, involving so many characters that we’d seen since the very beginning finally duke it out with Voldy’s Death Pimps. But since the Magisterium books are so short, climaxes are here and gone. It’s not like Monogatari where they talk for so long that they forget to fight in the first place. There are battles, they’re just short and unceremonious. This also includes, sadly, the final battle, which I calculated to be around 15-20 pages in total. But hey… silver lining. Being short is still the better outcome.
In order to discuss the characters, I must spoil a reveal about our boy, Callum. This is a spoiler for the climax of the first book, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t wanna read it. The thing about Callum is that he does not exist. At the end of book one, he is told that he is harboring the soul of Constantine Madden, who happens to be the Enemy of Death. This puts him through quite the moral conundrum; something that not even Harry Potter had to go through. Being the “bad guy” would seem to make him super unrelatable, since the kiddies want to project themselves onto the “righteous hero”, but he’s actually relatable in a different way, as he’s constantly suffering an identity crisis (typical of most kids as well).
We also have Aaron, who isn’t actually a Ron Weasely clone. Aaron ends up being a Makar, which is not the guy from Wind Waker, but instead the term for a Chaos magic user. The policy in Magisterium is “fight fire with fire,” as only another Makar can fight the Enemy of Death (I guess?). Call has to be his counterweight, which basically means that he has to make sure Aaron doesn’t get consumed (easier said than done).
The female lead is Tamara, and she’s basically Hermione, minus being smart. She’s kind of a typical tomboyish girl who doesn’t really have anything interesting going for her. The final main character is Jasper, who is basically Malfoy, except he actually becomes an ally after a certain point. But other than his frequent, unfunny jabs at Call, he’s not too interesting either.
In the end, the moral conundrum that they try with Callum falls flat. Sure, he has to deal with his whole crisis, but there’s always a defined antagonist to make him look good. Like I said in my review of Arc of a Scythe, not having a villain that the readers can sympathize with makes writing morally gray narratives really hard. Because of this, it never really feels like Callum has any issues whatsoever. I’ll admit that they do some stuff with Aaron later that’s pretty interesting, but it feels meh in the long run.
The only reason why there’s a moral conundrum is because Magisterium is run by twelve-year-olds. I get that it’s intentional, but it’s still dumb how the faculty are next to worthless. When Callum’s issue is inevitably revealed, at least half of them are like, “He’s a murderer, throw him in jail, arrgh!” with no hesitation. It makes sense for other students to be jerks about it, but the adults should’ve had a more rational approach because they’re… ADULTS. There’s also the policy on the Devoured, which is when a person gets too into their element. The Magisterium says that being Devoured turns you into a rampaging monster, yet EVERY SINGLE Devoured that appears in the story is WELL in control of their humanity. I get that’s also intentional… but that just makes it arbitrary.
Final Verdict: 7/10
Despite all its flaws, Magisterium is still the best Harry Potter knockoff I’ve read to date. The authors try some interesting ideas, but once again, it seems that teaching young’uns about moral ambiguity is impossible. No! Kids must be raised believing that there’s only one-dimensional good and one-dimensional evil in the world! Well whatever… Magisterium has decent entertainment value. If you were threatened at gunpoint to read through all of a Harry Potter knockoff, then pick this one.
Speculative fiction isn’t my favorite genre, but I can appreciate its importance. It’s important for people’s ideas to be challenged. Some of the best speculative works I’ve ever read are Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and Chinese SF author Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem. But for some reason, putting out something truly speculative for younger audiences seems to be much harder than for adult audiences. Works like The Giver and Chronicle of the Dark Star set the groundwork to challenge young minds into questioning the world around them, but fall short and end up ham-fisting easy answers in the end. The Arc of a Scythe trilogy, written by Neal Shusterman and published by Simon and Schuster, seems to try to challenge the young mind as well. But does it succeed?
Arc of a Scythe is set in a world where humanity has achieved total bliss; all knowledge has been learned, and anyone who dies instead comes back in fresh new bodies at a clinic. However, the population is still a thing, so they hire people called Scythes to off folks, which results in what is called gleaning: the true, final death. Two plucky teens named Citra and Rowan are recruited as apprentice Scythes, and go on adventures in life and death.
Immediately, this idea is really neat. Scythe‘s premise could’ve asked a lot of questions about morality and the greater good. Unfortunately, it’s not so much the case in execution. Murder is a horrible act, and the idea of hired killers being able to arbitrarily murder whomever they want is inherently scary, but the world in Scythe could’ve been a genuinely good solution for mankind. However, Scythe doesn’t reach that potential, at least not from what I could GLEAN off of the dialogue and worldbuilding.
The way the world is put together comes off as Shusterman going out of his way to make it as corrupt as possible, so that it can’t be interpreted in any way other than “bad”. First off, the fact that TEENAGERS become apprentice Scythes is utter bullcrap. Of all the people to give the power to commit murder willy-nilly, teens aren’t the best choice. Secondly, how come this world lacks that real-world thing called background checks? Maybe some like that might be important when hiring someone to ARBITRARILY COMMIT MURDER. And don’t get me started on the Thunderhead! This thing was built to oversee everything that happens in the world and run all machinery. It does its job well enough, except for Scythes; it is forbidden to interfere with them. You’d think that maybe, just maybe, it should do just that, especially when someone gets a BIT drunk with power?
Speaking of drunk with power, the biggest disappointment in Scythe is the main antagonist, Scythe Robert Goddard. It’s natural to think that anyone who has the power to murder without punishment (among other ludicrous perks of being a Scythe) would be a raving lunatic, and Goddard is said lunatic. He and his lackeys save all their gleanings for the last day of their quota so that they can perform literal acts of terrorism just for fun. Like in Marissa Meyer’s Renegades, he has no motive, and he apparently doesn’t need one because “Absolute power corrupts absolutely herpaderpderp.” They wait until the third book to give him any real backstory, but it doesn’t help much.
The other characters aren’t that much better. The two leads are just classic YA tropes; Citra’s the brat, and Rowan’s the edgelord. Their relationship is a load of bullcrap because they inevitably get romantically involved despite the fact that they spend more than 80% of the story separated. I don’t mean a long-distance relationship; I mean that they hardly even communicate with each other! Introduced in book two is Greyson, who is basically the emo. Unfortunately for him, all he does is join some cult and have conversations with the Thunderhead that aren’t really that interesting IMO (at least until the third book). In fact, at least half of the series is uninteresting conversations.
So what are the positives? It’s entertaining. The writing is solid, and when the story gets going, it gets going. There are also some good one-liners as well, and some parts that are unintentionally funny. And even though Goddard ruins all sense of moral ambiguity in the story, he’s still got some charisma as a try-hard, edgy villain.
Most of book two, Thunderhead, was a boring blur for me, except for the climax. It was a really intense string of events, and the author had done something genuinely ballsy. Unfortunately, 95 pages into book three, The Toll, he once fails to commit to that risky move. But other than that, The Toll is actually a [somewhat] satisfactory finale. It still fails to touch upon any speculative narrative themes (it damn well tries, though), but it’s definitely the best of the three.
Final Verdict: 7/10
I wanted to give Arc of a Scythe a 5 or lower, but I couldn’t. It’s my fault for expecting something more intellectual, when that might not have been the author’s intent. But for what it is, Scythe is decent at best; not the worst YA book series out there, but be wary that it will not explore any gray areas whatsoever.
Last time, on Archenemies, Adrian’s squad beheld the Council’s new Agent N drug. Agent N is a Quirk-sealing drug that Renegades are expected to use against criminals. This causes a TWO-HUNDRED-FIFTY PAGE moral crisis for Nova and Adrian, and those two go on and on and on and on and on and on about how unjust it is without allowing the reader to make their own interpretation. Meanwhile, Nova is introduced to the superhero artifact room, which most notably contains Ace Anarchy’s helmet, sealed within a box of All Hugh Evermight’s chronium. Also meanwhile, Adrian discovers a Vitality Charm within the artifact library, and it makes Agent N and Max’s power useless! AND IT WAS THERE THE WHOLE TIME?! *facepalm* When Nova finds out, she visits his house (on a date) to steal it. While having some cringe-inducing romance with her, Adrian is able to use his Quirk to paint a depiction of a dream of Nova’s that she told him about where she’s in some sort of post-apocalyptic world and finds a statue with a glowy thing in it. When she steals the Vitality Charm at night, she heads into the dream room, that’s still there while Adrian’s asleep, and she picks up the glowy thing and it goes into her special bracelet. When preparing to infiltrate HQ to steal the helmet for good, one of Danna’s butterflies comes into her friends’ base, so they capture it so she can’t reform (not gonna make Adrian suspicious at all). After a boring gala, she infiltrates HQ and makes it to the artifact room, where the glowy thing allows her to break the indestructible chronium and free the helmet. However, the high school bullies attack! Nova uses one of the Agent N gas bombs that her friends made and seals Gargoyle’s Quirk. Max shows up to try and fight her, along with Frostbite, but Max ends up taking the L. And since Nova IS A FRICKIN’ MARY SUE DESPITE HOW MUCH SHE’S SUPPOSED TO HATE THESE PEOPLE, she helps Max by making Frostbite sacrifice her Quirk. Adrian is able to show up as the Sentinel and take Max to the hospital. Nova returns successfully with the helmet, just to find that Adrian’s friends broke into her base (no way!) and captured Ace!
And here’s the REAL clincher. *Inhale* ADRIAN STILL DOESN’T KNOW THAT NOVA IS NIGHTMARE! However, that doesn’t last for too long, because after an admittedly contrived incident early on, my new favorite character, Danna, manages to reform and FINALLY SPILL THE BEANS! And mah boy Adrian arrests her and is all, “You’re under arrest… Nightmare,” LIKE A BAWSS! Knowing YA, this development is meant to be considered the end of the world, and the fact that I consider it the point where Renegades gets good again shows what kind of person I am.
So, this final volume is gonna have Nova break out of jail, she fights Adrian to the death, and it’s a generally awesome time, right? Well, not quite. Due to the Renegades only having circumstantial evidence, among other things, Nova ends up getting released from prison about as fast as she’s thrown into it. And as a result, the book returns to the cringey romance that should have zero place in the final book as everything builds up to the climax of the whole trilogy.
Oh, and kids, did you know that Nova hates the Renegades because they didn’t show up to help her family when they got slaughtered by a gang?! Did you know that everyone should have human rights, and not be bogged down by society?! Did you know that all convicts should be allowed a fair trial in a court of law?! Well, even if you did, Meyer still expects you to have forgotten because she repeatedly reminds you at least every other chapter! GAAAAAH! The redundancy in this whole trilogy really puts the “nausea” in “ad nauseum!”
Well, at least things ramp up in this final volume. After around the halfway point of Supernova, the Renegades Trilogy finally takes the kid gloves off and becomes the pulse-pounding series that it promised to be. If Meyer’s good at something, it’s finales, and that’s something that most YA authors, even the good ones, can fail at. Supernova might actually be the best installment of the three.
Final Verdict (Whole Series): 7.4/10
The Renegades Trilogy is a series of ups and downs. The fact that Meyer went from something as consistent, high-octane, and inventive as The Lunar Chronicles to something like Renegades, which is so by-the-book and a let down thematically by comparison (I bet that American Dragon isn’t on Disney+ because the whole secret enemies romance theme is stupid). I get that not every author has to have a masterpiece, but this is a far cry from what she wrote in the past (but hey, Platinum End‘s existence will suspend my disbelief on that one).
If you’re a teenager who’s just had the corruptness of the world thrust into your face in social studies class and is questioning morality, then Renegades– although preachy- would be a good wake-up call for you. The action- when it happens- is also fun, and the romance is admittedly a good cringe-fest. But in all honesty, if you want a truly creative exploration of a superhero society that has real depth, instead of just going off of Benjamin Franklin’s saying, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” then read or watch the superior series that I’ve been comparing this to since book 1: My Hero Academia!
Last time, on Renegades, Nova Artino (a.k.a. Nightmare) squanders a wonderful opportunity to kill Hugh Everhart, the most powerful Renegade in the world, because she’s your typical “Mary-Sue-can’t-kill-even-if-it’s-the-guy-I-hate-more-than-anyone” YA protagonist. She also has a run in with some tokusatsu guy who calls himself the Sentinel. Incidentally, she literally meets him on the street in his true form- Adrian Everhart (yes, he is the aforementioned Hugh Everhart’s son). In order to investigate the Sentinel, she attends Renegade School-or-Whatever under the fake name of Nova McLain. She gets recruited to Adrian’s squad, which was formed to investigate Nightmare. See where this is going? What’s worse is that Nova’s Anarchist friend, Ingrid, ruins everything because she’s afraid that Nova will side with the Renegades (which actually happens). But there’s good news: Nova meets Max, a strange kid who basically has All For One’s Quirk (which aren’t officially called Quirks in the book, but they aren’t called anything so I’m with the My Hero Academia reference)- to steal other Quirks, including the Quirk of Nova’s late uncle and Anarchist leader, Ace Anarchy. Meanwhile, Nova and Adrian go on a “date” to an amusement park that Nightmare/Nova frequents. They have a run-in with Ingrid at an old fun house, but two good things happen: Ingrid dies (of course you can kill your FRIEND just fine), and Nightmare’s death is staged. Nova catches wind of some kind of the secret drug that Hugh and the Council are developing. Oh, and Ace Anarchy is still alive. *rolls eyes*
WOW, what a long recap! Should I bother with them for Western novels? Tell me your thoughts in the comments! Anyways… spoilers for the new season of My Hero Academia up ahead. Proceed with caution!
Positives first. We do establish what the mysterious Agent N thing is in this book, and within the first one hundred pages! And guess what, it removes Quirks, just like Overhaul’s drug in My Hero Academia! AND DOUBLE GUESS WHAT, it all revolves around a human child’s unique Quirk, and in Archenemies‘ case, it’s Max’s Quirk-stealing Quirk! Ain’t that a coinkidink…
The main conflict of this book revolves around Nova and Adrian’s response to Agent N. They are given training to start using it in battle to neutralize criminals immediately. However, it gets pretty ham-fisted, IMO. The existence of Agent N makes Nova and Adrian question if its use is just. They start thinking about human rights and go into a moral crisis. It’s so freakin’ preachy. It was preachy in the last book, but now it feels like those kids are reading off of a set of cue cards, and once again you don’t really see any SHOWCASES of Renegades being unjust except for an isolated incident with those same high school bullies from before.
Most of the rest of the book is more Nova and Adrian wuv. In fact, the wuv in more abundance than the actual plot, which has always been one of my least favorite aspects of YA novels and something I was glad to see wasn’t the case in Lunar Chronicles… but it IS the case here. Look, I’m not some action-savvy guy or anything, but there’s a time and place for stuff. You know how most longer series have more chill scenes after a really intense arc, like One Piece‘s Davy Back Fight Arc, or the episode of My Hero Academia where they move into their dorm rooms? Archenemies feels like that 90% of the time.
Romance aside, we are introduced to the artifact storage room, which is the location of the major MacGuffin- Ace Anarchy’s helmet. I really didn’t like that place because the security there was super lax and it was written off as, “Oh us Renegades are too morally uptight to wanna steal from in there” (while you laugh at the fact that Nova wants to steal from in there), and it really makes things convenient for Nova, because stakes are overrated. Even more baffling, Renegades are allowed to rent some of the crap stored in there like a freakin’ library, and it made me facepalm hardcore. What’s worse is that there’s apparently a random object in there that ends up being vital to the plot, and nobody knew about it until Adrian stumbled upon it. *shakes fists in the air*
Adrian is the only likable character remaining. Nova starts becoming aware of her wuv (which she writes off as “flirting with Adrian to use him”), turning her into another badass female lead who loses the “bad” and becomes just “ass.” Adrian is at least not entirely convinced that Nightmare died, so he tries his damnedest to keep that case open. But of course, even HE has to get goo-goo eyes for Novie-wovie…
Fortunately, things do pick up after page 340, like in good ol’ delayed gratification fashion. I’ll admit that the climax of this novel felt pretty darn good, all things considered.
It’s middle-book syndrome. My expectations for the final installment, Supernova, are not too high as this series continues to be a teen drama “but with superpowers!” I’m at least enjoying picturing All Might and Saitama as Adrian’s fathers, and trying to read Adrian’s name as “YO, ADRIAN!” as many times as possible while having it still fit into the context.
To be honest, I’m only being this harsh because it’s Marissa Meyer, an author who wrote something I enjoyed. If a YA author I didn’t like wrote this, I wouldn’t be so salty. A similar case is Ice Wolves, by Amie Kaufman, one of the authors of the amazing Illuminae Files. Ice Wolves is kind of just mediocre, but since it’s by someone who’s written something really good, it feels extra really bad. It’s the same feeling with Renegades so far. But hey, if you’re a fan of that cringey “forbidden-romance-between-enemies-who-don’t-even-know-that-they’re-enemies” stuff, then Archenemies follows through on its predecessor.
Hello and welcome to the first Western media covered on this blog! Since this is also the first YA novel on the blog, allow me to give a quick background on my experience with the genre. Over ten years ago, in my teen years, I loved that novel- The Hunger Games– just as much as the next guy. Then I read its sequels, Catching Fire… and Mockingjay… and let’s just say that third book was a real letdown. It was so disappointing that I abandoned all YA novels and instead used old Hollywood movies, like Citizen Kane, and challenging science fiction novels for adults, such as those by Isaac Asimov and Greg Bear, as vessels for my teen angst. Fast forward to last year, I started getting curious about YA again. Since it seemed that most YA novels are popular among adults as well, I decided to give the genre another try. In the past year, YA has consistently disappointed me, with my top 3 least favorite novels off all time ALL being YA novels. There are only a handful of them I flat-out enjoyed: The Chaos Walking trilogy, The Illuminae Files trilogy, and… The Lunar Chronicles quartet.
So, given my harshness towards YA, I wanted to start off on a good note, so I made sure I covered a novel from an author whose previous works I already enjoyed. As you can tell, it’s a review of Renegades, published by Square Fish, and written by the author of the aforementioned Lunar Chronicles, Marissa Meyer. Does this new series give as strong of a first impression as Lunar Chronicles‘ first book, Cinder?
For starters, just exactly HOW similar to My Hero Academia is this premise? In the city of Gatlon, people born with Quir- I mean- superpowers, who are called prodigies, are oppressed by society because that’s what humans love to do when they’re scared. A group called the Anarchists, led by Ace Anarchy, caused an uprising, naturally. A ragtag group of heroes called the Renegades took care of it. Ace Anarchy is now dead, and the OG Renegades run Gatlon as the Council.
Not angsty enough? Well, get this. The main protagonist is Ace’s niece, Nova Artino, who fights Renegades under the alias of Nightmare. On the flipside, we have Adrian Everhart, the adopted son of the most powerful Renegade in the world, All Mi- I mean- Hugh Everhart. He lives secretly as a renegade Renegade named the Sentinel, and is the rival of Nightmare, but ends up fighting other Renegades just about as often. And here’s the icing on the cake: Nova goes to Renegade academy as a spy and… gets recruited to Adrian’s own squad. Because of course.
Naturally, you’d expect it to be a dystopia, where the “heroes” are a corrupt governing body and the “villains” are the heroes. And it is, at least according to the narrative, which conveys this by constantly telling us over and over again about how corrupt the Council is but never showing us. From the actions we do see, the only corruption comes from random Renegades being high school bullies, but that instance is implied to actually be AGAINST Council regulations. In fact, the Council itself is the reason why Nova and Co. aren’t rotting in jail just for being Anarchists themselves. It’s contextualized poorly, and because of that, I’m willing to bet that there’s inevitably going to be some kind of massive conspiracy that makes the Council the corrupt governing body that Nova actually says they are. It’s still better than Scythe, which had an interesting premise of hired, legalized murderers in a world of immortality, but copped out by having a cackling madman of an antagonist that didn’t blur the line of good and evil, but made everything very black and white.
In terms of the actual writing, Renegades still has that Meyer touch. Similar to the Lunar Chronicles, I’m able to visualize characters and settings easily, however, the action scenes are a bit hard to imagine in terms of telling where people are in 3D space. The story starts off slow, but picks up at around the halfway point.
The characters are pretty generic. Be forewarned, however, that I am much a harsher critic of Western fiction than Eastern for some reason, even on the novels that I find really good. Nova is not as much of an utter snob as most of her YA cousins, but there’s definitely enough time to develop Stockholm-Syndrome-love with Adrian, and turn her into one of said cousins. Speaking of Adrian, he’s alright. He’s got a strong sense of goodwill but he’s also a bit reckless. Nova’s friends are the snobby YA cast incarnated as side characters. Ingrid is a really annoying Bakugo-type (literally; her Quirk is the same as his) who often causes contrived conflicts, and Honey, Phobia, and Leroy are more inconsequential than My Hero‘s Class 1-B. Adrian’s friends, Oscar and Ruby, are very unremarkable and exist just for there to be a second couple. Speaking of couples, Nova and Adrian’s relationship is going to be my least favorite aspect of the whole Renegade series because they spend so much time with each other while not realizing that they’re the very enemies that they’re each trying to find dirt on. It’s a trope that I didn’t like in American Dragon, and I still don’t like it now.
If you’ve enjoyed Red Queen, Shadow and Bone, or Divergent, then you’ll probably love Renegades. It doesn’t have the same chutzpah of The Lunar Chronicles, but it’s at least leagues better than most of what’s available on the YA market. The whole “teen-is-forced-to-be-something-that-they-are-not-for-some-reason” schtick carries a lot of inherent appeal.
The fact that the teaser at end of the book implies that the sequel, Archenemies, is going to be the “conclusion” to this story, when there’s a third installment on its way at the time of writing this blog, leaves me very concerned. But for now, Renegades is more than good enough if you want an angstier, Westernized My Hero Academia.