Friday, April 19, 2013

Review: Above World - Jenn Reese

Above World by Jenn Reese
Series: Above World #1
Genre: Middle Grade, science fiction, futuristic
Published on February 14, 2012
Published by Candlewick Press
Pages: 356
Read From: 4.17.13 - 4.18.13

Thirteen-year-old Aluna has lived her entire life under the ocean, just like all of the Coral Kampii in the City of Shifting Tides. But after remaining hidden from the Above World for centuries, her colony is in trouble, its survival in doubt: the tech that allows the Kampii to breathe underwater is beginning to fail, and many Kampii have already died. Yet the colony's elders, including Aluna's father, are unwilling to venture to the dry and dangerous Above World to search for answers. 
So it's up to Aluna and her friend Hoku to face the terrors of land to find a solution. Once in the Above World, Aluna and Hoku learn that their colony is not the only one struggling to survive - so are others in the skies and in the deserts. Will Aluna's warrior spirit and Hoku's intelligence be enough not only to keep themselves safe but also to find a way to save their city and possibly the world?


Cover Blurb: Yes or No? Actually yes; it's simple, it's pretty, and it did catch my interest. Clearly it has to do with the sea, and probably mermaids, but I have nothing against mermaid stories (though I have yet to read a truly good one). But there's something extra about the cover that also promises a good adventure. In short, the cover lies.

Characters: Let's start here, shall we? There's Aluna, the thirteen-year-old girl protagonist. Her age is probably the only thing that saved her; I tend to be a little gentler with kid characters. Nevertheless, I failed to connect to Aluna. She isn't brave; she's rash, always acting before thinking, far too quick to refuse help for no real good reason, and constantly getting into fights. She doesn't have a tough-girl attitude, thank goodness, but her hastiness got annoying very quickly. On the exact opposite side is Hoku, the male protagonist whose age also saved him. Where Aluna is all "let's do this now before thinking about it!" Hoku doesn't want to take action at all. He would rather spend hours studying the situation than do anything about it, and he is a professed coward. I personally wouldn't call him a coward - that's too harsh, - but his first instinct is definitely to avoid conflict, and that is just as annoying as Aluna's eagerness to fight. I didn't get much of an impression of Calli, except that she was a female version of Hoku, because the Author didn't spend much time allowing her Readers to get to know her. Dash was hardly in the story at all, but I did like him. He was quiet, practical, did what was necessary when it was necessary. Zorro the electronic raccoon with glowy eyes was just creepy, and I wanted to strangle Barko the talking dog (he actually made me decide that K-9 in Doctor Who wasn't all that bad after all). And then there was the villain - Fathom - and his cyborg-ish minions, the Upgraders. Fathom was the furthest thing from scary; he was just absurdly grotesque to the point where he belonged more in a Saturday Morning cartoon than a book. And the Upgraders were the world's most lame cyborgs, not to mention that the rest of the world's creatures aren't awesome at all; they're just kind of nightmarish.

The Romance: There is, unfortunately, an attempt at adolescent crushes. While I wasn't a fan of any of the characters, I also had nothing against them, so the pairing of Hoku and Calli, Aluna and Dash didn't affect my opinion of the characters in any way. However, the romance itself was pointless. It felt like it was there simply because. I was at least glad that Hoku and Aluna, life-long best friends, weren't paired; that I did appreciate. But why there had to be any romance at all is beyond me. It did nothing to strengthen the bond between the four characters, or further the plot at all. It just sat there, because don't you know that every story nowadays has to have some sort of romantic aspect?

Plot: And this is where the story really began to fall down. In a post-apocalyptic Earth, life as we know it no longer exists. Due to overpopulation, an overuse of Earth's resources, and disease it became impossible for life to continue as it once did. So a big corporation stepped in - LegendaryTek - and proposed an absolutely impossible idea: genetically engineer people so they can live in places that humans normally couldn't inhabit, such as the ocean, the sky, and deserts. With a combination of technology and genetic manipulation, LegendaryTek allowed people to live underwater (Kampii), in the sky (Aviars), and in harsh steppes (Equians). Now it's several centuries later, and the Kampii are dying, due to malfunctioning technology that LegendaryTek never taught the "splinter groups" how to fix, thereby making them dependent on the corporation. Desperate to save her people, Aluna and Hoku journey to the forbidden Above World to find HydroTek - the sister company of LegendaryTek in charge of the Kampii technology - and make them help her people. But Above World is dangerous; strange monsters made from machines and flesh (Upgraders) are rampant, killing anyone they encounter for their "parts" to take back to their master, Fathom. Aluna soon learns that her quest isn't going to be easy . . . And yet she still rushes head-on into things, even though it could get them all killed. Okay, so how many times has the "overpopulation; using up Earth's resources" storyline been used? I thought it was stupid from the start, and I still do. It's no longer a "twist;" it's become a dogma, and it is the quickest way to send a story like this from the "entertaining" category straight down to the "ridiculous" category. Oh yes, and we can't forget the "evil" corporation that makes people dependent on them. That's what governments do, not corporations. And speaking of governments, where is the government? What happened to it? That's never explained. But let's move onto the rest of the plot: Aluna and Hoku's journey to HydroTek feels like it takes forever. There's a smattering of actiony sequences that do little to alleviate the boredom of their journey, and even though the Author actually doesn't spend all that much time relating every single step of their journey, it still feels like it takes a very long time before they get to HydroTek. I think it's because their actual destination is hazy. Aluna and Hoku get to Above World, and then they just kind of meander until the Aviars find them, and then suddenly they're wanting to go to SkyTek for some reason, but then no - they want to find Fathom (who is conveniently at HydroTek). The whole plot has a meandering feel to it, and it gets old. There's also the addition of the strange waterproof box that Hoku's grandmother gives him, which felt like it was ripped straight out of The City of Ember: it belonged to the City of Shifting Tides' founder, and its contents (especially the thing in the secret compartment) echo Ember's Builders' last wishes for the city enough that it made my head snap up in shock.

Believability: I should be marking this as "not applicable." I mean, it's a futuristic world; things are naturally not possible in it. But there was basic logical issues that caught my attention that should be addressed even in a science fiction novel. It mostly has to do with the genetic alterations. The Kampii are genetically altered to have thicker skin to keep them warm underwater, eyes that see in the dark, and when they reach thirteen, they grow fish tails and basically turn into mermaids (though Kampii consider that an insult). All of this is done so they can live underwater, but here's my problem: the Kampii have to use these weird breathing shell necklaces and their tails can be quite clumsy if they ever leave the ocean. So, if HydroTek can give them thick skin and glow-in-the-dark eyes, why didn't they give them gills and webbed hands and feet instead of tails and breathing apparatus that can break? The genetic alterations aren't very practical, and they end up causing unnecessary problems in the story.

Writing Style: Kiddish, at best. I realize this book is intended for middle graders, but I am a firm believer in writing to your audience, not down to them. And quite honestly, I'm not convinced that this is a mere case of writing down to one's audience, but quite possibly a combination of that and just not very good writing. The dialogue reminded me of the sort of dialogue kids have in games: melodramatic, and conveniently informative so your playmate knows what's happening in the game. And some of the Author's terms! Just to list a few of my favorites, we had things like: sparkle shells, sticky beds and sticky plates (which was a magnet!), resting sticks, Extra Ears (which were quite clearly hearing aids; wonder if they were beige, too?), and rhinebras (which, yes, was a rhinoceros and a zebra combined). The slang the Upgraders had (yes, they had slang) was worse than the slang in The Maze Runner and Prodigy combined. The Author also tried at times to sound far too profound, with sentences like this one: "History is not a fixed truth. It changes with the speaker, just as no two feathers will ever find the same path in the wind." (pg. 121) Not only is that absurdly untrue (history is a fixed truth. Just because someone says the Holocaust didn't happen doesn't change the fact that yes, it did happen. History is not changeable, no matter how much people might try to rewrite it), but the latter part makes no sense. Her martial arts sequences aren't nearly as bad as I was anticipating, but the detailed relation of Aluna's training sessions gets old very quickly. The Author also takes forever to explain things. For the first 106 pages of Above World, I had a million questions running through me head (who the heck is Sarah Jennings?! What is Big Blue?! Where is this?!), and it wasn't until another 50 pages in that she started actually explaining some stuff (though I still didn't learn what Big Blue was until 300 pages in). Even then, I had the hardest time picturing places, due to the fact that the Author gave very scattered descriptions, or none at all. I was totally unable to appreciate anything because I was so lost and couldn't visualize anything.

Content: None.

Conclusion: Because Aluna never learns anything, she goes off on an idiotic plan without her friends because she "has to do it alone." And because Aluna never thinks things through and realizes that maybe backup would have been a good idea, her plan to face Fathom alone doesn't go wholly according to plan, and we're left with a cliche face-off. Fathom loves to monologue, and it's only because of Hoku's loyalty that Aluna's backside is saved. To her credit, she does realize at the very end that maybe she shouldn't refuse her friends' help so quickly, but somehow I get the feeling that she hasn't really learned any lesson. However, at least the final battle wasn't dragged out, though I can already see that keeping Fathom alive is going to backfire on them in later books (it always does). In conclusion, the only reason Above World isn't getting my special awfulness award is because it's intended for middle graders, but even I wouldn't have enjoyed this as a kid. It was weird in a bad way, full of silly terms (like sparkle shells; can we say nine-year-old girl obsessed with glitter?), no unique characters, slow pace, and no good villains. It was a fail.

Recommended Audience: Girl-and-boy read, seven to twelve year olds.

Others in This Series:
1)Above World

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