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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “The Republic of Gilead allows Offred only one function: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like all dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire – neither Offred’s nor that of the two men on whom her future hangs.”

REVIEW: I first read ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ when I was maybe fifteen or sixteen and just starting out on the road to feminism. With the arrival of the new television adaptation, I decided it would be a good idea for me to read the novel again before I started watching, and I am so glad I did. I forgot how incredibly chilling, moving, frightening and enraging this book could be, how Atwood’s writing can light a fire that makes it very difficult to sleep after reading. The protagonist, Offred, is a designated Handmaid; women known to be fertile who are placed in the households of husband’s with barren wives, kept there for only one purpose: to give the husband and his barren wife a child. Offred’s past life is somewhat unclear, and offered to the reader in snippets, yet although we know very little overall about her husband Luke and her young daughter, and do not ever find out Offred’s real name, we can’t help but feel a strong sense of sorrow for what Offred has lost and the life she now holds. Forming a strange friendship with the Commander, the husband in her household, Offred begins to experience more of what life is like for women who are neither wives nor handmaids, including Moira, her oldest friend. She also discovers a secret network of those who resist the dictatorial state regime, and begins to rebel against the Commander by embarking on a sexual relationship with his driver, which is completely against the law for a handmaiden. Offred’s story is told in a way that often seems jagged, but is also incredibly personal; we feel like Offred is talking directly to us, as was Atwood’s intention, needing someone to hear her story and make her feel real again. It is not the sort of book where I wish to write too much of the plot, as I would rather not give away the finer details. The most chilling thing about this book, however, is that it doesn’t seem that impossible. This is the kind of repressive, totalitarian state I genuinely believe we could see at some point in the near future; the repression of women and minorities is a key component of the novel and is something that we see in daily life, though of course on a far, far smaller scale. Yet, that prejudice exists, and the fear that it could turn into something darker and stronger is one that certainly manifests itself in the reader’s mind after finishing ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. This is an excellent book and I would highly recommend it.

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The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

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RATING: 4.5./5

BLURB: “Kelsea Glynn is the Queen of the Tearling. Despite her youth, she has quickly asserted herself as a fair, just and powerful ruler. However, power is a double-edged sword, and small actions can have grave consequences. In trying to do what is right – stopping a vile trade in humankind – Kelsea has crossed the Red Queen, a ruthless monarch whose rule is bound with dark magic and the spilling of blood. The Red Queen’s armies are poised to invade the Tearling, and it seems nothing can stop them. Yet there was a time before the Crossing, and there Kelsea finds a strange and possibly dangerous ally, someone who might hold the key to the fate of the Tearling, and indeed to Kelsea’s own soul. But time is running out…”

REVIEW: As followers of this blog will know, I was absolutely amazed with how extraordinarily brilliant the first book in this (soon-to-be) trilogy, The Queen of the Tearling, was. I was so amazed, in fact, that the minute I finished it I sat down and ordered this sequel, The Invasion of the Tearling. I couldn’t put it down, and, as is always a worry with sequels, it definitely did not disappoint. Kelsea’s compassionate and righteous decision to end the Tearling’s trade with the Mort, which involved the sending over of 300 Tearling people of all ages and genders per month based on a lottery-style system, is one that the reader heartily praises in the first novel and , while we still support Kelsea’s decision in the sequel, the ramifications of her actions are becoming far more apparent. The Red Queen, noticing the late shipment, has realised the threat that Kelsea presents to the dominion she holds both over her own lands and the Tearling, most of which is gained through a dark, violent power that she obtains from the demon Row Finn, who also meets with Kelsea throughout the novel to recruit her to his dark purpose. Interestingly, in this book we learn far more about the origins of the Tearling and the world that preceded it – a future version of our current world – as Kelsea begins to have visions of the life of Lily Mayhew, a pre-Crossing woman who begins to rebel after years of horrifically violent abuse from her political husband. Cleverly, Johansen links our slowly uncovered knowledge of the Tearling’s origins with the knowledge we slowly gain about the Red Queen. Both stories – that of Lily and that of the Red Queen – are linked with Kelsea’s own past, and inform her transition to power and the decisions she makes. Kelsea becomes much harder and colder in this novel as she struggles to decide how to wield the power that the sapphires she possesses have given her, but the reader still strongly supports her decisions and finds themselves in increasing desperation alongside Kelsea and her councillors as the Tearling and the Mort armies lean ever closer to war. The ending of the novel produces a shocking twist, and is left on a cliffhanger that has made me desperate for June 2016 to come around so I can read the final installment! This was a well worthy sequel in a brilliant series, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

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The Departure by Neal Asher

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “The Argus Space Station looks down on a nightmarish Earth. And from this safe distance, the Committee enforces its despotic rule. There are too many people and too few resources, and then need twelve billion to die before Earth can be stabilised. So corruption is rife, people starve, and the poor are policed by mechanised overseers and identity-reader guns. Citizens already fear the brutal Inspectorate with its pain inducers. But to reach its goals, the Committee will unleash satellite laser weaponry, taking carnage to a new level. This is the world Alan Saul wakes to, travelling in a crate destined for the Calais incinerator. How he got there he doesn’t know, but he remembers pain and his tormentor’s face. He also has company: Janus, a rogue intelligence inhabiting forbidden hardware in his skull. As Janus shows Saul an Earth stripped of hope, he resolves to annihilate the Committee and their regime. Once he’s discovered who he was, and killed his interrogator…”

REVIEW: As those of you who frequently follow this blog may have noticed, I am not normally a science fiction fan. I was encouraged to read this book by my boyfriend, who doesn’t often find books that engage him – but he insisted that this book was unputdownable and, out of curiosity, I had to give it a try. He was definitely write. ‘The Departure’ is the first volume in The Owner series, and sets the reader up with an image of an Earth that is worryingly not too difficult to imagine. We are introduced to this dystopia with small sections of information at the beginning of each chapter which tell us about the disintegration of institutions such as the NHS, and these paragraphs really help to set the scene and give the reader a greater understanding of the world in which Alan Saul, the protagonist of the novel, finds himself. Saul is an interesting and extremely complex character, and the reader can flit from admiring him to hating him in the space of just a few sentences. Yet at the same time we ultimately want him to triumph over the corrupt Committee, whose goals at diminishing the human population are basically reverting to a very slow and torturous form of genocide. The reader sometimes appears to be represented in the novel by Hannah Neumann, Saul’s ex-lover and later companion who is often horrified by his apathy to killing and seems to represent the moral dilemma in which Saul finds himself. The relationship between Saul and Hannah is an interesting one, one which fails to develop into romance but in which it is clear that feelings between them remain and that they need each other in order to achieve their ultimate goal of defeating the Committee. Saul’s struggle against authority is mirrored by the shorter story of Varalia, whose tale also appears in short segments throughout the novel Varalia is a highly intelligent woman sent up to Mars during the earlier period of Committee rule and who now realises that she needs to rebel in order to save those stationed on Mars from starvation and eventual death. The relationship between Varalia and Saul, who are clear parallels to one another, is one that the reader can work out for themselves even before we are told, but it is still exciting to uncover the mystery of the connection between the two. It is difficult to say more about this novel without giving away too much, as this is a fast-paced tale with many twists and turns that often leave the reader shocked and almost breathless. The brutality of this cruel new world and the revolutionary battle against it makes it hard to put the book down even for a moment, and I found it to be truly gripping. I would highly recommend it to science fiction fans – and if, like me, you were not previously a fan of science fiction, this would be a good book to get started on; it will definitely give you the sci-fi bug! I am greatly looking forward to reading the further books in the series.

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Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to burn books, which are forbidden, being the source of all discord and unhappiness. Even so, Montag is unhappy; there is discord in his marriage. Are books hidden in his house? The Mechanical Hound of the Fire Department, armed with a lethal hypodermic, escorted by helicopters, is ready to track down those dissidents who defy society to preserve and read books.”

–          REVIEW: I will admit at once that I expected quite a lot from this book. Given its reputation as a literary classic, I was greatly looking forward to seeing how Bradbury pictured the possible future of our world. I understand why, in terms of the writing skill, this novel is so well renowned. Bradbury’s writing is fluid, so fast-paced that there is no other way to read it other than at your top speed. Somehow, this makes the dystopian world that Montag occupies even more terrifying; we feel as though we are running with him, desperate from escape just like he is. The metaphorical nature of Bradbury’s writing is also quite astonishing. In the introduction to this edition of the book, he describes how, when he sat down to write this novel, he had no idea what he was doing – upon reading it, it is hard to believe that anyone could have such a brilliantly natural and instinctive talent for writing as he does, and not know about it. 

I do, however, have some issues with the plot itself. I do understand, as a writer, the need for leaving loose ends at the end of a novel. In this case, however, I felt that there were so many loose ends that the conclusion of the novel was simply unsatisfying. The removal of Clarisse from the story (which even Bradbury concedes was a mistake) takes away one of the most intriguing and engaging characters I have ever read of, and, at least for me, actually ruined the story. Montag’s relationship with his wife Mildred also has a highly unsatisfactory conclusion, and the cliffhanger of an ending leaves the reader feeling as though they’ve run a marathon and not even been given a bottle of water to cool down at the end of it.

I would still recommend the book to book lovers and fans of dystopian fiction, who would probably find Bradbury’s distressing portrayal of the future a fascinating and intricate read.