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REVIEW:  The Murder Complex by Lindsay Cummings

REVIEW: The Murder Complex by Lindsay Cummings

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Dear Ms. Cummings,

I think we’ve reached that stage where post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels are being labelled something else to circumvent disenchantment. I obviously have thoughts about this because given the flood of such books over the past few years, readers can spot them no matter what you call them. The Murder Complex is being touted as a futuristic thriller but don’t believe it. This is a dystopian, albeit more action-packed than we’ve grown to expect from the subgenre.

Now I like action. I think many dystopian novels could have been vastly improved had there been more of a balance between external action and internal monologuing. But balance is exactly what The Murder Complex is missing. Except in this case we swing wildly in the other direction to all action and little meaningful character development.

First, we have our two viewpoint characters: Meadow and Zephyr. (I don’t even know where to begin with these names.) Meadow lives on a houseboat somewhere in futuristic Florida with her father, older brother, and little sister. Zephyr is an orphan who, from what I’ve been able to gather, is charged with picking up garbage around the city. But wait, here’s the twist! Meadow was trained by her fisherman father to be sociopathic killer. As for Zephyr? Well, he’s a sleeper assassin whose mission is to kill randomly picked citizens as some convoluted form of population control. If you’re beginning to raise your brows, just wait. I haven’t even gotten to the worldbuilding yet.

In fact, I don’t even know how to explain the worldbuilding. While I’m not a fan of the Infodump School of Worldbuilding, giving bits and pieces of the setting via the narrative only works if they make sense and form a cohesive whole. From what I was able to put together, there was a plague at some point. Then a teenaged genius (Meadow’s mother, naturally!) finds a cure involving nanotech and the world is saved! Except the nanotech means that disease and injury are no longer things that happen and the population gets out of control. Resources have to be carefully controlled and rationed by the government, here called the Initiative. This led to the formation of the Murder Complex (translation: the sleeper assassins) to control population growth. On top of that, I’m fairly sure there was some sort of war that razed the earth because everyone lives in the city and doesn’t venture out. Also, there are pirates and crazed, garbage-covered mobs that roam around attacking people. (Why? Just because!)

There are other elements I’m omitting here because they venture into spoiler territory but while I’ve done my best to make sense of the worldbuilding, trust me when I say the execution is random and disjointed at best.

There are elements that sound like they should make for an interesting story. Meadow’s genius mother, Lark, is missing and presumed dead but she casts a long shadow over our heroine’s life. Responsible for the cure that saved humanity, and later doomed it, Lark was a key member of the Initiative and the mastermind of the Murder Complex. What happened to her? Did she betray the Initiative? Was she killed because the government found her? There’s great potential for the mystery of Lark but what actually happens in the book is both underwhelming and ridiculous.

Similarly, Zephyr falls instalove with Meadow. Why? Because he’s been dreaming of her for a long time. Meadow is his silver-haired dream girl, you see. (I’m choosing to believe “silver” is just a frou-frou way of saying “sun-bleached” or “platinum blonde” so please let me retain that delusion if I’m wrong.) That’s… okay, I guess, but this gets a weird connotation because Lark is the one who raised Zephyr and trained and programmed him into being a sleeper assassin in the first place. Seriously, Lark’s voice is the one he hears in his head when he gets his orders to kill. And Meadow got her “silver” hair from Lark. It’s weird, right? Does Zephyr dream of Meadow because there’s some unexplained connection to her via the programming done by Lark? Or does he dream of a younger version of Lark? I feel uncomfortable about this either way.

Ultimately, The Murder Complex fails for me because of a simple reason: the characters. Lots of things happen. So many things happen over the course of the book, in fact. But I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of it because I didn’t care at all about any of the characters. Not Meadow. Not Zephyr. When I don’t care about the protagonists, it doesn’t matter if they’re wanted by the government or being chased down by pirates. And it certainly won’t hit me hard when I learn the (not all that surprising) truth about Meadow’s mother.

The Murder Complex gets compared to La Femme Nikita and Hanna, and I can see why. It’s full of cinematic-style action and violence. But I love Hanna because I loved the characters as well as the action and violence. And there is no getting around the fact that a book is not a movie. You can do things with the written word that you cannot do with a movie and vice versa. Namely, especially in the YA genre, the ability to get into the characters’ heads and get a strong sense of their personality and feelings. I think The Murder Complex might have forgotten that along the way. D

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW:  One Thousand and One Nights by Ruth Browne

REVIEW: One Thousand and One Nights by Ruth Browne

Dear Ms. Browne:

This debut short story has a voice that grabbed me — moody and beautiful and intriguing. The story itself left me going “huh?” at times, but the more I think about it, the more I appreciate it.

oneFive years after a zombie plague ended the world as we know it, Sheri cautiously hunts through a library — not in search of food or shelter, but of stories. Named (or so she says) after Shahrizad from “The One Thousand and One Nights,” she’s always been a natural storyteller, fond of seducing men with words as well as actions. Now that talent is what’s keeping her alive, whenever she returns “home” to one of the last compounds of living human beings:

The yellow stars had shone down on her where she lounged with her shotgun cradled under her arm. And yet she had come back to this, to humiliation and hatred, for the sake of a sister, a safe place, and the sound of human voices.

Sheri was bitten by zombies but hasn’t turned — yet. Although every other bitten person has turned almost instantly, to the frightened people of the compound, she’s always a “yet.” (It doesn’t help that she’s got some unusual symptoms, and is careful to never eat meat.) And so for her sister’s sake she willingly lives there in chains, released only for hunting missions. Her life is at the whim of the compound’s leader, Aleksy, who can’t bring himself to give up her stories — or her:

When the woman sat cross-legged with a book cradled in her lap, caressing him with her voice, he knew he was selfish and weak. When he watched her slip her fingers under the collar to ease it away from her throat, he imagined her touch on his skin, and fought the mingled desire and revulsion that came over him. She was so strong, and so human: a huntress in the land of the dead, with a beautiful soul that turned every one of her fairytales into something rare and precious.

Like Aleksy, I found Sheri fascinating. Daughter of a murdered Iranian activist, she and her little sister Dani grew up in foster-care, but she’s always gone her own way — labeled a boy chaser, a delinquent, a bad example, a bookworm. She was strong enough to take care of both of them throughout the plague but her sexual desires, as well as Dani’s loneliness, convinced her to join the compound — mistakenly thinking that her bite wound would heal before it was discovered.

I haven’t read a lot of zombie fiction, so I don’t have much basis for comparison, but I thought this world was vividly imagined:

The air was fresh and cool, a nice change from musty paper and dead flesh. Since most people had stopped doing people things, the natural world had grown vast and loud. Over the rustle of grass and leaves, crickets sang under a sky full of stars.

As a romance though, I had some issues with it. It’s certainly romantic in parts; I especially liked it when Alex turns turns their usual dynamic around by telling Sheri a story: “Warmer than the blankets piled on top of her, more spellbinding than the siren song of sleep, his voice captivated her in a way that no dog-collars, cuffs, or chains ever could.”

But their relationship is kinky in a way I couldn’t quite get a handle on. Alex seems to be doing more than simply keeping Sheri restrained — he sometimes deliberately hurts her, then he regrets it. At one point he spanks her during a sex scene, with dubious consent. Just before that happens, he thinks this:

Of course Sheri liked to be in control. Even chained to the wall in handcuffs she had played games with him, King this and Lord that. Gently biting down, he remembered the first day she’d mockingly addressed him as Prince Charming; he’d been so angry at her for using his obsession against him, but as he was bending and binding her into a bow he had recognized his own selfish lust, and fled before he could be tempted to consummate it. Like Joseph from Potiphar’s wife, if she’d been into BDSM.  Since then, the thought of her tied up near to him while he slept had become a torment.

This reference perturbed me. It puts the onus of the situation on Sheri, classing her as a temptress and the one in control, when during the time he’s thinking about she was physically very much in his power and he was essentially torturing her.

I never quite got what’s going on between them, aside from the fact that they’re obviously very into each other. Alex seems oddly skilled with restraints, though nothing we’re told about his romantic past indicates he was a practiced Dom. Are Sheri’s punishments deliberate bondage and sadism? If they develop a real relationship, is that going to carry over into it? (The spanking tends to indicate it will.)  Thinking about it, I suppose this kind of uncertainty makes sense, considering the tremendous uncertainty of everything else in these character’s lives.

But then right after things came to a head between them — suddenly the story was over. It does end on a strong note for Sheri, but I really needed more.

[spoiler]Alex has sex with Sheri, seemingly with no concerns at all about biting her or sharing body fluids. I guess this is supposed to show how completely he’s succumbed to her, but I found it kind of terrifying, since we still really don’t know if Shari might be a carrier of the plague. And with that, Sheri tells him that he can’t chain her up anymore and it’s HFN land.[/spoiler]

The confusion and disappointing ending have to bring my grade down some, but I applaud the willingness to tell a different kind of story; I do think this is a very promising debut and I’m looking forward to more. More specifically about this couple or this world might be ideal, especially since there’s unexplored potential in Sheri’s strange immunity. B -.

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