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REVIEW:  Nil by Lynne Matson

REVIEW: Nil by Lynne Matson

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Dear Ms. Matson,

I was a big fan of Lost during its early seasons. My attention wavered as the series progressed, but I do recall my obsession when it first aired fondly. Your novel, Nil, reminded me of Lost and I was interested in seeing how a YA novel would handle it.

Seventeen-year-old Charley is at her local Target, on her way to return some clothes, when she falls through a transdimensional gate in the parking lot. As you do. I wish there were a way to make this sound less ridiculous but that is actually what happens. One minute she’s in a parking lot, the next she feels like she’s on fire.

When Charley wakes up, she’s on an island and naked. Of course she is. Luckily she’s not naked for long because she conveniently manages to find a pair of shorts and cloth she can wrap around her breasts. She then spends the next weeks, trying to gain her bearings and survive. I was actually pretty impressed that a teenaged volleyball player from Georgia could manage to survive on a deserted island by herself and with no supplies.

But it turns out Charley is lucky. The island isn’t deserted. She just hadn’t run into the miniature “city” of teenagers who’d also found themselves mysteriously transported here. From them she learns the ugly truth about the island: she has 365 days to find a gate to take her back home. Because even if she survives that long despite the island’s various pitfalls and traps, it’ll find a way to kill her when one year is up.

If there’s one thing that Nil highlights, it’s this: every story must have a point. Every book must have a driving force that propels the reader to finish it and to feel satisfied when they reach The End. Otherwise why did she spend that time reading?

As I began reading Nil, everything seemed to be in place. Here we have a heroine with a problem. She’s thrown through a gate to a strange island and must find her way home. She meets a hot boy named Thad who she develops feelings for. Another problem! Will they both survive? And even if they get off the island, will they be able to find each other again?

But as I continued, I felt this growing sense of unease. Stories are tricky things. Things need to happen but those things also need to be arranged in a compelling way that — and this is key — tells a cohesive narrative with a point. By the time I was halfway through the book, I was growing increasingly convinced Nil didn’t have a point.

Oh sure, there are attempts at making a point. Why are the kids sent to the island? Is there a reason? Are they supposed to realize something about themselves? Why is this revelation so important? After all, if they can’t figure it out in a year, they die! What is the island? Is it an experiment gone awry? Is it just the unfortunate side effect of a solar flare? Or does it follow Lost‘s lead and is a sort of purgatory? I don’t need a definitive answer but as a reader, I’d like some exploration of these ideas rather than having them haphazardly thrown in my direction. Pick something! Take a stand! Will all readers like it? Doubtful, but at least it’d give me something to digest.

(For the record, I don’t consider Charley’s “We’re here for a reason!” stance and Thad’s “Nah, this island is just screwing with us” outlook to be a worthwhile exploration.)

But even with thematic elements of dubious, unclear worth, I might have forgiven the book if there’d been interesting character dynamics happening. It’s a bunch of teenagers from thirteen to eighteen, from all over the world, thrown together on an island. How do they get along? What culture clashes are there? What personality friction? They set up a miniature city. Surely there’d be factions! Even when people are cooperating, there are disagreements and conflicts simmering under the surface.

Nil barely has any of that. The closest we get is Bart, a member of the city who doesn’t get along with anyone. You can tell he’s trouble because he butts heads with Thad, acts sketchily towards Charley, and tries to steal outbound gates meant for other people. Subtlety is not at all on display here.

For book that’s about survival, Nil is vastly uneven in tone. With the countdown-type premise, you’d think there’d be more urgency. Instead, at times, it read like teens on a vacation. They play volleyball. They surf. They have parties. I’m not saying it has to be doom and gloom all the time, but going from someone dying from a tiger attack to people playing volleyball is a bit of a whiplash.

The nail on the coffin came with the ending, however. I’ve certainly read books where I had mixed feelings for the majority of the narrative but thought the ending was brilliant. That didn’t happen here. The ending fizzled for me and left me wondering, “What did I just read? Why did I just read that?” It was a fail for me.

It’s hard to discuss why without spoilers so I will do so under the cut:

Spoiler (ending spoiler): Show

Thad’s time on the island has run out. He’s on his 365th day and has to find an outbound gate. He does but instead of taking it, he pushes Charley through. She wakes up in Switzerland (naked, again), is reunited with her family, grieves (because she thinks Thad is dead), and recovers.

But don’t worry — despite giving his gate to Charley, Thad is lucky and finds another gate. He jumps through and wakes up (naked, of course) in Afghanistan. We have no idea what happens to him during this time period but we are assured that it was Bad, but after a couple months, he tracks Charley down and they have a happy reunion. The End.

As you can see, there’s nothing wrong with the events that happen in that ending exactly. The problem is that it doesn’t live up to the promise of the book and is quite unsatisfactory. Do they deserve a happy ending? Of course. I’m a big fan of happy endings. But I’m not convinced they earned this one.

Nil could have been an epic survival story. Teens struggling to stay alive on an island determined to kill them while trying not to turn on each other. I thought that was the story I was getting. Too bad I was wrong. It didn’t actively make me mad but I definitely felt like I wasted my time reading this. D

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW:  The Forsaken by Lisa M. Stasse

REVIEW: The Forsaken by Lisa M. Stasse

Dear Ms. Stasse,

Ah, the dystopian subgenre. For something touted as the new vampire, it wore out its welcome fairly quickly, didn’t it? Despite the popularity of the recent Hunger Games movie, I remain skeptical that it’ll see a resurgence in popularity. I’m still willing to give the subgenre a try because you never know, but it’s hard to stand out these days. One thing I wish is that the dystopian genre as a whole had been less introspective and more action-based. The Hunger Games had a lot of action, but many of the titles that came out in its wake did not follow suit. So when your debut novel was touted as Hunger Games meets Lost, it caught my interest. That sounds right up my alley. Having finished it, I don’t think that description is inaccurate but in some ways, calling it a dystopian Lord of the Flies might be more apt.

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At some point in the future, global chaos descended which led to the United States, Mexico, and Canada joining forces to form a new nation called the United Northern Alliance, or the UNA. Of course, this being a dystopian novel, we have the requisite guy who gets elected Prime Minister and promptly makes sure he retains that position for life. What’s a bleak future without a dictator, right?

As you’d expect, all dissidence is suppressed in this society. Our heroine, Alenna, has always felt out of place with her peers. Part of that is because she’s an orphan. When she was ten, her parents were dragged off by government soldiers and never seen again. After that, Alenna became a ward of the government.

Then six years later, she takes the government exam administered to all sixteen-year-olds. The test looks for subversive tendencies. If you pass, you’re fine. If you fail, you’re sent to a mysterious jungle island and left to fend for yourself. As for the conditions of the island, well, let’s just say the life expectancy of anyone sent to the island is eighteen.

As is a surprise to absolutely no one, Alenna fails the test. She is the protagonist, after all, and let’s not forget her parents were dragged off by the government and accused of being dissidents. Based on the latter, Alenna probably should have been a little concerned about her fate and not so complacent about her chances of passing.

When Alenna wakes up on the island, she discovers the teens sent there have split into two very different groups. One group tries to form small makeshift towns and survive with some semblance of civilization. The other has completely eschewed that and centered itself around a cult-like figure. Their perspective on life is one of violence and survival of the fittest.

Luckily for Alenna, she manages to join the first group. That doesn’t mean she’s safe. The other group launches daily attacks on them, destroying their villages and killing their people. Worse still, they grow in numbers and power so at some point, Alenna’s group is going to lose. So when she’s given the chance to help with a plan to escape the island, she jumps on it. Because while the other tribe is dangerous, they are far from the only thing to worry about.

This was a pretty quick read. I liked how it didn’t slow and kept moving. No parts dragged and I found myself flipping the pages to see what happened next. On the other hand, it is a fairly linear narrative so readers looking for subtlety or nuance might be disappointed. The storyline proceeds with few surprises. Alenna is dropped off on the island, joins the safer group, finds a place, makes friends, falls in love, embarks on a quest, and so on. These plot points are presented fairly straight without any subversion so you get what you expect and that’s great if you’re in the mood for it. If you’re not, however, and were wanting something a little more different, it might be a letdown.

I didn’t particularly care about the romantic subplot with Liam. It’s one of those instant love at first sight cases, which can be a tough sell for me. There is an attempt to explain the instantaneous affinity, but I’m not sure it succeeded since it was kept till the end. On the other hand, I liked that a good chunk of the book is devoted towards Alenna wanting to rescue Liam. That said, there was also a part of me that wondered if their relationship was really that genuine and sincere. I didn’t fully buy the depth of their feelings. Superficial attraction, I could easily understand, but beyond that? Not convinced.

I liked Alenna’s relationship with Gadya overall. I enjoyed most of their interactions and the parts where Gadya taught Alenna to survive. As a result, I was very frustrated by the stereotypical conflict of Alenna falling in love with Liam while Gadya was still in love with him. (They used to be together but broke up at some point before Alenna came to the island.) I’m not a fan of female friends fighting over the same guy. It’s lazy conflict, especially if it follows the path of one abandoning the other because of it. Do we really need more stories like this?

Alenna, despite being the main character, ended up being something of a cipher for me. I had a hard time getting a handle on her character. She’s the daughter of dissidents who’s never been able to fit in. She gets dropped on an island and thanks to Gadya, is able to join the group that doesn’t treat girls like crap. Many guys immediately like her – including the hottest guy in the tribe. She’s helpful. The leader of the tribe takes a special interest in her. These things aren’t unbelievable and while reading, were fine but after completing the book, I wonder if Alenna didn’t have things just a little too easy? There should have been a little more struggle and conflict on the interpersonal level. This might be why I was so disappointed about the conflict between Alenna and Gadya being generated by their feelings for Liam. Alenna ran into problems because of it, but it was mostly because Gadya stopped helping her since she was jealous and upset about what was happening. It’s one-note.

Regardless, the narrative proceeded fine for the first three-quarters of the book. Then the last quarter happened and so many revelations occurred that my suspension of disbelief snapped. I actually think this book would have been well-suited to be a standalone but unfortunately, it’s a first of a trilogy. To be fair, it’s not a cliffhanger and I think a lot of the rushing towards the end was to avoid that while also introducing more threads to hint at a larger scale conflict to fill out two more books. I’m just not convinced more books were necessary to tell this story.

I don’t regret reading this novel so thank you for sending us a copy. I’m glad we have one more adventure and survival-based dystopian YA rather than the more ubiquitous introspective types. Those are more interesting to read, in my opinion. But overall, I think this would have been better suited as a standalone than as the first in a trilogy. B-

My regards,
Jia

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