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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for October 23, 2014

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for October 23, 2014

Today’s post is focused on Penguin and associated Imprints. For academics and instructors who are readers of these reviews, do recall that Penguin has a wonderful academic services division, with the best exam copy policy of the major publishers, which have allowed me to make new additions to my syllabi with ease.

With apologies as always for any typographical, grammatical, or factual errors. My intent in these reviews is to illuminate the wide ranging and expansive terrain of Asian Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail with any concerns you may have.

A Review of Marie Lu’s Legend (Putnam Juvenile, 2011).

For fans of the post-apocalyptic genre, Marie Lu’s Legend won’t necessarily offer anything radically new, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it: with an intriguing premise, a crackling plot, and dynamic characters, you’ll sail through it hoping that there will be other installments. Indeed, as soon as I finished it, I immediately scrambled over to amazon to see if there was an impending publication (and indeed, there are two in the reviews that follow). Lu’s Legend does set us up quite well for more books and follows in the young adult genre that has become a mainstay of Hollywood adaptations (think Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy which has now gone global with its popular film starring Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson). The premise is roughly this: June is a military prodigy for the Republic, a postnation constructed in the ruins of conflicts and plagues (the Republic’s main postnational rival is the Colonies). When her brother Metias is killed, presumably by a dangerous threat to the Republic’s postnational security, she is hired to track this guy down. This guy (named Day) is June’s exact counterpart, a fiercely intelligent and tactical young man who is simply trying to help his family survive the plague that is threatening their ghetto existence. Most of Day’s family (for reasons that can only be revealed if you read the novel) does not even know he is alive, but when Day’s youngest sibling, Eden, is stricken with the plague and a strange symbol carved onto the door of the family home to denote the family’s outcast status, Day springs into action to try to find a vaccine, or at least medication that will help suppress the worst symptoms from the illness. June, for her part, begins the novel as a strident supporter of the Republic, the side of good as she would like to think, but as the narrative proceeds, it is clear that the Republic has some secrets of its own. At one point, a character named Kaede comes into the picture and for fans of Malinda Lo, you immediately scramble to see if there is any connection to Lo’s Huntress. In the acknowledgments you discover that Lu herself is part of a writerly community that connects her with other YA talent like Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon (Phoenix series).

A Review of Marie Lu’s Prodigy (Putnam Juvenile, 2013) and Champion (Putnam Juvenile, 2013).

There are certain to be spoilers in this review.

In the lead-up to what is certainly to be a disastrous MLA paper, I continue to read deeply within the ever-expansive world of YA fiction, especially those written by so called American writers of Asian descent. I fell behind in Marie Lu’s postapocalyptic paranormal romance/ urban fantasy plague (did I miss anything else) Legend series. Her second and third books are reviewed here: Prodigy and Champion. In Prodigy, Lu takes us into the desperate plans that Day and June attempt in order to take down the Republic. At this point, they have teamed up with an insurgent group known as the Patriots, which include a number of intriguing and roguish characters, such as Kaede, Razor, Baxter, and of course, Tess, Day’s long-suffering companion. Day and June are split up in a scheme that will involve assassinating the new Elector, the young and handsome Anden. June must turn herself in, get the trust of the Elector, then help enable the Patriots to carry out the assassination. Day stays on the outside, viewing the proceedings that will lead up to the actual assassination attempt. Lu complicates her fictional world by suggesting in this second part that the Republic may not be as evil as originally thought. Indeed, Anden may or may not be an improvement over his father, gesturing to the possibility that the Republic can change, perhaps even reformulate the class barriers that have resulted in considerable resource and social inequality. June is increasingly convinced then that Anden may be something other than a cruel and capricious dictator. Since she is in deep cover, it becomes apparent that it will be extremely difficult for her to attempt to signal to abort the original plans to assassinate Anden. The climactic sequence of course involves the botched assassination attempt. In the aftermath, Day and June find themselves in the Colonies, trying to figure out what their next move will be. The conclusion sees Day and June realizing that the Patriots may not be uniformly behind one group and Day and June work with Kaede to return to the Republic in order to foment support behind Anden. Day, though wary, is finally convinced because it is Anden who orders the release of Day’s brother, Eden, the plague-infected bioweapon. Lu’s second book convincingly expands this postapocalyptic America by giving us a view into the Republics direct rival: the Colonies, which seem to be some sort of Orwellian society formulated around corporate citizenship. Lu adds more tension by creating simultaneous love triangles. While June and Day’s chemistry cannot be ignored: Tess emerges as June’s main competition, while Anden serves as Day’s potential romantic rival.

At the conclusion of Prodigy, we see that June has decided to take on a position as Princeps-Elect, which would give her an incredibly powerful position within the Republic, second only to the Elector. Day, we find out, has some sort of degenerative condition, which will soon result in his death. The conclusion sees Day convince June to take the position, certainly in part spurred by his new diagnosis, which he of course does not tell June. It is his way of severing their bond, which is clear at the beginning of the third installment in the series. Lu shifts the political action to the growing tension between the Colonies and the Republic. It is apparent that the plague that had originally been an issue within the Republic has now expanded to the Colonies, and the Colonies have issued an ultimatum: if you cannot provide us with a cure, we are going to destroy you. The Republic’s only chance is to use Eden as a potential research specimen to create a cure, but of course, Day is in the way. Anden uses June to attempt to convince Day to allow Eden to be used for scientific research, but given everything that happened in the first two books, you can entirely understand why he would be so resistant. Further still, he himself continues on his precipitous downward arc of healthfulness, such that he is given a diagnosis of only about two months to live. Then, the offensive begins and the Republic finds itself in the unenviable position of asking for help from the Antarcticans, which will require the Elector to cede some serious territory to them. At the same time, Eden pushes back against Day and decides that he will allow himself to be experimented on, if it will allow the Republic to find a cure to the plague that the Colonies believe was constructed and deployed by them. As the novel hurtles toward its finish, Day hatches a desperate plan that will require the Republic to pretend that it has surrendered; will the Republic survive? Will Day and June finally be able to express their deep feelings for each other? These questions and more will be answered by what seems to be the conclusion to the Legend series. My one big gripe about this book was the epilogue, which seemed to consolidate too much time into a small frame. Lu felt the need to summarize a good 9 years or so before the crucial final scene, but these periods feel far too rushed, especially with respect to the other romance that blooms during this period.

As with many other YA paranormal romances I’ve been wondering about the place of race within these narratives; it seems as though the postapocalyptic world is completely deracinated. Social inequality seems most apparent in class difference. Interestingly enough, Day himself is part Chinese, but the aspect of mixed race seems to be a red herring. Overall, Lu’s trilogy is a jam-packed, explosive action-thriller with the requisite romance plot. Fans of YA, The Hunger Games, Divergent, and other such works should be more than fulfilled by this trilogy.

A Review of Marie Lu’s The Young Elites (Putnam Juvenile, 2014).

I adored this new YA fiction by Marie Lu for a lot of reasons: our heroine is not necessarily a heroine. In fact, she might be a villain. Second, the romance plot in this novel is catastrophically terminated. Third, the conclusion doesn’t exactly make clear where the second in the series is going to go exactly, especially when a new character and a new narrative perspective are introduced in an epilogue. Finally, I grew up reading X-Men comics, so any novel in which young teens have super powers is going to resonate with me. In the Young Elites, set in the Medieval period, our protagonist is Adelina Amouteru (with most of the novel being narrated from her perspective in the first person). She has survived the blood fever (Lu’s obvious take on the bubonic plague) though it caused her to lose and eye and changed her physical appearance. Her own sister Violetta also survived the blood fever, but their mother died. In the wake of the blood fever, their father has turned into a raging and violent alcoholic. Adelina is on the verge of womanhood (almost seventeen), when she is sold to a man as basically his concubine, for apparently no man would actually want to marry such a scarred individual (though Adelina is still beautiful otherwise). Adelina attempts to run away, but in that process her father apprehends her. She ends up killing him when strange powers manifest that allow her to create illusions. She basically scares her father to death. Adelina is then charged with her father’s murder, but when she is to be executed she is saved by a man known as the Reaper, who has the power to create and to generate fires. The Reaper, otherwise known as Enzo Valenciano, is the leader of the Dagger Society, who are a branch of the Young Elites, those who have manifested powers in the wake of the blood fever. The Young Elites are also known by another epithet: malfetto, which is the term for a kind of mutant figure that is denigrated by society at large. At that time there are about five young elites along with Enzo, who all have various powers of their own. These are: Raffaele, otherwise known as The Messenger; a young and extremely beautiful man with the power of sensing other young elite; Dante, otherwise known as The Spider, a young elite with super strength and combat abilities; Gemma, otherwise known as The Star Thief, a young elite with power over animals; Windtalker; and then the Architect, who is able to rebuild things in one substance and recreate them in another. Enzo saves Adelina because he realizes her powers might be useful for their missions. Raffaele is more than a little bit worried about Adelina because a particular test meant to show how a young elite aligns in terms of particular emotions and ethics reveals that Adelina has dark side that may prove to be the undoing of the Daggers if they employ her. But even as Adelina begins to acclimate as a potential new recruit for the Daggers, who together seek to usurp the current ruling court, she is approached by Teren Santoro, a brutal Inquisitor, who is blackmailing her into revealing information about the Daggers. Indeed, Adelina must tell Teren all that she knows in order to keep her sister Violetta alive. Thus, Adelina is forced to become a spy, while cultivating her powers of illusion. For his part, Teren is in love with the ruling queen, a woman named Giuletta, who believes that she should hold sole power over the crown and thus plots with Teren to kill the king, otherwise known as her husband. Will Adelina be able to tell the elites that she is being blackmailed? Will she work for Teren in order to save her sister’s life? All of these questions can be answered by reading the novel and I very much look forward to the second installment (which I hope is a trilogy, but such information has not yet been released).

A Review of Eleanor Glewwe’s Sparkers (Viking, 2014).


Eleanor Glewwe’s debut novel Sparkers is part of the ever-growing archive of young adult fiction penned by American writers of Asian descent. Glewwe constructs a particularly ambitious and original world based upon a caste system dividing those who live in the Ashari city-state: there are those with magical abilities (the kasir) and those who do not have those magical abilities (the halani). The halani are considered to be of a lower class, though they do have some paranormal capabilities. Indeed, most are able to sense occasionally a future event in some vague way, something called “intuition” in the novel. The larger world of the novel is made up of city-states; only one other is prominently featured (called Xanite), though it is clear that the kasir and the halani can migrate to other city-states. There is a family in the novel who is of kasir background but hail from Xanite and are thus treated a little bit differently than the other elite kasir. The narrator and protagonist of this story is the teenage Marah Levi, who is of halani background, and who misses a key exam that causes her to have to scramble to find an alternative means of getting secondary schooling in her specialty: the violin. Around the time that Marah is given a second chance by auditioning with a Xanite-founded performance arts school, a plague begins to erupt around the city-state. Individuals are coming down with a deadly respiratory illness that turns the eyes of those afflicted into darkened black circles. The plague is affecting kasir and halani alike and the government, which is ruled in a seven-person based oligarchy, hasn’t seemed to make any headway on finding the cure. Marah also happens to have an interest in languages, which allows her to strike up a friendship across class lines. After befriending a young girl of kasir background, she is eventually invited over to the girl’s house. Once there, Marah bumps into the girl’s brother Azariah, who happens to be a collector of rare books. Marah realizes that Azariah has a book written in a banned language called Hagramet; Marah has a grammar book for the Hagramet language and is thus able to translate some of the passages in Azariah’s book. Over the course of Marah’s visiting Azariah’s little sister, it becomes clear that the Hagramet book might actually have a cure for the plague. Their quest becomes urgent when both Marah’s little brother (Caleb) and Azariah’s little sister (Sarah) come down with the disease. Also, Marah’s best friend from school Leah has also come down with the sickness. Marah and Azariah must work together to translate the book, figure out the process by which the spells must be cast and the reagents collected and cooked in order to create the cure, but there are eyes all over the city-state. And it soon becomes evident that a larger conspiracy is brewing: not everyone wants the cure to be offered to the citizens of the city-state. Thus, the novel becomes a race against time: will Marah and Azariah be able to make the cure before Caleb, Leah, Sarah, and other citizens of the city succumb or will they be thwarted by powers beyond their control?

Glewwe’s debut is truly inventive, one of the first I’ve seen that so effectively creates an entirely different world-system and doesn’t rely on popular short hands of mythical creature-lore (like vampire fictions). Of course, one can’t help but read the novel through its many allegories: the tensions between the halani and the kasir obviously becoming an analogue for any kind of rifts that occur over social difference. Additionally, Glewwe’s novel is as much about class as it might be about race. Access to important medical advances and techniques seemed reserved only for the kasir, so when the plague affects both the halani and kasir equally, there’s a question as to how any cure would be distributed to the masses. Given the continuing international tensions brewing right now over the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone and Liberia (and other parts of West Africa), plague narratives have a particularly charged focus that bring to mind questions of medical ethics in times of great stress and tragedy. If governments, pharmaceutical companies, and the medical care industries acted with as much compassion as the two major characters in this novel, we truly would have nothing to worry about.

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