Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Children of Icarus by Caighlan Smith

Rating: WARTY!

The blurb tells us that "Caighlan Smith loved to build and navigate pillowmazes (sic)" and an "adoration of Greek mythology soon followed." In case you wondered, it's pronounced like Kaylan, but one immediate problem I had with this novel wasn't with the pronunciation of the author's name; it was with the disconnect between the blurb and the novel.

I don't hold the author responsible, since authors have little or nothing to do with blurbs and book covers unless they self-publish, which is why I don't usually have a thing to say about book covers - my blog is about writing, not about pretension and posing. It's also a given that blurbs are overly dramatic and misleading, but I found Greek mythology to be conspicuous by its absence in this novel while the lack of any real feel for Greece and the Greek language ran rife. This was only the first of myriad (<- Greek roots word!) problems.

One issue was with the author's complete lack of attention to the language (English or Greek). She had an archer "notch" an arrow when she should have said, "nock", and she referred to a notch as a nook! She had a climber scrambling for a perch when it would have made more sense to have him scrambling for purchase. These might seem like relatively minor issues, but they're important because the more we abuse the language the less we can use it. George Orwell exploited this to great effect in 1984. I'm sorry more people haven't learned from this, but I do expect fellow writers to have considerably more respect for the major tool of their trade, and for their craft, than this.

Yes, the author gave a nod and a knowing wink to the mythology, but it really wasn't there, and for me the novel suffered for that. I've visited Greece more than once and I really like the country, notwithstanding the recent political and economic troubles as exemplified in a scene from the new Jason Bourne movie. Greece has a deep history and none of that was in evidence here. The novel was a contemporary one, and it read like it was set in the USA, not in Greece. Characters were named Clara, Ryan, and Tanner, not Chloe, Rihardos, and Theseus, although to be fair, there was a Theo and a Cassie.

Therein lay a potential problem, because Theo was the good guy and Ryan the bad boy, and it looked like there was a tedious YA triangle forming there with the mc. This is such a tired cliché that it's almost like a Greek tragedy, but with nowhere near the pedigree when it's included in a YA novel! I can't be sure that this was where it was headed, but it certainly had the hallmarks.

The novel was rooted, loosely, in the myth of Daedalus and his Labyrinth, yet throughout we got not Greek, but Latinized names. Ikaros became Icarus, and his followers the Romanized Icarii. Animals and plants were given not Greek names, but ones worthy of Carl von Linné, so the Greek mythology angle felt like a fraudulent veneer.

In the myth, Daedalus built the labyrinth as a prison for the half-breed son of a king, but Daedalus and his son Ikaros were imprisoned in it. Their plan to escape using feather-encrusted wings came to a sticky end when Ikaros got waxed, flying too close to the sun. In this updated version, youngsters aren't sacrificed to the Minotaur, but are sent into the labyrinth as chosen ones of "Icarus", and they expect to become angels and live forever. In truth they're still sacrifices, and are set upon by fantastical beasts as soon as the labyrinth door is closed behind them. Only a few survive, and they're adopted by other survivors, who have formed a clandestine society hidden deep in the labyrinth where they hope they're safe from the beasts, but hard-won resources are slim and a crisis is approaching.

Thus far we have a form of The Maze Runner, and it was different enough to be a good start, but though the beasts are rooted in mythology, they're not readily recognizable as such here. I got the feeling that authentic (<- Greek roots word!) Greek mythological creatures were not good enough for this story, so they had to be amped-up a bit. Perhaps this is why the story quickly abandons both the beasts and the labyrinth in favor of high-school drama and bullying in the survivors hideout? In short, this story becomes less of a clone of The Maze Runner and more of a clone of Divergent and the utterly dumb-ass "Dauntless" faction, which I took delight in parodying in my Dire Virgins novel.

This story is nowhere near as awful as the Divergent trilogy, rest assured, but it was highly reminiscent of it in its brutality and its brain-dead 'survival of the toughest' mentality. That motif has been done to a sorry, but welcome death, and so this novel dropped considerably in my esteem because of its addiction to something which is ancient creak. The novel is also the start of a trilogy, which means this volume is nothing more than a prologue. I have no time for prologues or the "it has to be a trilogy so we can milk it for all it's worth" mentality so rife in the YA publishing industry. I think the problem was that, knowing there was a trilogy coming, there was no incentive at all for the author to make this volume be all it could be.

Some parts were engaging and interesting. Indeed, it was better in some ways, than The Maze Runner (watch that get quoted as "better—than The Maze Runner"! LOL!), but by the time I reached about half-way through, it was clear that the first of the three most severe problems with the story was the main character, and it wasn't with the fact that she is never named. My problem was with the fact the Girl with No Name (GwNM) was consistently weak, ineffective, weepy, and soft throughout the entire first half of the novel.

Maybe she changes later, but if she does, it has to be through magic and not through growth, because that wasn't happening, not even in embryonic (<- Greek roots word!) form, and in this case it was direly needed. Any possible change came far too late for me, especially given that there was no hint of it when I quit reading. Even if she does grow a pair of bulls later, it would have been thoroughly unrealistic to me, given what preceded it or or more accurately, what failed to precede it.

While I'm not a reader who demands that characters necessarily grow and change (I think there are very interesting stories to be had about people who don't change), I am a reader who demands that something happen during the course of a story, or all we have is dehydrating paint. It also helps if the arthritis (<- Greek roots word!) meds kick in before the half-way point, but here, the plot was stagnant when it wasn't staggering. Perhaps in remembrance of the slaughtered maze runners after the beast attack, nothing was moving. The novel, like a corpse set in amber, and not even a pretty shade of amber, simply lay there.

Not only did the story not go anywhere, neither did GwNM, and this was a story where she needed to show some growth if she was ever to become a heroic figure. Hell, even Triscuit™ in Divergent showed some change, but there was no such thing in evidence here, and the victimization of this girl in the form of a near-rape, and later a beating with no justice to be had for either was nauseating as was GwNN's total lack of a measurable response to it.

It made no sense, because she started out all weepy as a survivor of a slaughter, even after she knew she was safe, but now she's brutally attacked - twice, by two different guys - and she shows no response at all: not anger, not upset, not reticence, not fear, not the trembles, not catatonia, not anything? It. Just. Doesn't. Happen. Like. That! And especially not with a young person like the one GwNN has proven herself to be to her core by this point.

If I'd had some sort of a feeling, in fifty percent of the book, that she was on a slow burn, building up to something, that might have lured me into sticking around, but she is such a vapid wallflower that I not only lost all interest in her, I began to despise her as much as Ryan purportedly did (though I never did buy into that sleight of hand!).

The fact that she told a ridiculous and insupportable lie which led to the second attack was another example of her spinelessness, and while it doesn't justify the unwarranted assault by any means, neither does it afford us any sort of explanation as to why she did it or why the consequences of it were so dire. It's simply presented as the way things are done around here, with no foundation in any world that's been built here. I'm sorry, but I'm really tired of female authors rendering female characters into professional victims and making a trilogy out of their suffering.

The girl I wanted to read about was the one who went out with the scavengers, and therein lies another problem. Why was this novel so genderist - in that very nearly all the guys were the hunters and very nearly all the girls were the home-makers? There was only one exception to this that I was made aware of, and she had to be given a masculine name: Andrea! If you understand anything about Greek, then you know that's the feminine form of Andreas, which means manly! Seriously? The only girl who gets to hunt is manly? Not acceptable.

The third big problem was that the story made no sense. Exhibit one: I'd like to present the courtyard with a labyrinth! A labyrinth which had no roof. The people in it could have climbed the walls (and in at least one instance they did), and scouted their routes, but they never seemed to have thought of that. Instead, they were reduced to blundering through the maze and tediously mapping it corridor by corridor! Zeus, these people were dumb! But then they showed no real interest in looking for a way out which was in itself as foul as it was fowl.

While many beasts lived down in the maze, some were capable of flight, and all of the ground-based critters were large and dangerous. How those things survived when being fed only once a year is not so much glossed-over as completely ignored. The really ridiculous part though, is that not a single one of these animals, not even the airborne ones, ever found its way out to stalk the ample food supply in the nearby city whence all their food ultimately comes it would seem! There was no explanation offered for why these critters voluntarily confined themselves to the maze, and no one ever voiced any curiosity about it!

For me, this was just one more example of a story which was poorly thought-out, and where the world-building was as crumbling as the maze in which it was set. That it's the first volume of a trilogy is no excuse to stint on creating a rich novel, but far too many trilogy writers do this with a disturbing consistency. They need to try writing some stand-alone volumes, to learn the craft of creating tight, self-contained fiction, instead of padding out a single volume to make a lucrative trilogy.

I wish the author all the best with her YA trilogy career, but I cannot in good faith recommend a story as thin, weak, and derivative as this one is.

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