CSFF Blog Tour – The First Principle, Day 3

Marissa Shrock with First Principle.image The CSFF Blog Tour wraps up the September jaunt from one participating site to another, all focused on the debut novel by author Marissa Shrock entitled The First Principle. The story is a dystopian fantasy aimed at young adult (twelve to eighteen) readers.

It takes place in a future world after the Great Collapse and the Second Civil War. Because of the unrest in North America, the Council of World Peacekeepers stepped in and created the United Regions of North America, consisting of seven regions which incorporated what had been Canada, the US, and Mexico.

The protagonist is sixteen-year-old Vivica Wilkins, daughter of the governor of the Great Lakes Region.

And now, a closer look at this novel.

A Review

The Story. Vivica is part of the elite class, the ruling class, and as such enjoys privilege. In addition she’s bright, has mad hacking skills which she uses to create a little side business changing student grades, and just recently broke up with her boyfriend, Ben. Not her choice.

She wants to be over him, thinks she is, but can’t help noticing that he’s been hanging with Meredith Alderton—the very girl Officer Martina Ward from Population Management wants to talk to. Meredith refuses to go with her, so Officer Ward publicly accuses her of being pregnant, a crime which mandates termination under the Posterity Protection and Self-Determination Act.

When Meredith tries to run from the room, Officer Ward shoots her with a tranquilizer gun. The incident creates a stir among the students, and they press their history teacher to discuss the termination law, why it came into being, and why it still exists.

Days later, one of the students who protested the law the loudest has disappeared and the teacher has been fired.

Vivica’s mother is in line to be named the next President because the current President is about to retire. Shortly before the Governor’s Ball, Vivica discovers she’s pregnant. She doesn’t immediately tell her mother, and in fact covers up the fact by using her hacker skills when she’s called in for the mandatory pregnancy test.

Vivica, her mother, and their entourage travel to the Capitol where the announcement will be made that Governor Wilkins has been selected to succeed President Hernandez, but as she’s introduced to the crowd, an assassin opens fire. The President is killed and Vivica’s mother, wounded. Vivica herself is not hurt.

The Vice President assumes control of the government and declares the assassination to be the work of rebels—those throughout the United Regions who chafe against laws such as the one which mandates pregnancy vaccines, enforced pregnancy termination, and others which oppress people and keep the poor in their place.

Vivica is convinced that her old boyfriend, Ben, who gave her a copy of the illegal Bible, is a member of the rebels. She wants to warn him, but ends up telling him she is pregnant—and he is the father. He wants her to keep the baby. Vivica struggles to decide what to do. If she leaves and goes into hiding so she can have the baby, she will most likely destroy her mother’s chances of becoming President. And does she want to give up her life just when she might have a chance to influence more young people?

The decision seems to be made for her, however, when her mother calls her into her study and asks her if she’s pregnant. She tries to cover up the truth, but her mother knows somehow. And now Vivica is certain she wants to protect her unborn child.

Can she? That and many other intriguing twists and turns make up the bulk of the story. Telling you any more would certainly be to spoil it.

What Did I Think. The First Principle has much more action and intrigue than I expected. I wasn’t expecting people to die. It is a dystopian story, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. Certainly the level of violence increased the stakes.

The world was believably futuristic, though I thought there were some places that could have used a bit more inventiveness. I thought in light of the retina scans, self-propelled vehicles and such, there would be further advances in things like music and make-up and air travel. There was appropriate slang terminology, and nothing distracting. In short, for the most part the world felt as if it was the kind of place our world could become, given the current trends.

Vivica and her friends acted remarkably like sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. The author, Marissa Shrock, is a language arts middle school teacher, and her familiarity with teens shows. At times I would have liked to see the protagonist act out her emotions more. Generally we’re told how she feels. For example, her body guard is killed protecting her mother, but Viv shows very little grief despite the fact that this man was someone she clearly liked and was with every day.

The story was unpredictable and action packed. I didn’t know from one moment to the other what would happen. There was intrigue, romance, danger, betrayal, kindness, faith, courage—all on display through the twists and turns the plot took.

The themes about liberty and protecting new life and faith in Jesus Christ were naturally woven into the fabric of the story. These are powerful and thought-provoking especially in light of the SCOTUS ruling on same sex-marriage and the undercover Planned Parenthood videos.

All in all, The First Principle is a quality book. I’m so glad CSFF featured it this month. It was through their partnership with Kregel Publications that I received a review copy. I’m happy to say, unreservedly and without any agreement to write a review promoting it, I highly recommend this novel to teens and to parents of teens and to any readers who love dystopian stories.

But don’t take my word for it. Check out what the other participants in the tour have said.

Rebels by Jill Williamson – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 3


Rebels by Jill Williamson – The Review

Of necessity the following will contain some spoilers, though I will make every effort to keep them to a minimum.

Also, in conjunction with CSFF, I received a free review copy of Rebels from the publisher. This review is in no way influenced by that fact.

The Story. At the end of Outcasts, brothers Mason and Omar have been captured after their rescue operation. They’ve been slated for liberation, whatever that is. No one seems to know.

The rest of the Glenrock community under Levi’s leadership is now free—free to live underground with the Kindred, a group of people who have built a separate culture apart from the rebels and from the Safe Landers and who want nothing to do with outsiders. At least that’s the attitude of some, including the Kindred’s matriarch.

Levi’s next goal is to free the women of Jack’s Peak, their neighboring village, being held in the Safe Land harem where they are to act as surrogates. Once all the people from the villages are together, he wants to find a way out of the Safe Lands.

Meanwhile, Omar and Mason go through the liberation procedure and end up in the Lowlands with all the other liberated people—strikers, who received three x’s for crimes they committed, and everyone over forty, including the older citizens of Glenrock and Jack’s Peak.

Here everyone is assigned to heavy tasks which produce all the food and drugs and other commerce for those in the Highlands and Midlands. In essence they are in a penal colony.

Mason and Omar must first survive in the brutal prison environment, but they are as determined as ever to find a way to reunite their people and leave. But how? There is no way to communicate with the others to let them know they are alive.

Strengths. The list here is long. The series as a unit had incredible coherence—what was true in one book was true in the next and the next. A bit of backstory in one book becomes the central motivation of a character in the final book.

The parts all fit. This was especially impressive to me because I had so many questions at the end of Outcasts and saw no way they would all be answered in one more volume: who were the hooded, secret guild members, what was liberation, what would happen between Omar and Shaylinn, between Mason and Ciddah, would Mason find a cure for the thin plague, would Omar stay in the Safe Lands if everyone else found a way out? Questions, questions, questions. How could all these moving parts fit together and be resolved in one more book? Jill did a remarkable job to make it happen.

Further, the characters continued to develop and grow—even Levi. More than one CSFF tour participant has commented on how much they didn’t like Levi.

I never felt animosity toward him. He was the one who had to deal with the dead bodies of the men who had cared for him and mentored him and served as examples for him. Besides, Jemma loved him.

True, at first he didn’t do well as the elder of his people. He brought the same bullying tactics to the job as his father had used, but he learned. His change is most clearly shown by his agreeing to act as the Owl in Omar’s absence and his admission later to Omar himself that the subversive, secret message bearer of truth was a good idea.

Omar, of course, changed the most, but Shay grew up and learned to accept herself, even stand up for herself when she needed to.

Mason grew too, most clearly seen in his admission that he’d been arrogant to think he could find a cure for the plague on his own. In many respects, the Safe Lands were good for Mason because he finally got to use the abilities he had and to live the way he thought was right. He still had challenges, though, and found himself more dependent on God’s mercy at times than he ever had been before.

In short, all the characters grew and changed. But what’s more, they each seemed so real. As tour participant Meagan said, “I will miss them all and hope that at some point in the future we may revisit this land as they recreate what they once had.”

That’s one of the highest compliments an author can get, I think, because truly these characters became so real, they seem to be out there somewhere, living their lives, and it would be great to be able to “catch up.”

The story itself was full of intrigue and conflict and danger and suspense. But one thing I noticed. Through it all, there were partial successes and reasons for joy—the liberation of the Jack’s Peak women, the birth of Shaylinn’s babies, Mason getting to task in the medical facility, and the brothers finding their mom. The moments of hope offered a counterbalance to all the fear and loss and oppression, so the story had a great rhythm, not a monochromatic note of despair until the end.

I also thought the story shouted through the action and events which worldview is strongest and best, though clearly there wasn’t a black and white choice (how’s that for a bit of confusion—can’t say more without giving too much away). In the process, some of the hardest issues teens face today were addressed—suicide, drug addiction, illicit sex, friendship and betrayal, forgiveness, lust, guilt, and more.

But adults weren’t left alone either. The truth reveals that Levi’s dad abused his wife, and Levi’s bullying and Jordan’s anger are clearly shown as counter-productive. As Levi changes, another legalistic figure moves to the forefront—Tovah, matriarch of the Kindred. Except, as much as it’s tempting to hate her for how she treats the outsiders and how she tries to fence in her boys, she’s the one who steps in to help Shaylinn when she needs it most.

In short, no one is a caricature, not even Lawton, who does much of the evil he does out of a sense of self-preservation.

Weaknesses. The book isn’t perfect—I don’t think too many are. 😉 But the minor things I might quibble over aren’t worth detracting from the high quality of this story. OK, here’s an example. As Levi made his plans to escape the Safe Lands and return to Glenrock, I wanted to shake him—don’t you realize, they’ll just come and get you again? You couldn’t stop them the first time. What makes you think you can ever go back to your village and continue to live in such close proximity of the Safe Lands again?

See? Not a real issue because . . . well, because of what happened instead. 😀

Recommendation. The Safe Lands series is a must read for teens, for adults with teens, for Christian writers who want to see how to write believable fiction with a subtle Christian message that isn’t preachy, and for readers who enjoy a good story. (Yes, I’m a fan!)

CSFF Blog Tour – Captives by Jill Williamson, Day 2

CaptivesSafeLandscoverGreat start yesterday to the first of the August CSFF blog tours, this one featuring Captives by Jill Williamson. Yesterday’s posts included a book give-away; a creative report as if written by someone in the dystopian world of Captives; a well-researched behind-the-scenes look at what led George Orwell to write his dystopian novel, 1984; thoughts on contentment and envy; and a handful of insightful reviews.

I have to say, the books I like best make me think about life and God and human nature and … well, things that matter, things that stay with me long after I’ve put the book down. Captives did that for me.

Yes, this dystopian fantasy is a young adult book, but like so many in that age category, any adult reader can also enjoy the story. In truth, the themes in Captives are mature. Although placed in a futuristic setting, with appropriate technology advances, the story exposes what goes on in the human heart during any decade.

The story also addressed some of today’s cultural issues, not by dressing them up in futuristic garb or by preaching to a point, but by showing the logical extension of the extremes in today’s western society. In an amazingly truthful way, Williamson unveils the existent cultural divide by creating a futuristic world that has even more starkly drawn lines.

For example, one plot thread deals with reproduction. Instead of a story centered on abortion, Williamson created a society that had become infertile and that prized pregnancy. The reversal of today’s reproductive issues actually was disarming and allowed for thoughtful consideration of the value of life.

Other cultural issues–the cult of celebrity, violence as entertainment, self-medication, the worship of appearance–were all addressed in the sense that characters were shown reacting to new stimuli by either accepting it or rejecting it, in part or in total, as they became familiar with the way the opposing society lived.

None of these issues takes over the novel, however. This is still a story about a group of people who have been taken captive by a society that considers itself advanced and benign. Those in the upper echelon can’t imagine why anyone would be opposed to the advantages they offer. They can’t imagine why anyone would not want to work to preserve and protect what they’ve built.

From my perspective, Captives is cutting edge. By taking a futuristic approach, it is so very contemporary. It doesn’t shy away from hard things, and there is no perfect person or point of view. All the characters have blind spots and weaknesses–both societies have problems and suffer consequences as a result.

So much like real life.

Not everyone on the tour is as great a fan of Captives as I am, and that’s good–it balances out my enthusiasm and gives you more to think about. But from my perspective, you can’t go wrong with this one. It might get a little heavy at times, though it’s no where as dark as 1984 or other dystopians. Still, it shows a world suffering under the weight of sin, and that’s not an easy thing to look at.

I personally thought Jill did a good job of balancing out the darkness with some sweet romance. There were even references to my favorite movie, Princess Bride. I found those to lighten a story that could easily have been dragged down by despair.

But again, I encourage you to read what other participants on tour are saying–that balanced view, you know? 😉

CSFF Blog Tour – Storm by Evan Angler, Day 1

SWIPE_coverThis week the CSFF Blog Tour is featuring a middle grade apocalyptic dystopian Storm, third in the Swipe series by Evan Angler. Except . . . Evan Angler is a fictitious character and actually a part time character in the book. In fact, the books are also part of the story. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I read the blurb about the first book in the series, Swipe, I have to admit I pigeonholed the story as “typical end times fiction.” As innovative and intriguing and popular as Jerry Jenkins Left Behind series was in the beginning, the sheer length of his story wore people out, I think. At any rate, even I, who never read the Left Behind books, have some end-times weariness. I wasn’t looking to read someone else’s idea of what the end times will be like.

Well, surprise. The Swipe books are not your last generation end times stories.

They are, first of all, featuring young people, not adults. Most noticeably, however, is the fact that the cataclysmic events central to the story are handled as part of a natural chain of circumstances. No one is pointing to Scriptural parallels or calling for repentance. Spiritual things are a part of the story, to be sure, but primarily the characters are concerned with how to survive.

Add in the recent news events surrounding identity theft, government surveillance (also called “spying programs” by some), national security leaks and the global manhunt for Edward Snowden, the Benghazi incident with the government’s release of false information and what appears to be a positional reward for the ambassador who took the heat, and the story of Swipe suddenly seems more plausible than fictitious.

Here’s a part of the description of Swipe that explains the key element in the book:

Set in a future North America that is struggling to recover after famine and global war, Swipe follows the lives of three kids caught in the middle of a conflict they didn’t even know existed. United under a charismatic leader, every citizen of the American Union is required to get the Mark on their 13th birthday in order to gain the benefits of citizenship.

The Mark is a tattoo that must be swiped by special scanners for everything from employment to transportation to shopping.

For more about this intriguing series, I encourage you to stop by Evan Angler’s site and view the trailers for all three books. Also be sure to visit the blogs of the other CSFFers participating in this tour (reminder, check marks link you to articles I have found):

Hope Or Truth

In my post today over at Spec Faith, I’m asking questions about why dystopian fiction is so popular these days, especially among young adults.

There are some great comments. One of the things that’s come up is that dystopian fiction, even if it ends with an element of light, largely traffics in despair.

That got me to thinking about fiction as escapism and the large numbers of people who say they prefer to read stories with happy endings. Not everyone is in this camp, however.

And the dystopian stories, while encased in speculation, are built on a foundation of reality. Government is big and getting bigger, more evasive. Man is cruel and getting crueler, more aggressive. The planet is dirty, the resources are dwindling, the games are risky, the work is meaningless. And dystopian novels show these social and political realities. They can also show the place or absence of God.

So that brings up the question. Which is “better,” to read a story that offers hope (and encouragement as a side dish) or one that exposes the realities of the human condition, offering little more than a warning?

My early exposure to dystopian novels was via George Orwell (1984) and Aldus Huxley (Brave New World). These books are uncomfortable and heartbreaking, but they say something about mankind that needs to be said. Neither of them offers hope.

In 1984 the protagonist ends up betraying the woman he loves, and she, him as they are both integrated properly into society run by Big Brother. In Brave New World the protagonist is so disillusioned by the society he hoped in that he commits suicide in the end.

And here’s where the truth of those books falls short. Because hope exists. Not in this world. Not in government or hedonism or power or science — none of the things exposed in the novels. Hope lies in God alone.

Some readers who prefer happy-ending stories say that the hope shown in books like romances, however temporary, creates a longing for the permanent hope and joy Christ provides.

Others say such hope is false, a superficial sham that hides reality and covers over what ought to be exposed.

Tolkien, however, says that escape from what imprisons is a positive thing, to be encouraged. Hence “faery stories” are ideal because they raise the reader, ennoble him, infuse him not only with hope but the desire to do greater deeds, to be a better person.

Perhaps there’s a place for both. I, for one, am glad I read the dystopian stories I’ve read, and I’m even gladder that I’ve read a fair number of faery stories.

I can’t help but think, however, that Tolkien may have sold himself short. I think his Lord of the Rings trilogy was dystopian fantasy set in Middle Earth. Rather than having his protagonist fail, though, he had him fail and succeed. It’s part of Tolkien’s genius, perhaps, that he showed the world as it is and that he offered hope.