Thursday, April 3, 2014

Reading Notes: The Big Dry and The Sky So Heavy

This double review covers book 3 and 4 of my commitment to try to read and review the YA nominee list for the Australian speculative fiction awards - the Aurealis Awards. 4 down, 1 to go, and the clock is ticking as the prize is announced on Saturday night! I'm going to try to get the last one reviewed and up on Saturday, but we'll have to see how things work out.

The first two Aurealis YA nominees that I read, which I reviewed on Sunday were both fantasies featuring magic, strong but beleaguered female protagonists, and happy (ish) endings. Both were, basically, fun to read; both, although gruesome by patches, were essentially hopeful books.

Little did I know when I randomly grabbed the next two off the list that the mood of my Aurealis reading was about to plummet sharply. Because the two books I'm reviewing here are different kinds of post-apocalyptic dystopias, and both are, frankly, pretty damn depressing reads. This is not a criticism - I'd suggest that any post-apoc worth its salt is going to conjure up a few paranoid sads - but it is something of a reader advisory. Dear Reader, do not follow my example and read these back to back within 48 hours while also fighting off a cold and coping with multiple life stressors. You will be a very, very sad panda indeed if you do. (Ask me how I know...)

It's interesting to me that both of these books feature young male protagonists motivated largely by the need to care for younger male siblings. It's almost eerie, how similar the set-ups are if you consider the four books as two paired sets. The girls got the sweeter end of the deal this time, with the two fantasy heroines, Isola and Ash, emerging into decidedly brighter futures, while the best these bleak sci fi landscapes have to offer George and Fin is the weak sauce of "Not dead yet, and neither's the kid brother!"

Claire Zorn's The Sky So Heavy is a very classic post-nuclear apocalypse story, set in the Blue Mountains and Sydney, and featuring the quest for survival undergone by Fin, his younger brother Max, and their ally Arnold (Noll) and Fin's love interest, Lucy.  The book is pretty scary in all the ways that a post-apoc is meant to be scary - bombs far away, rapid nuclear winter, the failure of essential services, the absent (presumed dead) parents, the rapid loss of access to food, the fear and despair as people turn on their neighbours. It's convincingly chilling in its storyline - well, it does require a small suspension of disbelief to go along with the mere fact of Fin and Max's survival given some of the events of the story, but if you can allow that one gimme, it works. It's not a desperately original story - I felt all through that the tropes and themes were very, very familiar, and the story takes no unexpected turns - but it's extremely well executed, and will freak out unprepared readers quite nicely, I think.

The Big Dry's catastrophe is different - climate change induced drought, leading to various and many disasters, but its story arc is astoundingly similar to that in The Sky So Heavy. The cast of characters are younger here - main protagonist George is 13 and his little brother Beeper is 6, contrasted with Fin and Max's 17 / 12 - and the tone and style reflects this, with simpler language and less time spent speculating on the ways of man and so forth. Indeed, to me, these books illustrate the range of readers targeted by YA - a 9 year old strong reader could manage Dry, while Heavy definitely has an older feel to it. As an adult reader, I found Dry less satisfying, although I acknowledge the craft with which it was constructed and I do think it a very good book of its type. It's just that it felt like it wasn't getting down to business often enough, but as I am not the target audience, that's probably an unfair criticism.

Overall? These are both good books, neither is a stand-out of its type or radically original, but both are worth a read. I'll be giving The Big Dry to my 11-year-old to read, but I'll hold The Sky So Heavy back for a while, I think. Post-apoc is scary, and my own brain has been too tenderised this week to want to inflict that on my kid!

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