Book reviews: Superpowered Teenagers edition

Today we have another “themed” reading round-up.  Superpowered teens are close my heart as I have, in the deep dark recesses of my mind, a trilogy of stories about a group of teens with elemental superpowers.  They’ve lived in there since I was in high school, and maybe someday they’ll see the light of day.  In the meantime, here’s some other books to help you get your fix.

 Just as a reminder:

5/5–I would buy this
4/5–I will re-read this
3/5–I might read this again
2/5–I have no interest in reading this again
1/5–I couldn’t finish this

youngelites The Young Elites (Marie Lu)

 3.5/5 stars

A new series from the author of Legend, and it begins with an origin story…of a kind.  Adelina Amouteru, marked as a survivor of the blood fever, runs away from home and ends up joining a group of other survivors who have also developed special powers; they are called the Young Elites, and they mean to use their powers to change society.

There are a lot of grey characters here, which I loved, but the world-building was not as good/developed as Legend.  The book ends in a way I did not expect, and I felt it like a gut punch.  Looking forward to seeing what comes next in the series.

 

dangerous

Dangerous (Shannon Hale)

4/5 stars

A foray into sci-fi from one of my favorite fairy tale authors.  A group of teenagers led by Maisie “Danger” Brown is gifted with powers by alien technology and must use those powers to stop an alien threat.  It actually reminded me a bit of the Lorien Legacies series (see below), if LL had been better written and all shoved into one book.

I found the characters to be well-developed and quite diverse (the protagonist herself is missing an arm, but uses technology to compensate).  My only downsides were the invading aliens were a little lame, and I could have done with a little less of the teenage romantic drama.  The story does have distinct parts to it, but I’m undecided as to whether it would have been better served by a series instead.  Honestly, it’s kind of a relief to have a stand-alone YA novel!

 

Therevengeofseven

The Revenge of Seven (Pittacus Lore)

3/5 stars

This installment of the Lorien Legacies series raises the stakes for the Garde as their enemy Setrákus Ra reveals himself on Earth.  I have been a little critical of these books, but they are enjoyable in a summer blockbuster/popcorn flick kind of way, and I think they are improving as the plot gets more complex and characters get better development.  I think this was the best so far.

 

the-blood-of-olympus

The Blood of Olympus (Rick Riordan)

3/5 stars

The final book of the Heroes of Olympus series was a nice finale in some ways, but fell short in others.  I did enjoy getting to know Reyna better, but it seems a little late in the game to start the backstory of a “new” character, and as a result “older” characters like Percy and Annabeth felt a bit crowded out.  I very much enjoyed the end (or maybe the beginning?) of Nico and Leo’s stories, though Leo’s was a bit vague.  And I was disappointed in the final 2 battles, which went by much too quickly and without much surprise, unlike the real climax of the battle of New York from the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. I enjoyed the series, but I will be glad to see Riordan move on to something new with Norse mythology.

2014 Reading Review

I read approximately 50 “new” books (including a few graphic novels) this year.  Here are some that stood out:

leviathan wakesSci-Fi:

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

This book, the first in The Expanse series, is summer blockbuster sci-fi at its finest.  Here’s my original mention.  I am looking forward to reading the other books in the series (which is being adapted for TV) in the upcoming year.

I recently played Eclipse Phase, a tabletop RPG, which reminded me greatly of Leviathan Wakes.  The setting has some similar elements, and the Ego Hunter one-shot we played really had some of the same concepts and themes.  Definitely recommend it if you are a fan.

YA series:

The Thief by MW Turner, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Legend by Marie Lu

This year was for me the year of YA series.  I had a lot to catch up on (and still do) because there’s been an explosion of YA fantasy and dystopian series in the past few years.  These were 3 that really stood out to me as adding something to the genre.

The Queen’s Thief (now a 4-book series) is definitely the most intelligent of the lot. Some of the best YA writing I’ve read recently, and you must be a careful reader.  The characters feel like dear friends at this point.  Here’s my original review.

I was ready to write off The Girl of Fire and Thorns as being slightly above average when I gave the second book, The Crown of Embers, a chance and was blown away.  If you like YA fantasy romance, look no further.  Here’s my original review.

While I had some issues with the stupid science writing in Champion, it did not detract from my appreciation for the exciting Legend series.  There were some really nice sci-fi elements that elevated it from other dystopias, and the two main characters, June and Day, have really stayed with me.  Here’s my original review.  I recently read Marie Lu’s The Young Elites and I look forward to more books from her.

Parkour!Latest installment:

Skin Game (The Dresden Files) by Jim Butcher

I can’t believe these books are still this amazing at number 15 in the series.  Here’s my review.

countofmc“Literature”:

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

A very very long book, but there’s a reason it’s a classic.  I began reading this one when I went to Europe way back in 2012, but finally got it finished over a long weekend early in 2014.  If all you know is the 2002 Jim Caviezel movie (which I admit is good), then I highly recommend you pick up an abridged copy.  Hint: the book ending is different.

Fellow bloggers:

Not surprisingly, many of my fellow bloggers are authors.  Two standouts this year:

  • Benevolence Archives by Luther M. Siler, a humorous series of short stories in kind of a Star Wars/D&D mashup world (my review)–it’s FREE at Smashwords
  • Kiss of the Fey by Charlotte Cyprus, a quick fantasy romance (my review)

Saga1Graphic novel:

Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Just got volume 4 and I’m still in love.  Here’s my original review.

Bad Biology in Marie Lu’s Champion

*SPOILERS* ahead for Legend, Prodigy, and especially Champion by Marie Lu.

 

As I’ve been reading popular YA dystopian series, I’ve noticed a common motif: plagues.  The Matched, Maze Runner, and Legend series all have a plot element (generally in the 3rd book) involving some kind of terrible disease that main characters are trying to stop.  This element is used for societal and ethical commentary, because these plagues were engineered and unleashed by people. However, using a disease as a plot device opens the door to biological science fiction, which is something I really enjoy…when it’s done well.

Sorry, Eureka, that's not how you pipette. Nope.
Sorry, Eureka, that’s not how you pipette. Nope.

Now, I really enjoyed Champion, the finale of the Legend trilogy, but its biology is utter crap.

The first two books, Legend and Prodigy, don’t really go into biological details, and that’s fine.  We know that Day’s brother Eden is being used as a bioweapon against the Colonies, having been infected with a virus by the Republic government.  June, who as one of the Republic’s elite has had regular vaccinations against the plague viruses, also came down sick with something as she and Day were escaping to the Colonies.

The science starts to take a turn for the worse in Champion.  First, the Colonies threaten to halt the peace process unless the Republic provides the cure for the viral plague spreading through their territory; the Republic government assumes it’s Eden’s plague and requests to study him to develop the cure.  Herein lies our first problem: who in their right mind would attack a NEIGHBORING COUNTRY with a weaponized virus without first having the cure, or at least retaining samples to study?  It’s no good if you win the war, only to kill your own population when the virus makes its way back to you, which it inevitably will if it’s as extremely contagious as you designed it to be.

This is merely a flaw of logic; it can be waved away by supposing that the Republic is a thoroughly incompetent government.  Almost exactly ¾ of the way through Champion, we reach flaws in biology.

Scientists tell June that they haven’t been able to develop a cure from Eden’s blood, because the virus attacking the Colonies is a mutated form.  The cure they are trying to develop consists of “cure particles” which attach to an infected cell and keep it from lysing (breaking) open and dying.  But the mutated virus paradigm somehow changes the way the cure particles interact with the cells, and the ones made from Eden’s blood can’t attach to the cells infected with the mutated virus…

This explanation takes at least two pages, where plenty of scientific jargon is thrown around, and none of it makes any sense.  I am not even clear on whether the “tubes” are initially part of the cure particles or the cell itself.

Viruses do work by attacking a cell, then commandeering its machinery to produce more copies of itself, then lysing the cell open to let the new copies of the virus spread.  But treating a virus typically doesn’t mean stopping the cells themselves from lysing, but rather encouraging the immune system to attack the virus itself more effectively.

Most of what we do to treat viruses relies on the principle of antigens and antibodies in the immune system.  When our body recognizes virus invaders (“antigens”), it creates specific antibodies to attach to them, which prevents them from entering cells and also helps direct other aspects of the immune system to destroy them.

This wikipedia schematic shows how antibodies bind to specific antigens with a "lock and key" model
This wikipedia schematic shows how antibodies bind to specific antigens with a “lock and key” model

The idea that Eden and June’s blood could hold the key to treatment of the virus follows this principle.  In the current Ebola epidemic, we have seen survivor Dr. Kent Brantly’s blood used to successfully treat one other patient, and is now being tried for two others, including the Dallas nurse who contracted the disease on American soil.  His blood serum has antibodies against the virus, which when transfused into another patient will help effectively tag the virus for the patient’s immune system to destroy.

So, the book’s “cure particles” seem similar to antibodies, but it has confused their target, which is the viral particles themselves, not the cells they infect.  (I still have no idea what the “tubes” are meant to be.)  Unless the setting is meant to be in an alternate universe (no indication of this in the books), antigens and antibodies would still work the same in future North America as they do now, and I doubt the knowledge regarding them would have been lost in ~100 years.

So to take that concept further, it also makes no sense that Eden and June would have to go through all kinds of harrowing tests, including taking bone marrow (?!), when all that’s needed is the antibodies in their blood.

The supposed mutation of the virus is another issue.  We find out that Eden is not Patient 0 for the Colonies’ current virus after all; the virus is actually a combination of Eden’s and the one that June had while crossing the border.  (Shouldn’t June’s vaccinations have protected her?  Was she only vaccinated against viruses prevalent in LA?  Or are the vaccinations a sham to keep the populace calm?)

Viruses mutate naturally all the time; that’s why the components of flu vaccines change from year to year.  (However, there’s no reason to think Ebola will mutate specifically to become airborne.) I don’t know how likely it is for two random viruses to combine together naturally.  It can and does happen with similar strains of viruses, like two types of influenza; it’s called “antigenic shift” and is thought to be responsible for several flu outbreaks, including the H1N1 outbreak of 2009.  But we have no way of knowing if Eden and June’s viruses are at all similar.  So the scientist’s assertion that the Colonies tampered with the virus to create the new mutated strain could make sense.

Except…there’s no scientific way that I know of to prove it.  Splicing DNA or RNA together generally doesn’t leave any kind of fingerprint, certainly not a “marker” that could be “labeled” in a cell.  Perhaps if the Colonies’ scientists added extra “foreign” DNA or RNA not found in either virus?  But the Republic scientists would have had to sequence the whole viral DNA to find it, analyze what every gene does, then develop a way to tag the foreign ones.  And I can’t think of a reason for the Colonies to do that anyway.

Lastly, where are the original researchers that did the bioweapon research on Eden?  They should be involved in making the cure, since they oversaw the development of the virus.  Instead, we have random doctors at the hospital working on Eden and Tess, and a “lab tech” explaining the science to June.  Perhaps all the lead researchers have been executed, or Day refused to let them around his brother to avoid trauma.  But for such an important project, with the future of the country literally at stake, it seems the people with the most expertise should have been called in.

http://xkcd.com/683/
http://xkcd.com/683/

All these scientific inaccuracies cannot be fully explained away by the story; the fault lies with the author.  I truly wish Marie Lu had biologists critique these pages, or even better, left them out entirely, and not just because it would have slightly increased my enjoyment of the book.  With the current Ebola outbreak and inane controversies over vaccination, it’s important for people, especially young adults, to be scientifically literate about virology and immunology.  While the bad science probably doesn’t do any harm, Champion could have been used to educate young people about how viruses work, and how we try to fight them.   A sad missed opportunity in an otherwise great book.


I am not an epidemiologist/virologist/immunologist, but I do have a degree in zoology and work in medical research.  If you think any of my science in this post is wrong, or if you have any better explanation of the virology as presented in the book, I would love to be corrected and learn more.  Also, I’ve only read this series once and I don’t own it, so please correct me on any details from the books that may be relevant.

Book reviews: Legend series by Marie Lu

This year I’m trying to catch up on my YA genre trilogies, specifically the dystopias.  I read The Hunger Games several years ago, but never followed up on any of the books that came in its wake.  I did Divergent back in spring, and The Maze Runner is up next.  Right now, we’re talking about Legend.

legendLike Hunger Games, Legend (Marie Lu) takes place in a future North America, apparently post-climate change and at war with itself.  June Iparis has been training to be a military officer for the Republic of America since she entered university at the young age of twelve.  Now at fifteen, the murder of her older brother sets her on the hunt for his killer, leading to discoveries that will make her question her loyalty to the totalitarian government.

Although it has its faults, I very much enjoyed reading this series, which consists of Legend, Prodigy, and Champion, plus two short stories in Life Before Legend.

The biggest strength of the series is the two main characters, June and Day.  June is my absolute favorite female YA protagonist of all the current popular series.  I really related to the way she thinks and perceives the world, kind of soberly calculating.  Day, in contrast, wears his heart on his sleeve and never hesitates to act with his feelings.  (Plus the way he throws around the term “sweetheart” gives him a young Han Solo vibe.) They make such a great team: equals intellectually and physically, with different but complementary personalities.  And they have way more chemistry than just about any other YA couple I can think of!

I actually enjoyed the switches in perspective between June and Day; both feel very much alive and have wonderfully distinct voices in the chapters they narrate.  The use of different fonts/colors for each was actually totally unnecessary and a little distracting.

The template for the trilogy was pretty standard YA dystopia: beginning in tightly controlled totalitarian state, with the fight for freedom there spilling out into the larger world, which is no paradise either, having problems of its own.  I liked all three books about equally: Legend was a great beginning, Prodigy upped the complexity nicely (and that last chapter killed me!!!), and Champion had a fairly satisfying ending that fit the tone of the series: grounded (and maybe slightly melodramatic), but overall hopeful.

It was clear to me from reading these books that author Marie Lu is a gamer, so I think nerds especially will enjoy them.  Just the way she describes Day’s Running escapades reminds me of the kind of video game parkour seen in games like Assassin’s Creed (mentioned in her bio!), Prince of Persia, Mirror’s Edge, Infamous, etc.  And her conceptualization of Antarctica is a gamer’s dream country!

I was, however, a little disappointed with some of the sci-fi elements of the trilogy.  Specifically, the science involving the mutant virus in Champion is a mess; I’ll try to break this down in another post.  I wish some of the popular dystopias would take their science more seriously; I’d love to see more teens reading real sci-fi, as it’s one thing that inspired me to go into biology.

Tl;drAn engaging YA dystopian trilogy with plenty of action/romance and great characterization (and a bit of sketchy science) 4/5 stars