Friday, February 15, 2013

First Read Friday: The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann


     Title: The Unwanteds
     Author: Lisa McMann
     Publisher: Aladdin
     Published: August 30, 2011
     Number of Pages: 390
     Genre(s): Fantasy, YA, Dystopian
     Date Read: February 11, 2013
     Acquired: Wal-Mart

Quill is a veritable fortress, surrounded by high walls with only one closely guarded gate, even the sky above is caged in, whether it is to keep enemies out or the populace within under control only the High Priestess knows for sure, and as her word is law, no one dares to question. After all who would try and rise up against a tyrant who ritualistically annually declares that a certain portion of Quill's population that have just turned 13 will be culled and sent to die in a lake of boiling oil?

Alex knows this is his rate, he knew from the moment he defied the High Priestess's ridiculous edicts. He knows, and is constantly reminded that Quill has little value for creativity, the Quillitary, and High Priestess Justine especially, value strength, detachment and clear headed logic above all else. And so it is that Alex is selected for culling as an Unwanted while his identical brother Aaron has been labelled not just Necessary like their parents but given the title of Wanted, the highest honour a citizen of Quill can hold.

So it is that Alex and the other Unwanted children are sent to the ominous Death Farm to face the Eliminators; when they arrive they put on stoic faces and bravely face the prospect of their deaths, only to be told, by the Death Farmer no less, that he has no plans to kill them. For he is a Mage and he has created a magical haven for the Unwanteds where they can be safe and free to not only hone their creative skills, but to use them as weapons in case they ever have to defend themselves against Quill should the High Priestess find out how Mr. Today has been defying her for so many years. Alex has finally found a place where he is wanted and can be himself, but what will happen when his new found peace is threatened? Can Artimé and the Unwanteds really prevail over the mechanical might of the Quillitary?

First and foremost I have to say that even though I adore the cover image on this book, how could I not it's got a flying stone feline and live origami fire breathing dragons, that it's actually a really poor cover choice. It gives away FAR too much. After reading the book I really wish they'd gone with a desolate image of Quill instead, it would have intensified the dystopian nature of Quill and the abject horror of the idea of culling 13 year olds just for being creative, which is one of the main draws of the blurb. A missed and wasted opportunity in my opinion. Although one that somewhat continued into the story itself. McMann is obviously trying to create a place and a leader that the reader will be horrified by and hate, try to make us see just how horribly the people of Quill have it. But it never goes quite far enough, yes the practice of culling children because they aren't logical or emotionless is cruel, unusual and disturbing, but the jacket blurb and cover have both already given away that this practice doesn't actually take place, and aside from that practice and the fact that Justine is a cold-hearted dictator, the people of Quill don't live in abject poverty or squallor, Quill seems to me to be more of a cross between Castro era Cuba and Medieval England than an Orwellian dystopia. I get it, the target audience for this series is tweens, but that's the same target audience that both Harry Potter and The Hunger Games were targeted towards and the covers claim that this book is "The Hunger games meets Harry Potter" led me to believe that there was going to be some darker content, and all it did was hint at it, it just didn't go far enough for my taste.

My other complaint is that it was super rushed. If you will allow me to compare it to Harry Potter for a few minutes, let me say this on the subject of magical education in each series; it takes a good 3-4 books arguably in HP for the kids to become proficient enough in magic to hold their own in head to head combat with other wizards, actually I'd probably say they aren't really capable of that until book 5, that's 3-5 years of magical education and training. The kids in Unwanteds are shown to be mastering their respective arts and moving on to magical warrior training after only a few weeks and it's not like these kids had ANY experience before coming to Artimé, they came from a place that banned all creativity. The climax of the book takes place around the 1 year mark of their arrival and they are able to not only hold their own but win in a battle against an army, granted the army they are going up against doesn't have magic but still I find it incredibly hard to believe that this group of 13 year olds could have gotten that good that fast.

That all being said overall it was a thoroughly enjoyable read, the characters where likeable, with the exceptions of Will, Justine and Aaron, the antagonists, McMann was clearly on a mission to make these characters as unlike-able as possible because I can't think of a single redeeming quality in any of them, and for the blurb I've read for the second book in the series apparently Aaron is only going to get even more unlike-able. The use of creativity as magic was entertaining, the idea of a stinging soliloquy or fire step is pretty neat, but I like the idea of literally boring your enemy to death with a story best, because I think we've all felt in the past that we had teachers who were doing that to us at one point or another. 

Any really creative person can easily sympathise with the Unwanteds and Artimé is a truly imaginative place filled with wonders, it's really easy to get into Artimé and want to know more. This book definitely kept me engaged and even though it didn't push the envelope as much as I wanted, and I found the pacing awkward I liked the book I believe it does its best to try and live up to the promise of being The Hunger Games for Harry Potter fans (although in my experience Potterphiles in general seem to be a large portion of The Hunger Games fanbase) and I am looking forward to reading the next one in the series as soon as I've made a noticeable dent in the pile. (Been banned from bringing any more new books into the house until I have done so...)


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