Seventeen-year-old Riven is as tough as they come. Coming from a world ravaged by a devastating android war, she has to be. There’s no room for softness, no room for emotion, no room for mistakes. A Legion General, she is the right hand of the young Prince of Neospes, a parallel universe to Earth. In Neospes, she has everything: rank, responsibility and respect. But when Prince Cale sends her away to find his long-lost brother, Caden, who has been spirited back to modern day Earth, Riven finds herself in uncharted territory.Honestly, I found this book very disappointing. First off, the first chunk was set mostly in a US high school, which I wasn't expecting (and which I thought might be because I'd forgotten the blurb, but no, it's right there, no mention of it) and wasn't in the mood for. I am, generally speaking, increasingly sick of reading about US high schools these days, and prefer to be warned so I can be in the mood to enjoy it more. Mind you, my favourite scene did occur in the high school setting when Riven beat up a bunch of would-be gang rapists and rescued a drugged girl, so there's that going for it.
Thrown out of her comfort zone but with the mindset of a soldier, Riven has to learn how to be a girl in a realm that is the opposite of what she knows. Riven isn’t prepared for the beauty of a world that is unlike her own in so many ways. Nor is she prepared to feel something more than indifference for the very target she seeks. Caden is nothing like Cale, but he makes something in her come alive, igniting a spark deep down that goes against every cell in her body. For the first time in her life, Riven isn’t sure about her purpose, about her calling. Torn between duty and desire, she must decide whether Caden is simply a target or whether he is something more.
Faced with hideous reanimated Vector soldiers from her own world with agendas of their own, as well as an unexpected reunion with a sister who despises her, it is a race against time to bring Caden back to Neospes. But things aren’t always as they seem, and Riven will have to search for truth. Family betrayals and royal coups are only the tip of the iceberg. Will Riven be able to find the strength to defy her very nature? Or will she become the monstrous soldier she was designed to be?
I don't think Howard has done a perfect job of capturing Riven's voice. At times I felt there was more "telling" me she was a hard-as-nails soldier than showing me. I do acknowledge that this is a very difficult kind of voice to capture, and certainly isn't my biggest complaint. But although I usually like anti-heroes and morally questionable characters, I never warmed to Riven throughout the book. I think at some times the author was playing it safe instead of going all in and showing us her real homicidal thought patterns. Not that there aren't homicidal thought patterns, but they were often along the lines of "I could easily kill [whoever]" instead of anything more creepy or shocking. A bit of unrealised potential here. I was hoping for a story which spent more time (like, any) questioning the nature of humanity, which is what I was expecting from the title.
Once I started reading and found myself in the US, I was looking forward to finally seeing the other world that Riven comes from. Mostly I liked that aspect. The zombie soldiers (Vectors) were suitably creepy and difficult to kill and the half-animal, half-machine creatures that lived in the wastelands also added to the setting. The society, however, wasn't quite as consistent or interesting as I would have liked. It was inconsistent, particularly, on the topic of gender equality. At first all signs pointed to fairly equal, if brutal (the main character, a teenage girl, is a general after all) but later there were some throw-away elements that belied that impression (the role of courtesans, a girl being punished for a boy liking her), leaving me unsure what to think. My issue, by the way, isn't with the nature of the society either way but how it was portrayed.
And the science. Oh goodness, don't go into this book expecting anything resembling actual science. To explain the universe jumping technique of eversion, it looked like the author just threw sciencey-sounding words at the page and hoped. For example "sub-quantum" mechanics was thrown up several times — often in conjunction with string theory and/or gravity distortion — and let me tell you the very definition of the word quantum ensures that it makes no sense with the prefix "sub" in front of it. This annoyed me. So did a later section which talked about natural selection on a cellular level over the span of a human gestation, which just, buh? And I'm no biologist.
This book didn't work for me. It wasn't the worst thing I've ever read, but I don't think I'll be bothering with the sequel. Readers looking for an action story with lots of fighting may enjoy The Almost Girl. Readers looking for science fiction in their YA would be better off looking elsewhere.
3 / 5 stars
First published: January 2014, Strange Chemistry
Series: Yes. Book 1 of 2.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley