Folks, I’m sorry about the length of time between reviews here at Shiny Book Review. There are a number of reasons for that, including a catastrophic hard-drive failure and putting the final touches on A LITTLE ELFY IN BIG TROUBLE while also trying to hash out editorial changes for CHANGING FACES. Both are due out within weeks of each other (no more than six weeks between them), so I’ve been completely focused on that to the detriment of much else — including book reviewing.
That’s why you’re getting a 2-for-1 special today. I’d hoped to review Emily St. John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN on Thursday, but time did not allow. And I’d planned already to review Rysa Walker’s TIMEBOUND for our Romance Saturday at SBR promotion.
So, here we are…let’s get started!
Emily St. John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN is a post-apocalyptic dystopia of an unusual type. Mandel postulates that a nasty flu, something thousands of times worse than the Swine Flu or even the Spanish Flu of 1918 has hit the entire world. This flu devastates the world economy, to the point that almost nothing can function. People are thrown back into barbarity, left without electricity, without phones, without computers. And must try to survive.
You’re probably rolling your eyes by now and thinking, “So, Barb, what’s so interesting about that? Other people have done that before. What gives?”
Well, Mandel uses an unusual device to structure her novel. She finds a way to revolve everything around one man — an actor, Arthur Leander. While he’s not the plague-carrier, and while he’s also not truly the protagonist, everyone at the heart of this novel knows something about him and are connected, in a weird way, to one another — whether they know it or not.
We start out in our world, as Arthur Leander is on stage for the very last time, performing as King Lear. The fiftyish Leander is about to have a heart attack — meaning he misses the plague and all its fallout — and several people try to revive him, including Jeevan Chaudhary. Jeevan comes into contact with a child actress named Kirsten Raymonde, who’s been standing by watching Leander die without anyone paying attention…then as we see Jeevan struggle to keep himself and his paraplegic brother alive during the next few desperate weeks, Kirsten fades to the background.
She’s next seen at the age of twenty-eight, still an actress, performing with the Traveling Symphony — a group of actors and musicians who travel about using horse-drawn wagons cannibalized from old pickup trucks. She’s grown old before her time, has lost teeth, has dealt with privation and even had to kill people who’d tried to hurt her or others in the Traveling Symphony. But she still believes in what she does, and feels it’s the only way she can make any sort of positive difference in the world.
See, in twenty years, the world has lost nearly everything. Medical care has devolved; if you step on a nail, you can die of lockjaw as no medicines are available to help you. If you get food poisoning, you probably will die, because you’re weaker than you should be due to the lack of decent food. If you have a fever, the only treatments that seem to work are holistic things like soaking rags in water (which maybe isn’t even cold, as most people can’t figure out how to make ice any more, absent electricity and refrigeration).
And groups like the Traveling Symphony are warmly welcomed as a way to break up the monotony.
Then Mandel shifts again to Leander and his three ex-wives. We see the first of them, Miranda, who’s an artist — it’s her graphic novel, not-so-coincidentally called “Station Eleven,” that Leander gives to Kirsten a day or two before he dies, as Leander was given it as a present by Miranda and he doesn’t know what else to do with it. And we view her life before and after Arthur — she becomes a powerful executive and dies in Malaysia of the plague.
And we see Leander’s best friend, Clark, who gets stranded in a regional airport in Michigan due to plague concerns, who eventually runs into Kirsten as well.
All of this sounds much more amorphous than it actually is. Mandel found a way to make this humane. She shows all of these people in a nonjudgmental way. They are all flawed, including Kirsten. But they all have their strengths, too — and what’s good about them, what’s creative about them, is what somehow survives despite the way the economy has collapsed and also despite the way many humans have actually seemed to embrace the barbarism.
Mandel looks at consumer culture — iPhones, laptops, even handheld book readers — with a jaundiced eye, but even there shows the good things about it. How it helps to connect us. How losing it suddenly actually makes the barbarism that follows even worse. And how some people in this new, post-apocalyptic world don’t even want their children to know just how far the human race has fallen — because they’re afraid if they admit it, they’ll have to deal with their own buried grief over what they have become.
All of this is told in a decidedly matter-of-fact way. This is just what life is, after the plague (a word Mandel doesn’t use by the way). This is how they all have to survive.
But the hope is that if some — like Clark, who’s decided to make a museum out of the airport and collects the non-working technology of the early 2000s to show people what life was once like — can remember well enough, perhaps at least some of the “old world” can be restored.
Or at least kindness can continue, in its odd and disparate ways.
STATION ELEVEN is a phenomenal novel. It is strong, it is uncompromising, and yet it is somehow very hopeful.
The only thing Rysa Walker has in common with Emily St. John Mandel is that they both were once indie writers. (Well, they’re also both very good writers — but I’ll get to that.)
Walker’s debut novel, TIMEBOUND, was originally published independently as TIME”S TWISTED ARROW. (But as I didn’t read it or review it while it was an indie — shame on me! — I’m only going to refer it as TIMEBOUND from here on out.) It stars Kate PIerce-Keller, whose real first name is Prudence — but of course she hates it. She’s sixteen, a prep school student in Washington, DC, and is told two things very early on: Her grandmother, Katherine, is dying of cancer. And her grandmother is a time-traveler, marooned in time due to some deliberate machinations by other time-traveling bad actors.
Of course Kate doesn’t want to believe this. But Katharine shows Kate a medallion which glows blue; her parents can’t see it, but Kate can. And once Kate is nearly dragged somewhere in time by the medallion, Kate believes that it’s definitely out of the ordinary.
Then something happens to alter the timestream. Her parents never met each other, and Kate should not exist; she does solely because she wore one of these medallions (called a “Chronos device”) around her neck when the timestream shifted. And the school she’s been going to doesn’t recognize her, either. Even Kate’s best friend, Charmayne, no longer recognizes Kate.
Obviously, Kate is in big trouble. Time-traveling malcontents are out to stop her, because they believe that she can somehow stop them from perverting the timeline and doing whatever they want. And she has next to no allies.
Then, a young man, Trey, fortuitously comes into Kate’s life. (Trey would not have met Kate except for the timeline being muddled by the others using the Chronos device for their own gain.) And he decides he’s going to help her, because despite it all, he believes that Kate is telling the truth even though he can’t see the glow from the Chronos device any more than her parents could.
Kate’s only other allies are her grandmother and her grandmother’s “research assistant” (a younger man who lives with Katharine and wants the original timeline restored for reasons of his own). This is useful, because it means Kate isn’t entirely alone — but only Kate can use the Chronos device due to being genetically suited for it.
Then an attempt is made on Katharine’s life. And Kate must go back to 1893 to stop it.
Will Kate manage to survive long enough to save her grandmother? And will her new boyfriend, Trey, remember her if she does?
Also, what’s going on with the mysterious Kiernan — a dark-haired, enigmatic young man who seems to know Kate, even though Kate’s never laid eyes on him in her life?
All of these questions will be answered. But of course they lead to even more questions…which is just as well, as there are a number of sequels (and prequels) yet to be read and savored.
TIMEBOUND’s a fun, fresh, fast-reading YA novel. It has romance, intrigue, derring-do, excellent characterization and plot up the ying-yang.
My recommendation? You should grab both of these novels and read them as fast as you can. Then turn around and read them again. And yet again.
Grades: TIMEBOUND and STATION ELEVEN both get an A-plus.
Go read these impressive novels already!
–reviewed by Barb