Book Review: Worldshaker

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Book: Worldshaker
Series: Worldshaker, Book 1
Author: Richard Harland
Genres: YA, steampunk, sci-fi, adventure

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“Col Porpentine understands how society works: The elite families enjoy a comfortable life on the Upper Decks of the great juggernaut Worldshaker, and the Filthies toil Below Decks. Col’s grandfather, the Supreme Commander of Worldshaker, is grooming Col as his successor.
Used to keep Worldshaker moving, Filthies are like animals, unable to understand language or think for themselves. Or so Col believes before he meets Riff, a Filthy girl on the run who is clever and quick. If Riff is telling the truth, then everything Col has been told is a lie. And Col has the power to do something about it—even if it means risking his whole future.”

Notes of Interest:

The last book review I did was on the steampunk novel Boneshaker. It is therefore necessary to mention these books have nothing to do with each other and were written by two different authors.
I chose to read this book because I was looking for something steampunk to read. I didn’t realize it was YA because it was a borrowed book, rather than a purchased book. But as soon as I started reading that became apparent through both the character depictions and the writing style. (Not a bad thing for me; I enjoy YA.) The main characters are teens, and the plot is very straightforward; its message concerning class revolution and the incompetence of biased education systems is very overt.

What could have made it better for me:

If it wasn’t a YA book, I would say it’s under-developed. This is the kind of story that could have all kinds of subtle layers, especially if parts of it had been told from the pov of the characters living on the lower decks or through the eyes of the upper crust villains to flesh them out more.

What I liked about it:

It satisfied my desire for a steampunk story. I enjoyed the corny humor offered in the classroom and the tongue-in-cheek commentary on how the education system plays up to privilege. I like that the leading female was a leader, but the focus of the book wasn’t on her. (Considering the second book is called Liberator, I assume her story becomes the focus of the second book in the series.)
Personally, my favourite parts were the various ways that the virtues of the upper class were pressed upon the youth. I think I internalized this because of my own experiences growing up in religious schools, but the schoolmaster admonishing his students with, “We must live pure lives and think pure thoughts,” hit a little too close to home. It was over the top in how it had the schoolmaster’s means of dealing with “impure” thoughts by beating the students with canes and how he carried this division between “good” and “bad” to extremes … such as instructing the students that a “right” angle is a good angle, but an “obtuse” angle is a bad angle. Yet there is so much in reality I could reflect on regarding an upbringing where using the “rod” to correct impure thinking is acceptable, and everything (literally everything that influences culture) must be categorized as “good” or “evil”.
That same philosophical darkness resulting from “thought policing” or indoctrination is shown in how and why the filthies are turned into menials. Upon preparing to surgically alter Riff’s mind, Ebnolia says, “These are your limiters, to limit your mind. … You have so many more thoughts than you really need. When you’ve been limited, you’ll still have lots of nice small thoughts, but no big nasty ones.” Of course, this kind of authoritarian environment brings up ethical questions regarding free will, human rights, and abuse of power, which I enjoy reading about regardless of how subtle or overt the plot exploring the concepts.
I also enjoyed the author’s take on an alternate history based in the Napoleonic Wars and Industrial Revolution.

Recommendation:

This was an entertaining, easy read. It’s a good introduction to plots regarding class warfare and revolution. It had an exaggerated humour about it that could be a hit or miss depending on the reader’s sense of humour. Part of me wishes the characters or plot had been more complex, but its method of characterization was effective for straightforward storytelling purposes. For YA genre, that is an acceptable allowance.

The Virtues of YA

My head is killing me and my eyeballs are about to bleed, but I’ve made over 10,000 word cuts to The Atheling so far. My tactic for downsizing the story while keeping every scene is working, so far. I’m under my goals every chapter, if not every scene, and I have 5 chapters left in the fourth revision. My goal was to revise a chapter a day, so I have not taken any days off since the beginning of May, but … ganbarimasuyo!  (I’m working hard and giving it my best!) I will have this book done by July if it kills me. Apologies again for the late deadline in order to do a fifth revision.

What’s been keeping me going since I have no time for weekends? Korean dramas, raamen, and lots of coffee. It takes me about an hour to edit one scene. Then I try to accomplish one task around the house. Then I watch one episode of a drama, then go back to work on the next scene. I start around six in the morning … end around midnight. It’s been a long month. But if the story turns out better, it’s worth it. 🙂

Most of the dramas I’ve been watching have been YA lately. YA has gotten a bad rap in recent years, yet it remains one of the biggest selling genres on the market. When I was a kid, there was no YA genre. There was only children’s literature, juvenile literature, and adult fiction. I enjoyed reading all three. When I first started writing, I wanted to write for teens because I was a teen myself, and I appreciated writers out there who created teen protagonists for readers. Though my first novel series is not currently marketed as YA, I’m still sometimes introduced by friends or family as a YA writer. My books have many elements that could qualify it as YA, so one of the reasons I’ve been revisiting visual YA through the dramas is to help me make up my mind whether my books qualify as YA or not … and whether I should switch marketing, or not.

What is YA, and what are its virtues?

The only difference between the “Young Adult” genre and ordinary adult fiction genres is that it contains a “coming of age” theme in at least one of its plots.

There is usually at least one character in his teens, late teens, or early 20’s. And that character must endure some kind of “first” as a plot trial that forces him to step away from childhood dependency, make a mature and independent decision, and face the consequences of that adult responsibility. Like with all characters from any genre, sometimes it takes these characters more than one try to resolve their problems.

I like YA characters because since they’re starting without experience, they have enormous potential for growth throughout the story. It’s not that adult characters can’t be dynamic, it’s just that they already have baggage from decades of experience. The other reason I like YA characters is they tend to be more resilient for that same reason.

YA Is Too Dark

I’ve heard lots of people complain that YA of recent years is too dark … what with all the focus on vampires, werewolves, magic, depression, love triangles, and general Dystopian atmosphere. This is simply not true. In fact I started watching YA again because I needed something fun to make me laugh and wake me up away from the computer briefly.

Look again at that list of literary elements and tell me none of that is present in adult fiction. Dark elements are present in fiction because dark elements exist in reality. Whatever forms the monsters and crucibles take is secondary to the lessons we learn from them. Fiction is truth within lies because it’s easier to digest a fantasy than to look in a mirror. YA is far from being the only genre that does this. All fiction does this in one way or another.

The other issue going on with this complaint is the lack of understanding that YA has subgenres. If you want to read a coming of age story with a young protagonist, reach for YA first. Then choose as you would any other fictional genre. Do you like romance, historical, sci-fi, fantasy, comedy, horror, adventure, or  paranormal? YA has it. You’ll just see it through the eyes of a less experienced protagonist.

YA Is Too Light

Just like people complain that YA is too heavy and dark, there are people who complain that YA isn’t heavy enough. I admit I tend to lump YA into the “shallow” category frequently, but I don’t mean it in a bad way. Perhaps I should switch my use of the term “shallow” to “light”. The problem with comedies and “light” reading is that no one takes it seriously. More awards are given to stories that depict tragedy and trauma than those that make us laugh. But laughter is good, too. Again, this is true of all genres. YA is not the squeaky nail sticking out from the rest.

Although some reader and writer elitists would say otherwise, light literature is not bad. There is value in a story just being a story that can entertain you. It doesn’t have to have layers upon layers of depth to do that. If you need something to help you laugh, and it has you laughing out loud, it accomplished what the author intended. But who says light literature can’t have depth?

Lots of times when people complain about literature being shallow, it’s because they’re looking at the pop culture packaging, rather than truly analyzing the story. And, yes, it takes critical thinking skills to analyze light reading, just as with heavy reading. So, instead of dissing a light work because it’s marketed as pulp fiction, trying digging a little deeper. You might be surprised at what lurks beneath the surface.

I just watched a drama called Shut Up Flower Boy Band about a group of high school boys from a poor neighborhood who wanted to become famous rock stars. I know many people that would roll their eyes at a title like that. But before the story was done I had found three major themes that were surprisingly deep: a reality check on what it takes to succeed in the entertainment industry, a reality check on what happens when dreams fall apart, and the sad truth that when friends grow up, they often grow apart. Believe it or not, the story reminded me of the classic YA book The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, but with a modern, musical twist.

And one of my favourite examples of teen pop culture covering up an incredibly deep plot is Final Fantasy X (yes, the Playstation game). On the surface, it looks like a bunch of young adults heading out to fight the monster that destroys their homes every 10 years. Underneath is a story of a man who thought he was protecting his home, but his desire for revenge ended up destroying everything. It’s a story of necromancy and hypocritical leadership that betrays the trust of its civilians. It’s about a cycle of martyrdom that ends up feeding the destruction again and again and again, simply because no one has the courage to challenge the corrupt authority and make the changes required to end it.

The next time you consider a story “shallow”, I challenge you to look again.

Why Do So Many Adults Read or Watch YA?

Adults face the same challenges as teens, but in a different environment. Everything experienced in youth continues into adulthood under different guises.

The “mean girls” from high school now exist in the PTA. The bullies or rich brats might now be your co-workers, or bosses. Cliques still exist in communities based on interests and familiarity. The feelings of running in the hamster wheel, but not getting anywhere in life no longer apply to mounds of homework and tests, but take on the form of dirty dishes and laundry, lawns that need to stay trimmed, budgets, bills, business reports, and client management. And in the case of divorce, a child leaving home, a move, a marriage, a job promotion, continuing education, etc. … sometimes, you have to start over doing something you’ve never done before. Suddenly you’re the new kid on the block again … the freshman entering high school on the first day of classes.

Themes like rejection and relationship issues, dependency, depression and suicide, crime and violence, poverty, worries about the future, and wanting to make life better but not knowing where to begin exist throughout a lifetime because they’re part of the human condition. Youth just isn’t as numb to it as a way of life yet. First experiences are more profound than routines.

The awkwardness of crushes, insecurities, and inexperience can seem nostalgic. Who wouldn’t prefer worrying about a math test to worrying about debts? Boyfriend troubles pale in comparison to the personal and financial price of divorce. … That’s not to trivialize anything experienced during the teen years. Most adults, even if they wish they were younger, would rather die than repeat high school because growing into adulthood is tough!  🙂 But looking back on that stage of life can serve as a refresher course for the challenges that lie ahead because resilience is necessary in reality no matter what age we are.

In other words, YA virtues are the same as the virtues of any other kind of fiction. There is just as much substance in YA literature as there is in any other kind of fiction. It’s just seen through a young protagonist’s perspective. And with all literature, it is the reader’s responsibility to understand what he’s reading or viewing and how to appreciate it for what it is, so he can get the most out of it.