In between my other reading lately, I’ve been trying to clear off my shelves by catching up on some series—mostly ones that I had read at least one book but somehow didn’t start the later books yet. In some cases, they were easy to dive back into, and in others I had to look up some plot summaries to remind myself about some details from before.
I’ll start with the only kids’ books on my list, which also happen to be the only new-to-me series in today’s stack. I’ll admit that what piqued my interest in this one was that I knew the second book in the series included time travel, so I figured I’d read them both and see what they’re about. Michael Buckley is also the author behind the Sisters Grimm series and the NERDS series, though it’s been a while since I’ve read any of those.
Finn has several problems: he’s constantly getting bullied by Lincoln; he misses his dad, who left without saying goodbye; his little sister is obsessed with unicorns and won’t stop talking about them. Oh, and also he’s now gotten caught up in an intergalactic war. Through a series of events, a weird wormhole gizmo gets combined with him and his sister’s lunchbox, which gives Finn the ability to teleport—but it also puts Earth on the radar for the Plague, a race of giant alien locusts who conquer planets and exhaust all their resources. He gets some help from Highbeam, a robot spy who’s been fighting the Plague. He also ends up teaming up with both Lincoln and Julep, the geeky girl he has a crush on.
The story is fun, though the sci-fi is pretty fast and loose—we’re not going for believable explanations here. There’s a whole amusing side plot about the school principal, who spends a good deal of the book wearing a raccoon mascot costume while trying to stop the locust general. And, as you might guess from a kid’s book, Finn and the bully end up becoming good friends because they were thrown into this tough situation together. That got me thinking: I grew up with this notion (repeated in countless books and TV shows and movies) that bullies are often just misunderstood, that it’s possible for them to change and become great friends. Lincoln, as it turns out, is bullied himself, and when Finn understands this, it opens up that possibility of friendship. On the other hand, Lincoln’s bully is depicted as this terrible kid who gets his comeuppance—why is that? Is he irredeemable? As an adult, I’m not convinced that the best approach to bullies is to try to befriend them rather than just avoiding them.
The second book picks up right where the first ends—in fact, there’s a scene that overlaps between the two. We see a time-traveling Old Man Finn, jumping through time fighting a monster called Paradox. Finn, Lincoln, and Julep are arrested by the Time Rangers for all of the time rules that old Finn has broken (or will break?), but they manage to escape and take a trip through time themselves to try to fix things—using a set of too-small cowboy pajamas that Finn is told he can’t remove until everything’s resolved. Again, the science here is pretty hand-wavy and the time travel doesn’t always make sense, but for the most part it’s a fun adventure that takes the kids into the distant past and the far future.
One more note for parents: one piece of the story is about the way that Finn’s dad vanished, and it turns out that his dad was tied to the Time Rangers, and his disappearance wasn’t him abandoning his family, but in fact had some other reasons. I’m not sure how I felt about this: it feels a bit like those wish-fulfillment stories where kids who were abandoned by a parent make up stories about their parents being secret agents or whatever (see also: Guardians of the Galaxy 2), rather than the terrible truth that some people actually do walk out on their families. In fact, in this instance Finn is partly responsible for his dad going missing—that seems like a bad message to send to kids who may be missing a parent.
The second book ends with a twist: the time traveling shenanigans had some unexpected results, so things are all set up for a third book…
The After-Room is the third book in the Apothecary series. I read the first book when it was released almost a decade ago, and even interviewed Meloy about it. The second book, The Apprentices, came out a few years later and I mentioned it in Stack Overflow. For whatever reason, I didn’t receive a copy of the third book, so I bought it myself—and then put it on the shelf and never got around to it.
Well, at the risk of spoiling the first two books, Janie and Ben are now in America. Ben’s father is dead, but he’s concocted a powder that lets him travel to a strange sort of place where he can sort of communicate with the dead, though using it comes with a lot of risk. Meanwhile, their friend Jin Lo has washed up on a remote island in the Pacific, where she meets an American soldier who’s spying on China. She is trying to track down a dangerous threat that she believes is headed to China, but she’s going to need a lot of help. Meloy’s magical alchemy continues to be fantastic and wondrous, and I really enjoyed diving back into this world (though there was definitely a lot I’d forgotten).
In the Stack Overflow linked above, I also wrote about Steelheart, the first book in the Reckoners trilogy. I’m not sure how these two got lost in the shuffle, but I finally got around to finishing the trilogy. In the world of the Reckoners, the Epics—people with powers—are all evil. Or, pretty much all of them. It turns out there are a few who might not be, who can actually resist that pull, usually by limiting how much they use their powers or by giving their powers away.
The main character, David, is now one of the most famous Reckoners, an underground group that hunts Epics, but he’s starting to wonder if the Epics are actually beyond redemption. He knows at least two people with powers that are trying to do good—or, at least, he believes so, despite the doubts of others. In Firefight, the team leaves Newcago and heads to what used to be Manhattan, where Regalia has flooded the city, leaving only the tops of high buildings and skyscrapers livable. But even as they chase down Regalia, David suspects that this whole thing is a trap for the Prof, the leader of the Reckoners.
In Calamity, we find out a lot more about the mysterious red star that appeared in the sky, giving Epics their powers. The Reckoners defeated Regalia, but unleashed an even more dangerous enemy. David, however, is convinced now that Epics can redeemed. He has also started to understand the weaknesses—every Epic has one, but they’ve felt really random. If he can figure out the way the weaknesses work, maybe he’ll have a chance at changing the Epics. This story takes them to Atlanta, a strange city that has been turned to salt and creeps along, crumbling and rebuilding itself as it goes.
I really enjoyed the strange powers that the Epics wield and I was fascinated by the descriptions of these cities that had been wholly changed by them. I also liked the storyline, and it kept me engaged and I really wanted to know how things would play out. At the same time, I didn’t always care for David’s voice as the narrator: he’s a geek who hates being called one, and there’s a running joke that he always uses terrible metaphors. And as much as I like Sanderson’s imagination when it comes to superpowers, he’s not great with women or non-white people. Seriously, there’s an Asian Epic whose weakness is tied to her fear of not being good enough. For the most part, though, it was an exciting read with lots of action.
Mostly, though, I think the series does a good job playing out the concept “power corrupts.” In this case, the corruption is directly linked to the powers rather than simply being a “well, it’s human nature to abuse power,” but it makes for an intense story. In the world of the Reckoners, many unpowered people still prefer to live in the big cities that are controlled by Epics—sure, you might be killed by somebody who considers you about as significant as an ant, but at least the city still functions to an extent because the Epics want to make things nice for themselves. Reading this now, it was hard not to see some parallels to police forces that have become militarized: they wield so much power and have the potential to kill civilians for trivial reasons, but many communities also fear that things would fall into total chaos if there were no police at all. What’s the solution?
Although the Invincible comics series started back in 2002, I didn’t actually read them until a couple years ago, when I picked up the used copies of the first two Ultimate Collection titles. Alas, the bookstore didn’t have volume 3, so I stalled out there—and was surprised to find recently that there are 12 volumes total! There’s an animated series now on Amazon, and after watching a few episodes, I decided to re-read these first two volumes just to give myself a refresher, and to see how the show compares to the books.
The books center on Mark Grayson, a high school senior when the series starts. His father is secretly Omni-Man, arguably the most powerful superhero in the world (though it’s funny how he keeps his identity secret because he doesn’t wear a mask of any sort when he’s in costume). Omni-Man is a Viltrumite, from another planet, and Mark’s own Viltrumite powers have just kicked in. So he suits up and starts training, calling himself “Invincible.”
The books play around a lot with superhero tropes: for instance, there’s a group of superheroes called the Guardians of the Globe with characters pretty similar to the Justice League, there’s a Teen Team, there’s a host of supervillains (including some who are obviously inspired by characters from the Marvel or DC universes). Some of the story is just about Mark trying to figure out what it means to be a hero, while also being a kid and a student. Who can he share his secret with? How does he manage saving the world and a job at the Burger Mart?
But there’s also some pretty ugly stuff going on, too, and it’s definitely not a comic for kids. There’s plenty of blood and guts and gore. One of the significant plot points is the way that some people with superpowers behave badly—that even the “heroes” have horrible secrets. I think that this, as with the Reckoners trilogy (or The Boys—another TV series based on comics), can be a more compelling story than the idea that people could gain amazing powers and not abuse it.
It was interesting to see the changes made from the book to the TV series: while some of the overarching plot lines are the same and some of it looks identical, the TV show has changed up some characters to make it more diverse, and a few characters got an appearance overhaul. (For instance, Damien Darkblood, demon detective, was made to look a lot like Rorschach in the comic mostly as a visual gag, but looks a bit more like an aging Hellboy in the show.) For the most part, I appreciate the changes. The one really odd change, though, is the logo for Atom Eve, one of the teen superheroes. Her logo in the comic book is the icon for “woman” with three rings superimposed like an atom, but in the show it’s the woman icon with an X over it, as if drawn by somebody who didn’t get a good look at the original. I guess we’ll find out later if that had some significance, but it did seem like it’s just a weird slip.
The 5th Wave is an alien invasion story. I read the first book back in 2013 and the second, The Infinite Sea, a year later. I was impressed with the way some of the revelations in the second book made you rethink what was really happening in the first book—Yancey has created an intriguing story that isn’t much like most alien invasion stories, despite some superficial trappings like spaceships and high-tech gadgets.
I started reading the third book but it had been long enough that I’d forgotten a lot of the details, so this is one I looked up on Wikipedia for a recap. At this point in the story, much of humanity has been wiped out, but the Others (the aliens) are getting ready to finish the job. The mothership will be dropping bombs on all of the cities, and then letting humanity’s own selfish nature finish off any stragglers. At least, that’s what our ragtag team of survivors has been told. There are various plans and schemes to stop this: the most promising one is to get to the mothership and sabotage it, since the Silencers have pods to get recalled to the ship. But a lot of things go wrong, particularly because everyone has their own agendas, too: one specific person they want to save, a place they need to get to, and so on.
A lot of this series is about what makes us human—the good and the bad—and whether it’s worth trying to save Earth’s population at the cost of, well, our humanity. Cassie’s little brother can’t remember how to read, but he knows how to assemble a bomb. He’s a little kid who’s been trained to think of himself as a soldier, who’s been told that emotions are a weakness. It’s toxic masculinity, but dialed up to the max because they think it’s the only way to survive a world where anyone could be the Other—that distrust of other people is their most powerful weapon.
I’m glad I’ve finished the trilogy finally, though my connection to the characters wasn’t as strong anymore as it was when I’d read the first two, so I really shouldn’t have waited so long.
I’d read the first two IQ books back in 2017 and enjoyed them, but then I fell behind. I caught up on the next two books recently, and I see there’s a fifth book coming later this year. The books are about a young Black man in East Long Beach who solves crimes—he’s really good at observations and working things out, but he’s terrible at business. (One of his clients is paying him with a hand-made reindeer sweater.) Dodson is his frenemy—the two are always trying to one-up each other—and now his partner, trying to bring in cases that will make money.
In Wrecked, Isaiah is hired by Grace, a young woman he’s been interested in, to find her mother, who has been missing for a decade. Grace is convinced she spotted her mom near her apartment, and wants Isaiah to track her down. But somehow this business with Grace and her mom is tangled up with a private security company with deep pockets and a lot of connections. This paramilitary group has ties to Abu Ghraib, and there are some pretty disturbing descriptions of that scandal and the way that detainees were abused and even murdered.
Hi Five picks up a while later: Isaiah has been hired—or rather, blackmailed—by Angus Byrne, a huge arms dealer. His daughter was the only witness and now the prime suspect of a murder of one of Byrne’s associates. But figuring out the truth won’t be easy: Christiana has multiple personalities and some of them refuse to cooperate. In the meantime, Isaiah is also trying to manage tensions between various gangs and a group of neo-Nazis that work for Byrne.
The IQ series is a bit strange to me: Joe Ide is a Japanese American who grew up in South Central LA, writing stories about a cast of characters that’s predominantly Black, though we do see various other ethnicities (including several of the clashing gangs). In these last two books, there are sections of the books from the point of view of the people in the security company and the neo-Nazis, describing the world the way they see it, and it’s disturbing and uncomfortable—but it’s also clear that Ide doesn’t agree with them, even as he gets into their mindset for the book. I also wasn’t sure if Christiana’s character was a realistic portrayal of multiple personality disorder, which I know has often been misused and treated as something of a joke in some instances, though it’s at least presented as a serious condition here. And although Isaiah’s strength is his brain, there’s also a lot of physical violence that happens throughout the books, and Isaiah is often right in the middle of it.
My Current Stack
Once I put this stack together, I realized that this list of writers is almost all white men, with only a few exceptions. I suppose for whatever reason I’ve started a lot of series by white men? But I’ve got a couple of upcoming titles that I’m excited to read that will be from a more diverse group of writers, so I’m looking forward to those soon.
One more series that I didn’t include above is the Ministry of SUITs series. I’ve read them before, but now I’m reading the series to my youngest and we’ve been having a lot of laughs together. We just finished The Monster’s Daughter, the second book, and started in on The Knight’s Armor.
I’m currently reading Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, which is due out next week. It’s another science-heavy sci-fi book, this time about a dire threat to the Earth, and a space mission to save the planet. More on that later!
Disclosure: Except where noted, I received review copies of the books included in this column. Affiliate links to Bookshop.org help support my writing and independent bookstores!