Sunday, April 19, 2015

Book Review: Nil

Wow, I can't believe it's been a month since my last book review. I am such a naughty little book blogger who needs to be punished (Any takers? No? Ok...). In all seriousness, though, I am disappointed in myself for taking so long to review this book, since I do believe that reviews were the original intended purpose of this blog. Not to worry, for I shall not let it go this long in the future, not with my plans all set for "Self-Pub Summer"! No set date as to when that will start yet, but I suppose I should probably try to finish 1Q84 first... if I can ever manage to finish it.

How do you escape from a book that you can't stop reading?
Nil- Lynne Matson

(Note: No spoilers in this one, but plenty of ranting and swearing ahead.)

Nil is a Young Adult--erm, I guess "speculative fiction" is the most accurate?--novel that I'm not sure why I read. Well, technically I do: I won it in a Goodreads giveaway in exchange for an honest review. What does puzzle me is why I entered this particular giveaway, other than the fact that I was trying to score some free books for my blog and pretty much clicked on anything that sounded remotely interesting, hoping to increase my chances of winning something. Perhaps not the best strategy, since as soon as I received my copy and refreshed my memory of the cover summary, I immediately started to regret my decision.

Let me be clear that this isn't a terrible book, but it does contain pretty much every overused element that I'm getting tired of seeing in a lot (but not all) of YA fiction, from an insecure heroine to a Romantic Plot Tumor  that overtakes what could have been a truly gripping premise. This isn't meant to to be an insult to the Young Adult category in any way--there are a number of YA series that I am a fan of--but Nil is one of those books that gives YA its unfortunate reputation for overindulging in melodrama. This book can easily be summed up in one word:

Reading this book was particularly disappointing because, as I said, the premise held to so much promise before being swallowed up by the love story. The book gets its title from Nil, a tropical island paradise in the middle of nowhere that could possibly be in a parallel dimension (or a pocket dimension of our own, we don't get to find out). Our standard-issue 17-year-old female protagonist, Charley, finds herself inexplicably sucked up by a wormhole that takes her to the island, where she discovers a village full of teenagers, all with the same story to tell. Turns out that kids who end up on the island only ever have exactly 365 days to find one of the random outbound portals to take them home, or else they die. The deceptively beautiful Nil holds other dangers as well, making the race against the clock all the more urgent. Charley catches onto the island's deadly game, and works to figure out a pattern to the appearance of the portals before it's too late.

Sounds pretty cool, right? Unfortunately, while that's technically what you get, the real story goes more like this: standard-issue protagonist Charley meets sexy designated love interest Thad, and they both fall in love at first sight. Charley passes out so Thad has to carry her to the village in his sexy arms so he has more time to describe her sexiness and angst over how he's met the perfect girl when he has only months left on the island. 

The next day they flirt and think about how sexy and perfect each other is and angst over how the other person is so totally not into them. Some bad stuff happens and Thad and Charley ignore each other for 2 weeks because their tragic love is messing with their heads, and angst over how it must mean that the other person hates them. Everyone else is sick of their shit and tells them that they just need to fucking kiss already because they're soooo perfect for each other. They make up, kiss, kiss again, talk about how beautiful Nil is and how beautiful each other is and angst about the island horrors we only sometimes get to see. Then they kiss some more, then they angst some more. And then they declare their undying love, and then they angst about it. Oh, and occasionally we're reminded that they need to find a way off the island and Charley is working on a map or whatever.

Doesn't sound so cool now, does it? Of course, considering the fact that a good chunk of the book cover summary is devoted to their love, I probably shouldn't have expected much else. The warning signs were there, but I ignored them. Still, I feel like asking for the author to devote less time to repeated descriptions of how beautiful Nil is, how attracted the main characters are to each other, and how they're obviously destined to be together, and instead focus a little more on fighting for survival and figuring out the mystery of the island isn't asking too much. Repetition is a huge problem in this novel, and much of it consists of Thad and Charley cycling through the same worries, the same angst, the same fuzzy feelings about each other, the same purple prose, and the same observations about each other and about the island over and over again. The narrative just feels bloated and the romance tiresome as a result. 

In my opinion, this is one of those books which would likely benefit a great deal from either severely minimizing the importance of the love story or excising it completely. The plot would have worked just as well if Charley and Thad were just friends, or if Charley was a guy, or if Thad wasn't upgraded to co-narrator status (particularly since 90% of Thad's chapters consist of him angsting constantly over his love for Charley). Throwing in some romance isn't a bad thing--and it's pretty much expected in YA books these days--but Matson devotes so much time to having Thad and Charley gaze into each others' eyes that all sense of urgency is lost. Sure, the characters talk incessantly about how many days they have left and how anxious they are to find a portal, but I couldn't actually feel the urgency. The love story was so boring, predictable, and one-note that I couldn't become fully invested in it, and when it became plain that the island survival story was taking a back seat to it, all the tension I expected to feel evaporated quickly. 

At least I can be thankful that Charley wasn't a complete Mary Sue, and that Thad wasn't your stereotypical bad boy love interest. The cast of characters was fairly diverse, but it wasn't without its caricatures: the petite, soft-spoken Chinese girl who speaks broken English.  The skeevy, creepy guy who can't be trusted who later turns out to be a traitorous coward who shouldn't have been trusted. The gorgeous blonde girl with big boobs who the heroine is initially skeptical of but eventually develops a grudging respect for, and oh, did we mention that she has big boobs? Because Charley does not fail to repeatedly mention that she has big boobs.

Methinks Thad isn't the only one Charley has her eye on...
That's not to say it was all bad. There were some sad character deaths, most predictable, a couple shocking, and some that seemed totally pointless. Only one made me truly emotional, and I'll admit that I did start to tear up a little. I feel it worth mentioning that this death had nothing to do at all with the love story, and that I feel that the deceased character was cheated out of a more expanded role by the overblown romance. I wanted to know the character better, and her death probably would've had even more of an impact if I had. 

The plot does leave a lot to be desired, but so does the writing. There's too many unfunny jokes and lame attempts at teen-speak to count. Attempts to give the narrators distinctive voices mostly amounted to "The walk back to the City totally sucked" and "she had a bangin' body". I did like how the author incorporated a lot of things related to mountains and snowboarding into Thad's way of thinking, however.  While his narrative voice did annoy me somewhat, at least it was a bit more unique than Charley's. Weird sentence structure and awkward turns of phrase are all over the place. And the passive voice, dear god the passive voice. If I have to read another "making me ____" I swear I'm going to scream. The prose isn't the worst I've read by far, but it is a lot more unpolished than what I've come to expect from a traditionally published novel. 

I found myself often irritated with how short the chapters were and how abruptly they ended, especially since so many of them ended on seeming cliffhangers that either don't get explained until later or don't get explained at all. What's the point of having such an open ending if it's not going to lead to anything in the next chapter?

But that ending, though, that fucking ending. I absolutely detested the ending. Without giving too much away, the story proper pretty much ends with 25 pages left, so then we're left with multiple chapters of repetitive angsting until the real ending can happen. Chapter after chapter, with huge chunks of time flying by in between, and yet no change, no progress, no new information. Just a 51-day-long pity party. Sweet Lord, it was bad enough when it took up half the narrative, but now we have to put up with it for the whole damn time???

The real kicker, though, is the lead in to this epic misery-fest, and it is without a doubt the thing that pisses me off more than anything else in this book. An action so incredibly stupid that I can't being to comprehend why the character or the author thought it was a good idea. What 's meant to come across as a brave, selfless, and noble sacrifice instead ends up being a nonsensical dumbass move that's actually kind of selfish. It makes no fucking sense at all! What could possibly be gained from this impulsive action that would be better than the result of the original plan, which was perfectly good and was only ruined by your stupid actions? And then after celebrating for two seconds for "beating Nil", the dumbass in question realizes that they're screwed and has the gall to ask "WHY?" 

Why? Why, you ask? Because no, you stupid fucker, you didn't "beat Nil." You were about to, then screwed yourself over literally, and screwed over at least one person emotionally. You didn't save anyone, you didn't make a noble sacrifice, and you sure as hell didn't fulfill any sort of special destiny or defy the odds. You're the one who fucked up and that's "why," you stupid miserable dipshit!

But, in the end it's happily ever after, which just makes me even angrier.

Some things I liked about Nil:
  • One of the characters calling Thad and Charley out on the 2-week angst bullshit, because somebody is apparently genre-savvy enough to know that the plot can't just move forward if they don't get together.
  • The fact that there were religious characters and people who prayed without the book 1) being really cynical about religion and/or making it seem weird that some people were religious; 2) having any kind of agenda or making a point about religion. It was just a thing that existed, as in real life, and it made the characters seem a bit more human. You can have a few religious elements in a story without it being heavy-handed.
  • The fact that a couple discussed sex in a non-judgmental, non-moralistic way, and made the decision to not have sex based on solid logic. It caused some mild angst, but neither character lingered on it for very long or spent much time thinking about it beforehand, which was refreshing.
And... that's about it.

Would I recommend this book? I personally would not, but I can see why maybe some people would like it. It had some fundamental flaws, but I still think a good bit of my frustration with it comes from it simply not being my type of book. Final verdict: two stars. 

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