Monday, April 30, 2012

Book Review - Starters by Lissa Price

Lissa Price
Trade Paperback (ARC)
352 pages
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: March 13, 2012
ISBN-13: 978-0385742375


     I must admit a fondness for Science Fiction that builds on unique twists or creative concepts. Works that include highly imaginative or original plots, characters, or settings always seem to capture my attention. In fact, I’m going to confess publically that I’ve often rated books slightly higher than I might otherwise simply based on what I think is unique or inventive content. And, as long as I’m in full confessional mode I might as well come clean that Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy is often as entertaining and appealing to me as so-called “mature” SF&F. This might explain my admiration for the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, and Ender franchise’s or anything written by Diana Wynne Jones, for that matter. But, I digress.

     Starters, by Lissa Price, is a singular case in point. It is, overall, an excellent debut novel, written in a strong voice and with unabashed confidence and, oh, by the way, has killer cover art. But, I have a dilemma and I have to ask myself a few pointed questions before moving forward with this review. How exactly do I classify “unique” or “creative”? Should that definition be based on my own past reading experiences? Or by what I know has been previously published though I haven’t actually read it myself? Is this work merely “somewhat” original, a play on an existing theme, for instance, or is it a mind-blowing never-before-seen idea?

     Let’s start with the basic premise of Starters. A biological war kills everyone between the ages of 20 and 60. Okay, slightly unusual in post-apocalyptic concept since most fictional “world-killing” events are normally not that selective and real-world pandemics do just the opposite. So, points to Ms. Price for thinking, not just outside, but around the corners of the box. Body swapping and/or using others to remotely experience the actions of others is a major theme in Starters, but this same idea has been used successfully many times before. The Identity Matrix by Jack L. Chalker and I Will Fear No Evil by Robert A. Heinlein, among others, contain similar themes. Credit to Ms. Price for the unusual manner in which the Enders “use” young bodies. Dystopian future filled with struggling survivors? There are too many similar works to name here. Unsupervised children in a post-apocalyptic landscape? Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delaney and The Wild Shore by Kim Stanley Robinson spring to mind.

     So, what’s the dilemma? Good question. While most of the concepts in Starters have already been written in one form or another and by established, respected authors there is something solely “different” about this work of fiction. In short, Starters has a fresh and highly creative “feel” about it. So, when a debut novelist delivers a story that comes off as completely new, even though it utilizes “been-there” concepts, I have to step back and evaluate my opinion and why I feel the way that I do about it. So, how do I rate it?

     Let’s take a quick look at the positive aspects first. There’s a certain level of genre blending in Starters that Ms. Price handles both efficiently and effortlessly and that appeals to me as a reader, a lot. The story feels, at times, Urban Fantasy, like when the characters are squatting in an abandoned high-rise or running from bullies, then changes to Cyberpunk during the nuero-implant and body-swapping scenes, and then becomes Post-Apocalyptic when the death’s of millions and the resulting societal alterations are described. And for those looking for that Twilight or Hunger Games connection there’s also an understated young-love story swirling about. Each genre switch is handled without stumbling over the others and is competently written, the transitions so smooth they’re hardly noticeable.

     The main character, Callie Woodland, has a lot to do with why I feel this book is such a worthwhile read. She is a survivor - cautious, imaginative, courageous, and street-smart, yet, at the same time believable and utterly likeable, like your kid-sister or a favorite cousin. Again, we’ve all come across protagonists like this before but Ms. Price’s dialogue, timing, and the emotional voices of the main and supporting characters are intuitive and entirely believable.

     There are a lot of reasons I think Starters feels so original and refreshing and why I believe it deserves a huge audience. For instance, Callie’s love for her little brother and the sacrifices she’ll endure to make a better future for him is heartwarming, touching, and wholly convincing. Also, the Starters make up the poverty-stricken lower class while the Enders are, for the most part, prosperous and upper class. This is a unique enough shift in social inequality to merit mentioning. Not that teenagers haven’t always suffered as less-than-equal but it’s the way Ms. Price handles this theme that impresses me. When Starters rent their bodies to Enders so that they can experience, via neuro-implant, what it’s like to be young again the story really becomes interesting. And, what the Ender’s do with those bodies while the hosts are “under” could easily be considered unethical or immoral. The idea of a young person’s body possessed by the psyche of an Ender is often disturbing but very entertaining. Is the person I am interacting with at this moment a true Starter or, is an Ender in someone else’s body controlling them? Taken as a whole there are enough new and creative ideas intermixed throughout this story to rate it fairly high. So, I will.

     With that said, Starters is not without minor problems. A few insignificant plot holes and descriptive issues appear now and then, but the story moves at such a pace as to render them somewhat transparent. Keeping in mind that Starters is Lissa Price’s debut novel I think it safe to say that her narrative prowess will mature and, in the process, she will learn to eliminate the pitfalls of those minor inconsistencies. I can’t wait to see what Ms. Price has in store for us in the continuing stories of the Unseen Saga.

     Recommended for young adults, dystopian fans, those interested in body swapping, mind control, and the ramifications of eternal youth. Also, well-suited for mystery lovers, suspense enthusiasts, urban fantasy fanatics, and post-apocalyptic literature fans. And, there’s a subtle, well-written YA first-love story circulating throughout the book that should appeal to those who enjoy a little romance mixed in with their Speculative Fiction.

     File with: Fiction - Most of the works of Jack L. Chalker, Total Recall by Philip K. Dick, I Will Fear No Evil by Robert A. Heinlein, The Annals of the Heechee by Frederik Pohl, Software by Rudy Rucker, Nueromancer by William Gibson, Time Enough for Love by Robert A Heinlein, and Old Man's War by John Scalzi. TV and Film - Caprica, Dollhouse, and Avatar.

4 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

Starters Webpage

Starters Amazon Page

LA Times Starter Review

Official Random House Starters Page

Random House Starters Series Page

Portrait of a Starter Amazon Page

Unseen Series
00. Portrait of a Starter (e-story prequel) 2012
01. Starters 2012
02. 2nd Unhidden Story (e-story) 2012
03. 3rd Unhidden Story (e-story) 2012
04. Enders 2012

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