The Unfinished World invites readers into the slightly off-center realities characteristic of Amber Sparks’ fabulist short stories. The stories are quirky and interesting, proving that the only thing readers can expect from Sparks’ work is that the stories will be unexpected.
Death permeates the collection, building a strong thematic through-line, that, instead of feeling overly-heavy or morbid, allows the reader to play tourist to death and grief in their many forms. The Unfinished World is a menagerie of time and place filled with eclectic and bizarre characters, such as a pair of twins who refer to themselves at the “Lizzy Borden Jazz Babies” (in a story of the same name) or a young woman who has taken over her father’s taxidermy business in the wake of her parents’ untimely death. There’s an anachronistic quality to many of the stories as Sparks moves between present day, historical fiction, and made-up, almost fantastical worlds. This, paired with lyrical and humorous prose, provides the reader with enough distance from the characters and worlds to be invited into the stories, in spite of the oftentimes grim nature of the death-infused narratives. Once in the world, though, it’s the quiet, unassuming moments that strike multiple emotional chords, making Sparks’ work more than a darkly funny and entertaining read, as these are the moments that feel familiar to the reader and resonate with her reality.
Sparks closes The Unfinished World with the title story, a narrative of novella length that encapsulates the spirit of her entire collection. She uses entries from one of the character’s so-called “Cabinet of Curiosities”—which “contained the best of this world and the remnants of the one before it”—to divide sections of the story. The mini-entries illustrate photographs and catalog a series of odd items, such as a saber or an Aztec volcanic rock sculpture. The narrative structure mirrors the rest of the book—a collection of oddities and curiosities, delivered in shorter flash pieces or longer short stories. There’s an eclectic variety of characters explored in a variety of narrative forms: a time-traveler’s attempts to change her future are recorded in list form in “Thirteen Ways of Destroying a Painting.” Written in second person, “The Process of Human Decay” chronicles death in fragmented sections with the headers: fresh, bloat, delayed decay, and dry remains. The entirety of The Unfinished World reads as though it’s Sparks’ own “Cabinet of Curiosities.” This makes for a rare satisfying short story collection, as the reader is left contemplating reality, death, and the odd little moments of day-to-day life.
Note: Spoilers for An Ember in the Ashes
In this sequel to An Ember in the Ashes, we come right back to where we left off: Laia and Elias are in the tunnels of the city, running for their lives. Elias must go back on his vow to not kill, in order to get them out of the city, and a run-in with his mother, the Commandant, leaves him even worse for wear. Once out of the city, the pair must make their way to the prison, Kauf, to save Laia’s brother, who knows the key to turning the rebellion against the Martials. A few other characters from Ember join them on their journey, and all kinds of surprising things will leave you covering your eyes and cursing.
One of the more interesting features of this instalment compared to the first is the addition of Helene as a third narrator. She was an interesting character in Ember, and left many curious regarding her future in a new role. We learn more about her mind, her character, and her family, and are given yet another person in this world to be heartbroken for. But also empowered by. She helps us see into the darkness of a world that Laia and Elias have left behind. With her inclusion, on top of Sabaa Tahir’s magnificent storytelling and worldbuilding, A Torch Against the Night is actually a superior novel to its predecessor, indicating that by the time the fourth book comes around, readers might just explode from the awesomeness.
The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
June 14, 2016
When I started reading The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love, I wasn’t sure what I wanted from it. The title and blurb tell you a lot of what you need to know: Graham is very much in love with Roxy, his best friend since he was eight. He’s not sure how she feels, but there must be something, right? So he decides he’s going to give her the best New York Comic Con experience he can, and then declare his love. What could go wrong? Well, it starts when the first appearance of their favorite comics creator in years, which they camp overnight for, doesn’t happen. And it just goes down hill (for Graham, at least) from there. I hadn’t really had much experience with most of these things, but I love geeky characters, cons, and comics, so I figured I’d give it a go.
I had no idea how much I was going to love it.
What makes this familiar tale, a geeky white teenaged boy who is potentially one-sidedly in love with his best girl friend, so different and wonderful, you ask? First is Sarvenaz Tash’s tremendous capability with Graham’s voice. He is a fully developed, smart kid who very much reminds me of myself. His snappy inner voice doesn’t sound too old or too young, and makes sense for his character. Also, he’s just an adorable puppy. Beyond that, Tash surrounds him with a racially, ethnically and characteristically diverse group of people, all with their own stories and personalities, without making a big deal out of it. Under the umbrella of Tash’s perspective and storytelling, the characters play out a tale that thrills and delights. So while you sort of know where the overarching story is going pretty early on in its telling, you don’t really care, because all of the little things on the journey from the beginning to the end, complete with Princess Bride quotes and social commentary, are what matter.
The Swan Riders picks up not long after The Scorpion Rules leaves off. Greta Stuart has been turned into an AI but she’s not out of danger yet. She’s the first new AI in a hundred years and Talis (accompanied by two Swan Riders) need to get her to safety. But she’s in a fragile state and frequently starts “skinning” as emotions and memories of what she’s left behind keep hitting her. Together they travel across a post-apocalyptic Saskatchewan trying to survive the elements and the growing rebellion brewing throughout the country. If she survives she has the opportunity to join Talis. If she survives she could change everything.
Greta was easily my favourite part of The Scorpion Rules and I was happy to find that this instalment was going to continue her story. She’s a different person now – she’s faced some truly horrible events head on and it makes sense that those events would change her. But at her core she’s still someone you want to know. She’s still someone you would follow across the country and into battle. That being said I did miss her relationship with Li Da-Xie – the girl she falls in love with in The Scorpion Rules. Xie doesn’t make much of an appearance in this book and instead Greta spends more time with Élian. I don’t dislike Élian, per se, but I find him to be a very generic character and he doesn’t bring as much to the table as the other people in Greta’s life.
Though Greta (and Talis) are arguably the centre of the story, the titular Swan Riders really draw your focus- in a good way. In The Scorpion Rules, the Swan Riders were such looming figures – part army, part cult. They served Talis and the AIs and their presence was tied to the cruel fate of the Children of Peace. But in The Swan Riders were introduced to a few of them personally and two in particular – FX and Rachel – flat out broke my heart. I’m curious to see where Erin Bow might go with their story next.
The Swan Riders asks tough questions, like what does it mean to be human? But it also doesn’t pretend to have the answers. There are no easy answers or choices for Greta and her crew. Honestly, I could go on and on about why I love this series. I haven’t even mentioned all of the fantastic Canadian references, like Greta’s horse Gordon Lightfoot. But all you really need to know is that once again Erin Bow has delivered a fantastic novel that manages to be intense, thoughtful and an overall great read.