Monday, November 13, 2017

Book Review of Code Blue by Marissa Slaven

Review of Code Blue by Marissa Slaven
Published by Moon Willow Press
Distributed by Ingram

Reviewed from an advance galley (manuscript-in-progress).  Code Blue will be available as an e-book and in trade paperback format in early 2018 at Amazon, Barnes & Noble & elsewhere online and on shelves where good books are sold. Remember— surprising numbers of readers still don’t know this— if your favourite independent bookstore does not carry it as a paperback, you can place a special-order request for it at no extra cost or in this case, an advance order so you can get it hot off the proverbial press. When we operated the Motherlode Bookstore in New Denver, B.C. for seven years, at least 1/4 of our sales were special orders because like other bookstores, large or small, we could not physically carry every book in the world in our wee shoppe along with the toys, board games, kites, wind chimes and funny cards… and we delighted in finding our customers their books as fast as possible.

About five years ago, the prevailing wisdom of some in the publishing industry held that dystopian fiction was done, the trend was over and The Hunger Games had cleaned up on the shelves. But the shelves kept overflowing with the Matched trilogy, Divergent trilogy, Southern Reach trilogy, Silo trilogy, Maddaddam trilogy (there’s Atwood again) and Chaos Walking trilogy, and a large and fervent readership ensued as well. Still the publishing insiders declared writers should move on to something new, whatever that might be, but preferably highly saleable.

But steadily rising above well-worn plot and character cliches were these well-written speculative fiction books  in such sub-genres of fantasy or science fiction as steampunk, solar punk, dystopian, and neo-utopian which attracted many new readers. The ‘evergreen’ trend may have had much to do with the wildfires in Tasmania, Australia, the U.S.A. and Canada as well as the news on the night of the U.S. presidential election in 2016 and ever since. The U.S. reneging on the Paris Climate Accord and the sabre-rattling of nuclear weapons between North Korea and the U.S. is the kind of irresponsible puerile behaviour that makes most fiction writers throw up their hands and say ‘we can’t make this stuff up.’

If all else fails, blame the spookily prescient and super-smart Margaret Atwood, who wrote Payback just before the economic crash of 2008 and whose classic 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, reinvented as a mini-series during this golden age of TV, keeps gathering awards and viewers the world over. Never mind that the handmaids were up against A.I. cowboys in the American science fiction Western thriller, Westwood, first conceived by novelist Michael Crichton in 1973 as a film, and which, with a stellar cast in the reinvented television series beginning in 2016, is yet another huge success for HBO, setting records for viewership. Among readers and viewers, there is an undeniable taste for ‘futuristic’ tales which are well-researched and plausible if not firmly based in present-day facts.

This reviewer maintains that when the intrinsic quality of the writing and the intellectual scope and vitality of the storytelling keeps engaging us, readers who do not deny we are living in frightening, challenging times, will reach for books like Station 11, Ship Breakers, The Pesthouse, The Road, The Dead Lands, Lighthouse Island and Code Blue.

Intended for a young adult audience, this novel begins at the edge of New England where the former coastline has been obliterated by the rising ocean, a familiar trope but it’s based, as much of the book is, on scientific fact. The descriptions of flooded malls far out to sea are very intriguing and believable. The teen characters—Tic, Lee, Tatum, Asker, Phish—are likeable and easy to relate to as characters, all suffering the stigma of being ‘the smart one’, ‘the weird brain’ or in one case, also belonging to a super-rich family and rebelling against it and its ill-gotten gains. Families of all descriptions are convincingly portrayed here, which is another relief for those of us fed-up with ineffectual fathers being one I.Q. point removed from Homer Simpson and chilly corporate mothers being slaves to the job and the gym.

The structure of the novel is ingenious, with each chapter heading consisting of an entrance exam question for those applying to the Academy, the place where all the smart ones finally have a peer group. This question, beginning with the first chapter’s How Long is the United States coastline? is deftly integrated into the following content so that the world-building is ongoing. It is not a dead-end. This is, I believe, important for this genre of writing, even when there is no paradise to lose.  Holding out hope for humanity is especially important for books meant for this readership. The condition of the world in Code Blue, as you would imagine if you know your hospital codes or have gleaned well from Grey’s Anatomy, is dire as in critical cardiac arrest but, an important but, it is not a terminal diagnosis.  This then is the state of Tic’s world, independent, stubborn, resourceful and bright young woman that she is.

The momentum of the plot pulls the reader along inexorably and the author, a palliative (hospice) care doctor and mother, as well as a talented writer, does not pull punches in this deeply imagined and well-crafted novel. There are corporate capitalists aligned to make big money off the spoils caused by climate change. There are religious zealots who welcome The End because they believe they are the Chosen Few so… bring it on. There are also embedded history lessons, which I applaud, about people like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber who killed 168 people, 19 of them children. A home-grown terrorist, born and raised, lest we forget. The final discovery, which I will not spoil, at first seemed to strain plausibility but given current events, it just may turn out to be prophetic and entirely credible. It certainly served the plot well. There’s just enough realistic romance and physical danger to keep readers flapping the pages as well, as all good storytelling seems to do. There is a small amount of salty street language but it is not gratuitously applied. Only an untrained puritanical librarian would have a hissy fit. Never mind, I would advise, you can't begin to buy publicity like a clumsy attempt at censorship will arouse! 

Best of all, I, for one, want to know more about this world and these people so hope the author is hard at work on a Code Orange or Grey… or Aqua… Highly recommended for ages 14-18 and adults who enjoy a well-written and intriguing story set in a future that seems eerily familiar.

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