The Humans Are the Monsters: Sam J. Miller – Destroy All Monsters

Sam J. Miller has done it again. I read his YA novel The Art of Starving last year on a Greek beach and loved every page. Then I went on to his adult, Nebula-nominated work Blackfish City, which also blew me away. So it’s no wonder that I’m back for more Miller goodness, and it’s also no wonder that he has delivered a fantastic, heart-wrenching piece of fiction yet again. Just like the last time I reviewed a Sam J. Miller book, I have such a hard time because there is so much going on in his books, so many layers, so many details. I promise you I’ll do my very best not to drift off into fangirl mode.

DESTROY ALL MONSTERS
by Sam J. Miller

Published by: Harper Teen, 2019
Ebook: 400 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: “He’s sleeping on the front porch again,” my mom said, her voice sounding sad the way only Solomon can make it.

A crucial, genre-bending tale, equal parts Ned Vizzini and Patrick Ness, about the life-saving power of friendship.
Solomon and Ash both experienced a traumatic event when they were twelve.
Ash lost all memory of that event when she fell from Solomon’s treehouse. Since then, Solomon has retreated further and further into a world he seems to have created in his own mind. One that insulates him from reality, but crawls with foes and monsters . . . in both animal and human form.
As Solomon slips further into the place he calls Darkside, Ash realizes her only chance to free her best friend from his pain is to recall exactly what happened that day in his backyard and face the truth — together.
Fearless and profound, Sam J. Miller’s follow up to his award-winning debut novel, The Art of Starving, spins an intimate and impactful tale that will linger with readers.

This is the kind of dual POV story where you get two really different perspectives of the same plot. Ash is a young girl who lives with depression (a little better now, thanks to medication) and finds solace in her photography. For a school photography project, she wants to do something big, something meaningful. She just hasn’t found what it is yet.
Her best friend Solomon is a more tragic figure. Nobody knows quite where he lives now. After his mother was arrested, Solomon ran away from his stepfather’s and stepbrother’s house. Solomon also quite literally lives in his own world, a magical world where he rides an allosaurus, where groups of people can wield magic, where danger lurks around every corner.
When they were twelve years old, something happened in Ash and Solomon’s lives – something they have no memory of but whatever it was, it seems to have set off both their mental disorders. Ash became depressed, Solomon started living in Darkside. But now that Child Protective Services are looking for Solomon, Ash knows she has to remember what happened in order to save her friend.

This is such a magnificent story, both for its plot and characters, and for the way it’s told. In alternating chapters, we get Ash and Solomon’s perspectives. But seeing how Solmon lives in Darkside, not a small American town, we also get the story of two worlds. There are a lot of parallels in these worlds, but they don’t overlap exactly.
In Ash’s world, ugly things start happening. Someone spray paints swastikas on a Jewish girl’s house, there are menacing graffitis everywhere, people’s property is destroyed, and it appears that the High School football team knows what’s going on.
In Solomon’s Darkside, tensions between Othersiders (those who have magic abilities) and non-magical residents boil over. Othersiders are threatened, even hurt, in the streets. People want them gone for the alleged threat of their magic, and reading this felt very much like reading about a race war about to happen. For Solomon, no place is safe, but what’s worse, no place for Princess Ash (currently in hiding) is safe either and he has made it his life’s goal to protect her.

I loved this book from the very first chapter. Diving into Solomon’s mind for the first time was a bit of a shock because I didn’t know what to expect and I kept looking for exact parallels between his world and Ash’s all the time. Word of advice: Don’t. There are certain characters that live in both their worlds and certain plot elements that are very similar but there are characters exclusive to Solomon’s world as well. Other characters, such as Solomon’s stepbrother Connor, is a teenager in the real world but only six years old in Solomon’s Darkside. Once you’ve read this story, some of things in Darkside make more sense, but don’t expect all of them to be explained. I mean, it’s a fantasy world, there are whales in the sky and people riding dinosaurs!

But what was really interesting was how the two protagonists perceived each other. Ash may have depression in real life but her medication is helping and she is a functioning human being who has friends and schoolwork and a hobby. In Solomon’s eyes, however, Ash has been under a spell that leaves her unable to use her powers and mostly catatonic. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is how Ash’s depression manifests in Solomon’s world, but despite being quite obvious, I found it really well done. Solomon himself works just fine in his world but is seen as nothing but a weirdo in our world. People either pity him or look down on him, but other than Ash, not many actually care for him. Because a six-foot guy who says he rides around on a dinosaur… not what  our world would call healthy.

As tensions in both worlds grow ever stronger – more vandalism, more hate crimes, more uprisings in Darkside asking the Queen to banish all Othersiders – Ash suddenly grows closer to Solomon’s world than before. Although only through her camera lens, she can see what he sees. And she intends to use this power to uncover the truth about the football team, whom she’s sure is behind the vile attacks. Solomon, in the meantime, is getting through to Princess Ash more and more. She is coming out of her stupor and seems to slowly figure out how to use her powers.

There is so much to love about this book and although it feels like I’ve told you half the plot, trust me, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Not only are all the characters really well done but the writing is just the way I’ve come to love from Sam J. Miller. Not the same as in his previous books but with the same beautiful flow that lets you eat up chapter after chapter without noticing that you’re reading. I also have to mention how refreshing it was to read a YA book with good parents. Ash is a fantastic protagonist because she realizes that she’s not living in a story and therefore, may need help from others. She goes to her parents – and they listen! And they help! It was possibly the most wonderful scene of the entire book.

I do have to say that the event that both Ash and Solomon can’t remember became fairly obvious after a certain point. That doesn’t make it any less horrible or any less impactful on their lives. But it also raises the question of whether people are just born bad or become that way (and if so, why?). While Solomon stands up bravely for what he believes in Darkside, Ash cleverly does the same in our world. She is such a smart character and I can’t tell you enough how much I loved that. I can’t abide naive or stupid protagonists, so Ash being smart about her problems, asking for help when she knows she can’t do everything alone, and believing that people make a choice to be good or evil (or something in between) – it was a joy!

The only thing that was a tiny letdown for me was the ending. Although things are mostly resolved, questions answered, and Ash and Solomon’s friendship stronger than ever, I wasn’t quite sure I liked the bittersweet note of it. But – as with any Sam J. Miller book – this was quite a story and I may change my opinion on the ending as I think it over. And belive me, this book will stick with me for quite a while.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

 

Post-Apocalyptic Family Confusions: Sam J. Miller – Blackfish City

I read and loved Sam J. Miller’s book The Art of Starving last year, so there was no question I’d check out his non-YA novel. This book cemented my opinion that Miller is an author to watch and one whose books I can buy without hesitation.

BLACKFISH CITY
by Sam J. Miller

Published by: Ecco, 2018
Ebook: 336 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: People would say she came to Qaanaaq in a skiff towed by a killer whale harnessed to the front like a horse.

After the climate wars, a floating city is constructed in the Arctic Circle, a remarkable feat of mechanical and social engineering, complete with geothermal heating and sustainable energy. The city’s denizens have become accustomed to a roughshod new way of living, however, the city is starting to fray along the edges—crime and corruption have set in, the contradictions of incredible wealth alongside direst poverty are spawning unrest, and a new disease called “the breaks” is ravaging the population.
When a strange new visitor arrives—a woman riding an orca, with a polar bear at her side—the city is entranced. The “orcamancer,” as she’s known, very subtly brings together four people—each living on the periphery—to stage unprecedented acts of resistance. By banding together to save their city before it crumbles under the weight of its own decay, they will learn shocking truths about themselves.
Blackfish City is a remarkably urgent—and ultimately very hopeful—novel about political corruption, organized crime, technology run amok, the consequences of climate change, gender identity, and the unifying power of human connection.

Qaanaaq is a floating city in the Arctic Circle, built by rich men to flee a world devastated by climate change and war. It is run by AI, is heated by geothermal vents, and it’s rife with poverty. Add to that a new-ish disease, “the breaks”, and you’ve got a most intriguing setting, and that’s before anything resembling a plot has even started, before you’ve met any of the characters. Needless to say, this book had me excited from a very early point and kept my interest up through to the end.

The story  is told through four (occasionally more) POV characters who don’t appear to be connected at first but who will be brought together through Qaanaaq’s newest arrival – a woman who rode into the city on a orca, accompanied by a polar bear. Or so the stories go at least. Through the eyes of these very different protagonists, we don’t only get to know them, but we also learn about the city. And the city absolutely counts as a character in its own right.

Fill is a young man who must grapple with the hard truth that he has caught the breaks. So he considers his life as good as over, he is haunted by weird visions or dreams or memories more and more often, and even his wealth cannot help because there is no known cure. With Fill, we see Qaanaaq very differently than with the other characters, because his grandfather is an extremely rich man. So while Fill knows that parts of the city are overflowing with people who sleep in boxes (because there is no living space), he is not affected himself and his thoughts reflect that.
What I particularly liked about Fill’s chapters – I didn’t care for him as a person all that much – was his obsession with the broadcast “City Without a Map”. Nobody knows who writes these texts that talk about their city, show its beautiful and its ugly side, give accounts of things that happen, etc. Each broadcast is narrated by someone else, people without any obvious connection. But these texts were beautiful to read and did wonders for the world-building.

Fill may be a rich boy with little to worry about. Genderfluid Soq, on the other hand, is almost at the opposite end of the city’s wealth divide. They do sleep in a box, hunting job after job just to get by. At the same time, Soq felt  surprisingly savvy and wise to me, although they are very young. Soq works for one of Qaanaaq’s crime bosses and aspires to become on themself one day.

Probably my favorite characters at the start were Ankit and Kaev, the only two that are connected at the beginning of the story. Kaev is a fighter, paid to fight (and sometimes to lose) the spectacular battles that provide entertainment for Qaanaaq’s population. He is also Ankit’s brother but he suffers from some form of brain damage that includes memory loss. So these two never really connected. I loved Ankit because although it’s her job to look the other way when she sees people suffering from the breaks, she just can’t. Working for a politician does that to you.

All of these characters are simply going their own way and doing their own thing when the story begins. What changes everything is the arrival of the orcamancer, who at first is nothing more than an urban legend. But because of this woman, the course of every character’s life changes and – surprise! – they all come together somehow. I won’t tell you the orcamancer’s back story or how everything is connected, but I really enjoyed the revelations in this book.
It was just after the first big reveal that the plot got a bit slow. But like I said, all character get together and find out that their individual plans go pretty well together, so why not team up for an epic ending?

While this wasn’t a very comforting book to read – after all, the world is broken, many lives have been lost, and life in Qaanaaq is nothing more than pure survival for most – but it was an incredibly rewarding, exciting read. Finding out how the city works was almost as much fun as figuring the characters out. The social structures, the politics, the infrastructure of Qaanaaq – everything was just so interesting. And let’s not forget the past! It is often mentioned that the water levels rose, climate change has ruined most of the planet, ressources got low, there was war all over the place, and only some escaped to a place they could still live. Some things are almost like legends in people’s mind, like the nanobonded, people who have a mind-connection with animals and can control them. Were they real? Did they die out? How? All of these questions are not even the main plot but I wanted to find out the answers, so even when the plot slowed down a bit, I was never bored.

There is so much more to discover in Qaanaaq than I’ve talked about. The technology (chin implants to translate the numerous languages represented), the diversity, the orca and the polar bear… I could go on and on. But because I’d rather not spoil the fun for you, I will simply say I highly recommend this book and I totally think it should take home and award or two.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent!