December 21, 2017
(+++) WHERE ANGST FLOWS FREELY
The Thousandth Floor No. 2: The Dazzling Heights. By Katharine McGee. Harper. $18.99.
Red Queen No. 1. By Victoria Aveyard. HarperTeen. $22.99.
Back in 1975, J.G. Ballard wrote a chilling dystopian novel called High-Rise, in which a 40-story building becomes a microcosm for the breakdown of societal norms along the lines of Lord of the Flies, but with even more violence and with some implications of class stratification to complicate matters. Katharine McGee may not know Ballard’s book, but she may very well be familiar with the film of the same name, released in 2015 – because McGee’s own take on essentially the same story, The Thousandth Floor, dates to 2016. The film makes the class struggle explicit to a much greater degree than did the novel, specifically with upper-class people living on higher floors and lower-class ones below, very much along the lines of Upstairs, Downstairs and similar dramas on TV as well as film. That is exactly the arrangement that McGee uses. True, she expands the building’s size to 1,000 stories, but that is an arbitrary number designed to fit the scene of what is supposedly New York in the year 2118. McGee also turns the plot into a straightforward teenager-focused melodrama, populating the story with a mishmash of typecast characters and having them interact in ways that are supposed to be explosive but by and large are simply formulaic. As in Ballard’s novel and the film adaptation, McGee’s setting has some intriguing SF elements, in McGee’s work’s case from holography to communication-enabling contact lenses. But McGee downplays these so as to spend more time, indeed far more time, on interpersonal drama. In The Dazzling Heights, the sequel to The Thousandth Floor, there is – as in the first book – no real social commentary, none of the concerns about society and dystopic capitalism that pervaded Ballard’s book and came through as well in the film made from it. Instead, The Dazzling Heights is a kind of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous with the reassurance, for those who are neither rich nor famous, that wealth and fame bring only heartache, violence and generalized misery. The plot strands of the first book are worked through and worked over in this second one. Troubled relationships abound, as do deep secrets, the latter being exploited by the vicious Leda Cole to blackmail witnesses to her murder of Eris Dodd-Radson. Hangers-on and wannabes are all around, including new-to-the-scene Calliope Brown and her mother, whose main aim is to take advantage of the richer building residents when they are not taking advantage of each other. Also ever-present are parties of the “desperation” type, with a kind of fiddling-while-the-world-burns style. The various events are multiply narrated, resulting in considerable repetition as McGee has different characters give their viewpoints on the same matters. Unfortunately, the narrative voices are so similar that this device bogs down the story instead of turning it into a where-does-the-truth-really-lie example of the Rashomon effect. The Dazzling Heights tends to be more blindingly obvious than dazzling – it will be suitably involving for readers who found The Thousandth Floor intriguing and are unfamiliar with this sequence’s many derivative elements.
As a series, Victoria Aveyard’s four-novel Red Queen grouping is also deeply formulaic, in this case in a vaguely-medieval-fantasy-dystopic way rather than a vaguely-futuristic-dystopic one. The very first of the novels, Red Queen, which dates to 2015, is now available in a new blood-red edition (including red-edged pages as well as nearly all-red covers) that provides a chance to revisit the start of the sequence or discover it anew for those who are so inclined. The underlying plot contrivance here is that there are people with two kinds of blood, ordinary red and upper-class silver; the Silvers rule, and all of them have powers (whose origins and ties to their blood are never clearly explained). Silvers can control flame or water, read minds, teleport, cause plants to grow, control metal – basically, they have whatever powers Aveyard needs them to have to advance the plot. They rule not through clever, much less benevolent, use of those powers, but through old-fashioned manipulation and violence, allowing Aveyard to divide the world neatly if obviously into the good-but-powerless and the powerful-but-evil. Red Queen protagonist Mare Barrow proves the exception to the blood-power rule – this will scarcely surprise anyone who has ever read any kind of “guttersnipe makes good” story – when it turns out that, despite her red blood, she can take electrical energy into her body and manipulate it. The Silvers need to conceal the fact that a mere Red can do this, so they concoct an origin story for Mare and have her betrothed her to a prince of the realm. All this occurs against a background of constant war, in which a group of Reds called the Scarlet Guard is fighting the ruling Silvers. The Scarlet Guard’s leader is Diana Farley, one of several strong female characters in Red Queen, both good and bad; this may help make Red Queen appealing to the teenage girls who are clearly its intended audience. It is best if would-be readers are unfamiliar with fantasy tropes, though, since so many of them drive the plot here, including Mare’s dedication to her family, her ability to be a catalyst for change and even for revolution, her confronting of the ways in which apparently helpful characters turn out to be enemies, and a variety of wholly unexceptional twists and turns that eventually lead to the discovery that Mare’s favorite and closest brother, whom she believed dead, is alive after all. There is very little surprising in Red Queen, which Aveyard followed with Glass Sword (2016), King’s Cage (2017), and the forthcoming War Storm, which will conclude the series. The strength of many female characters is a plus, but the concomitant bland insipidity of the males is a minus, although the intended readership may not mind it at all. The palace intrigues and various battles are handled well enough, but there is little unexpected in any of the outcomes, and few surprises in the romantic entanglements, petty jealousies and betrayals that seem equally to characterize teen-focused novels in pretty much every genre.