Mystic City (Mystic City, #1)This review contains spoilers, but trust me, it won't make any difference.
Not so far in the future, New York is a city of underwater streets infested with the malnourished poor - called the Depths - and towering skyscrapers graced by the wealthy elite - the Aeries. The Aeries is divided between two powerful families, the Fosters and the Roses. Aria Rose, seventeen and beautiful, wakes up one day to the news that she is engaged to Thomas Foster, son of her father's rival, and that they're to be mThis review contains spoilers, but trust me, it won't make any difference.Not so far in the future, New York is a city of underwater streets infested with the malnourished poor - called the Depths - and towering skyscrapers graced by the wealthy elite - the Aeries. The Aeries is divided between two powerful families, the Fosters and the Roses. Aria Rose, seventeen and beautiful, wakes up one day to the news that she is engaged to Thomas Foster, son of her father's rival, and that they're to be married only weeks after the upcoming mayoral election, for which Thomas' older brother Garland is running.Everyone is rejoicing that these two feuding families have put aside their differences and joined together through Aria and Thomas' romantic love story. The only problem is, Aria can't remember anything about it. She's never met Thomas before, feels nothing for him beyond mild admiration for his good looks and buff body: he doesn't stir in her any of the feelings she always thought would come with love. But her parents told her she overdosed on Stic and it wiped her recent memory - she has never taken the drug that she can remember, but she believes them. In her efforts to remember the past and rekindle the love she must have felt for Thomas to have gone sneaking around in the Depths with him, Aria meets Hunter, a young rebel Mystic from the Depths. The mystics are the things of legend, propaganda and scary stories. Long blamed for the Conflagration - a bombing that killed several people, including a Mystic leader, Ezra Brooks - their punishment is to be drained of their magical power twice a year. The Mystics had built the Aeries, their magic powers the city and from it is made Stic, among other things. Now, the ruling families of the Aeries drain their power from them and hoard it, leaving them weakened and vulnerable far below.As Aria gets to know Hunter more, she learns that everything she had thought was true, is not, and the people who are meant to love and protect her, are doing the opposite. Who can she trust? What is in her wiped memories, and can she get them back? And when the time comes, which side will she choose?This book was full of promise, with an exciting if unoriginal premise (I was reminded, for instance, of NK Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy) - and, yes, a very pretty cover. But if fell, and it fell hard. I hadn't gone farther than the first chapter before I was frowning, mumbling to myself, grimacing, and getting increasingly frustrated and annoyed. It's such a shame, especially considering that all its problems could have been fixed through better editing and better writing. The list of issues I had with this story is long, and I'm not sure how best to get it across - but maybe a list is all I need.__________________________
1. Aria: She's stupid, naive, gullible and yeah, did I mention stupid? Oh she's nice, and kind, but so vacuous I can't understand what Hunter could possible see in her - Hunter loving Aria just gives me a low opinion of Hunter, really. For instance - and this ties into other issues that I have - she believes Elissa when the drained mystic tells her she's a double agent, and is too stupid to realise that if she was working with the rebels, she wouldn't need Aria to get a message to them, drained or not. See what I mean by gullible?When she confronts Thomas to ask him point-blank whether he's a Stic dealer and he says whoever told her that was lying, she says, "Why would someone lie about that to me?" [p.248] (She has a similar reaction to learning the truth about mystics and the Conflagration.) See, it's not that I object to having a protagonist this naive and stupid, but that one minute she's thinking something pretty honest about, say, her father's line of work - hell, she's seen him or his bodyguards shoot people point blank but she still thinks he's a decent man??? - and then the next minute she's surprised that someone lied to her. She's a dupe, and she's a painfully slow one: even by the end of the book, I couldn't tell you that she'd grown a brain or had her eyes opened wide enough to actually make her THINK.
And try this: during her first visit to the Depths, she is assaulted and knifed by a group of poor teens until Hunter rescues her (she's often the damsel in distress); another day, she wanders around the Depths in a dress "studded with Swarvoski crystals" and "high-heeled sandals that tie around [her] ankles." [p.102] You can see that she really gets it, yeah? She learns from her mistakes, this one.
What makes it especially laughable, is when Aria says things like this: "Maybe when I get to know her better, I'll ask her more about her choices. But for now I have to remain Johnny Rose's naive daughter, so as not to raise suspicion." [p.128] Oh dear, Aria really believes she's not naive? That she's worldly enough to be manipulative? Absolutely nothing in the entire book gives evidence of this. As a narrator (in the first person), she is rendered - not unreliable, but so dumb you want to push her aside, roll up your sleeves and just sort it out while she keeps her mouth shut. Oh right, just the way her family treats her.Speaking of, Aria has zero backbone, which makes for one incredibly lacklustre heroine. Not even being aware that she's being manipulated makes her do anything about it. And sadly, I don't think the irony was deliberate in this telling scene:
"Aria, may I have a word with you?"Before I can respond, Kiki answers, "No, Davida, you may not."I'd laugh if Kiki's tone weren't so serious. "What's your deal, Kiki?" I ask.Kiki tugs on the hem of her striped cotton day dress "I promised your father on my way in that I'd escort you to work and make sure you got there in time," she says, "and I won't disappoint him." Kiki takes one final bite of her apple, then drags me into the foyer. My purse is in my hand, and before I know it I'm out the door.Aria is one giant push-over, and while she does go through a little bit of character growth by the end of the book, she's still pretty vacuous and incredibly dumb.__________________________
"I hate how she orders you around," Kiki says, tapping her foot impatiently as we wait for the elevator. "You should get rid of her once and for all." [p.219]
2. World-building: This New York doesn't make sense, as it's described, and so it seems to contradict itself. We're told the streets are underwater, navigated by raised footpaths in some areas and motorised gondolier taxis in most places. But then Hunter's friend Turk has a motorbike, and when convenient, the streets suddenly become dry. I've never been to Manhattan, but I understand that it's pretty flat - that and it being at sea level is part of the concern regarding rising sea levels, right? So how can some parts be submerged and others not? And the subway tunnels - the water fills them, and yet doesn't. It could easily make sense if it were better explained, but it wasn't, which is typical of the entire novel.
Also, in such a changed and damaged world, there's no way that people would have the same kind of consumer goods - from food to designer bags - that they do now. It pays to study some economics and, indeed, climate change, if you're going to write a novel that uses it as a framework, a structure, because it effects everything. Food production is a big one, but the thing is this: as climate change effects people's livelihoods, they turn to crime in poorer countries without any social welfare or support, which further disrupts economics. It's not that New York couldn't still be prosperous in this world, but beyond its city limits, there's just a fog, a void, a nothing. I wouldn't mind, for the sake of a good story and great atmosphere, but we get neither of that here, so it all sounds as vacuous as Aria.The weakest part for me was the construction of the Depths and its population. It was hard to get a clear picture of what exactly life was like for them. They're poor, right, got that. Malnourished, yes, that's mentioned several times. Dirty, that too. Down-trodden, that I can see. But they still have school, apparently. And the buildings are flooded and falling apart, but people still live in them? It needed more concrete details, really. I loved seeing where the Rebels live, in converted subway cars underground, but the mystics are only a small portion of the population, and there seemed to be yet another divide, between the poor, and the mystics. There was an emphasis on the wrongs done to the mystics, but no one cared about the non-mystic poor. It reminded me of the American war against the British, back in the day: the Americans wanted freedom from the British, but it was only ever a freedom for the white colonials, not for the slaves. On a related note, it was bizarre but oh-so-convenient that, even though the residents of the Aeries don't ever use cash (everything is electronic, computerised), Aria just happens to have accumulated a small pile of coins over the years. Where on earth from? She's never been to the Depths before all this mess - and if she had just a small pile, wouldn't she have used them all when she was mucking about with Hunter before having her memory wiped? Maybe not, but still, the fact remains, that it seems highly unlikely that she'd have any coins.And if you have walkways, bridges over space, as high up as the Aries (and we're never told exactly how high up that is), then it's going to be very windy up there. But there's no wind. It
would normally be very cold, too, but "global warming" (an out-dated and now useless term) has brought on incredible heat, even up there.__________________________
3. Climate change: I appreciate that Lawrence has made climate change a background issue, or rather, its effects, but he doesn't seem to understand how a little thing called GRAVITY works. Cue this:
The heat, they say, is because of the global climate crisis, the melting of snow and ice around the world and the rising sea level that swallowed Antarctica and all of Oceania. Global warming is also to blame for the canals that line the Depths, filling what used to be low avenues and streets with saltwater. Soon, the scientists say, the rising waters will overtake the entire island. [pp.15-16]
Um, right, so rising seas will completely cover mountainous New Zealand and ancient Australia, among other places, but Manhattan will only have slightly submerged streets? Dear me, on what planet could that happen?!! That is not how water works, that is not how GRAVITY works. And that was only page 15. You can understand why, then, my trust in the author took a nose-dive fairly early on.__________________________
4. Poorly sketched out supporting cast: Take her father's job, for instance. You have to piece it together with scraps of information, because Aria is too flaky to just tell us what her father does for a living. For a while, it seemed like she had absolutely no idea what he did. And while all we really learn is that he is one of the people who arranges for mystics to be drained, that's clearly not the extent of his business empire (and she only learns of it during the story).To be honest, we learn extremely little about any of the characters, despite Aria's supposed curiosity and drive to understand what's going on. For someone who is so obviously being manipulated, she seems incapable of being suspicious - of anyone. She has so little reaction, or feeling, towards people when she finds out they've betrayed her. It takes her a long, long time to say anything to her mother, for instance, and that should have felt like the biggest betrayal of all.__________________________
5. Plot inconsistencies and holes: These are rife throughout, most of them fairly small details, but it doesn't matter how apparently minor they are: each and every one jarred me. It was like the story had been edited so many times, scenes rewritten over and over, that the author lost track of what people had said or done. That's what proof readers are for, though. Little things like, Hunter's mystic-powered touch gives her a jolt, a zap, when they touch, and he apologises, and at one point Aria thinks he's making an effort to control it or something; and yet, mixed in with that thread, other times he touches her and it's just warm, like the first time on the balcony, and after he rescues her from the gang and heals her arm. So which is it? Pick one and stick to it!Another example: Elissa tells Aria about her job monitoring the Grid, and keeping watch on the subway tunnel entrances, where the rebels are hiding. Later, Aria is following her servant, Davida, in the Depths and when they reach a subway entrance, Aria recalls that "Elissa Genevieve told me how her team was searching for a way into the underground subway tunnels to flush out the rebels. How all the entrances are blocked with mystic shields." [p.202] Except that Elissa never said anything about mystic shields. When the little things don't add up, it gets annoying very fast.__________________________
6. Cliches: I know, what book is without cliches? It's not even necessarily a bad thing. But some of the cliches in Mystic City were just so glaringly cheesy I actually noticed them. Like, the mysterious metal door which Aria tells us about when she starts working as a coffee girl at her father's company:
After I take the elevator, I walk down the hallway, passing Benedict's office and those of some of the other executives, and a stainless steel door without a keypad or a touchpad. I'm not sure what it's for, and nobody else seems to know, either. Then the hallway opens into a maze of cubicles, which is where I work." [p.123]BA BA BOOM! It's like in a really corny movie, when the important details practically have neon signs pointing to them, y'know, in case you missed it. I wanted to clock Aria over the head. And then, maybe, the author, too.Another one:
There is a rustling outside, from the balcony. [...] I go over to the windows and open them, stepping out onto the balcony in my bare feet. No one is here. "False alarm," I say. "Too many mystics coming to visit lately. Puts me on edge, I guess."How convenient, that the voyeur just happened to leave an incriminating piece of evidence behind. And why would they have a second pill on them, when they'd just taken one? It's lazy writing.Then, don't forget the C-list movie ultimatum:
Davida climbs out behind me and scans the balcony. She points to a tiny green pill between two paving stones. "A mystic wouldn't be taking Stic." Davida holds the pill up to the light, then shoves it in her pocket. "Only someone who needed a power boost to get to this balcony in the first place. Somebody is spying on you. Or trying to, at least." [pp.244-5]
George Foster pulls away, ad Dad motions to Stiggson. "Fine. Cuff the boy." Then he speaks directly to Hunter. "You'll lead us to one of the mystic entrances and allow us to go through. If we find out that you've warned your people of our arrival, Aria will die. If you do as we say... she'll remain unharmed."Hunter nods, as though he's actually considering this ridiculous plan. He can't be, though - can he? "And what happens to me?""You'll die, of course. But I promise to make your end as painless as possible.""No!" I shout. "This is unacceptable, this is -""Aria," Hunter says, "there's no point in fighting. It's the best way - the only way."I was caught between wanting to roll my eyes and pulling a face to say, "Really?" Aside from the theatrics, it has to be one of the biggest cliches out there. And the whole, "you'll die, of course" bit really tipped me over the edge of wanting to laugh into outright incredulity.Then sometimes it's just a line, a sentence, one that I've read time and time again. Like this one: "The pity washes away, leaving something else in its wake: fury." [p.377]__________________________
"You can't honestly believe that," I say to him, as though we're the only ones in the room. We've just gotten each other back; I'm not going to lose him again. [p.356]
7. Aria's relationships with others: This is an extension of 1. above, but it annoyed me so much I felt it deserved it's own spot. I'm not sure that I can see beyond the glaring words STUPID, NAIVE and SHALLOW; I'm not sure that there's anything more to it, but it really tested my patience, having a heroine, a protagonist, who thinks like this:
How could Davida never have told me any of this? How could I not have known, never have suspected? I've lived under the same roof as the girl for practically my entire life.Why didn't she tell you? Oh, I don't know, because you're a ROSE and she's a SERVANT? (and in the Aeries, you don't speak to the servants except to give them orders - they're all from the Depths, anyway.) Why should she tell you anything, you silly twit? What right do you have to feel betrayed by Davida? What does she owe you, really? Why should she trust you? Oh and this comes days after Davida confesses a part of her story, or a version of it, and Aria hugs her and tells her that from now on, they'll tell each other everything. Which Aria of course never did, but now she's upset that Davida didn't either?__________________________
I feel betrayed. By Davida and by my parents, who've manipulated me to no end. [p.303]
8. Present tense: I'm sick to death of present tense in YA fiction, now. Use it once, maybe it works. Use it in every second book, and it's just silly. I wouldn't mind so much if people could actually write it properly.
It can be a great affect, when done well, but you have to know when to use it and when to use past tense, which is a much more versatile, flexible and forgiving tense. I used to think past tense was a bit boring, but now I can appreciate its strengths. In contrast, present tense can have oomph but it can also be very limiting. You have to obey its rules, and one of those rules is you can't play with time. You can't really even acknowledge time, not in the many ways you can with past tense. You can't say, "Later that day..." or "eventually..." or "after a while..." That's what you'd say in past tense, but in present tense you're confined to the moment, the present.Lawrence falls for these traps quite often, but otherwise he uses present tense pretty well. I don't think it adds very much to the story, but I can see why he'd choose to use it, given Aria's lack of memories, and to emphasise the sense of danger and tension.__________________________
There were parts of the plot that had me interested, engaged even, but with so many problems that I just couldn't overlook, I simply couldn't enjoy this story. I can be very forgiving of weak writing and other things, when I'm sucked into a story and its characters' lives, but that was far from happening for me here. Within the scope of the story, Aria did make sense as a character, but the fact that she never really wised up and did anything decisive, never really learnt anything, made me want to bang my head against a wall. Or throw the book.
And if Aria was a weak character, the plot too was weakly devised. The mystery is no mystery, not to us, not from the very beginning. Every so-called plot twist is only a surprise to Aria, not the reader, and every double-crosser practically has an arrow pointed to their head. Any true mystery, like who gave her the locket with the note that says "Remember" at her engagement party, is impossible for the reader to solve because Aria is so hopeless at putting two-and-two together. She doesn't compare handwriting, for instance. (oh god, I feel another rant about Aria's naive stupidity...more