There is brief cause for celebration.
Icons is the fiftieth book I’ve read this year!
5-0. Hurrah! Quite a milestone!
Now stop celebrating.
No smiling, no laughing, no giggling.
Definitely no confetti.
We’re about to talk about sorrow. And rage, and fear, and love. But mostly sorrow.
Author: Margaret Stohl
Genre: Young Adult (Sci-Fi/Romance)
Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: May 07, 2013
Hardcover: 428 pages
Is There a Pooka In This Book?: No.
Icons is the story of a sad-sack girl named Doloria and her mad-sack friend, Furo. She’s kind of like this gif of Stephen Colbert, only not smart. Or funny:
…and her pal’s kind of like the Incredible Hulk, only not smart. Or green.
Good times, right? You definitely want to be inside their brains for 400+ pages.
So why are they important?
Well, because they’re alive, first of all. Aliens landed about seventeen years ago, and they definitely did not come in peace. They brought 13 giant hunks of tech with them that immediately put out electromagnetic pulses, stopping pretty much everyone’s hearts. Those who were left alive weren’t left with much, aside from their questions. Their families and their homes were taken from them, along with any semblance of normalcy or freedom, and the tech – icons, they’re called – scrambled up modern technology, as well, rendering things like cell phones, computers, and microwaves unusable. The aliens, known as “Lords,” took over Earth, and set up a government – the Embassy -, made up of people who serve them entirely out of fear and greed. Dol, a crying baby, was rescued by a man she comes to think of as “Padre,” as was her friend Ro. They’re brought to the outskirts of society (somewhere in California), where they live a very rural, secluded existence, far from the tech’s influence and the Lords’ knowledge. Life is simple, but good. Except that Dol’s crushed with debilitating sadness all the time, and Ro’s constantly overcome by fits of rage and adrenaline, maddened by the injustice of being forced to hide and cower like mice. At least they have each other.
Secondly, they’re important because of their grief and anger. Apparently, the force with which they feel is special. And it may somehow be the key to overthrowing the extraterrestrial scourge. They learn this after their settlement is raided by some soldiers, and they’re brought to the heart of the evil government. There, sad-sack and mad-sack meet scared-sack (Tima) and love-sac (Lucas), as well as the Ambassador, a super-computer named after a bunch of dystopian fiction authors, and a sadistic Colonel. Will the government be able to neutralize/use them to their benefit – all while keeping essential secrets, or will the four sacks get over themselves, learn some shit, rise up, and save the world? If they do rise up, will the aliens stop their hearts mid-beat for their disobedience, or could the Star-Lords just need a big group hug and a little tenderness? Perhaps all each one of them needs is to shit their pants, punch a wall, have a good cry, and be treated to a good roll in the hay. Get in touch with their humanity, you know? As a shape-shifting fey of phenomenal cosmic powers, I understand how important that is. I could easily be their Lord and Master, making all of humanity my bitch, but it’s much more fun to participate in life with them. And learn from them.
…I’m going to do things a little bit differently for this review: shake things up a bit and turn everything on its head. I’ll list all the things I didn’t like first, and then address redeeming factors second. I hope you can handle it.
What I Spit Back Out:
It’s my fault, I think, for complaining that the protagonist in the last book I read wasn’t sad enough. To be fair, the girl in that book had just suffered the loss of her mother – like, days prior, and was still functioning, and flirting with boys, and making new friends, and fighting demons with aplomb. So it was a little unbelievable. But still, I didn’t want the exact opposite! Have these writers never heard of the Middle Path? Why would you possibly want to follow a character around who’s literally just the physical embodiment of sadness? Unless you’re hoping that she’ll always be carrying around a tub of ice cream, in which case, I wouldn’t blame you. Ice cream is delicious. I can see the logic behind that. You might be thinking that maybe, when you reach over for a spoonful, she’ll be too depressed to fight you off. But when the “following around” is in spirit only, as is the case with reading, then there’s really, absolutely, no reason for it. One of the characters even acknowledges it, asking her, “Are you always this cheerful?” (252). And another sarcastically notes that her “personality’s a real sparkler” (173). If her characters speak the words, the author must have been aware, too! So why continue to be so unrelenting about it? I understand that Dol’s sad. Her parents are dead. Her brothers are dead. She never got to know them. Her people are enslaved. She’s spent nearly two decades being downtrodden. But why, when Margaret Stohl was choosing which emotion to make the center of her book, did she choose sadness? Why not joy, or hope? Mirth could’ve at least been a foil-character, I think. Imagine how funny that could have been – just boundless optimism in the face of adversity? It’d be like that guy who cried ’cause of the double rainbows.
All I’m saying is that Icons could’ve used some double rainbows.
2. It’s For Teens.
I mean, obviously, it’s for teens. It’s YA. But there’s a lot of YA that’s great for adults, too! It tends to let go of reality a lot more fully and willingly than the bulk of adult lit; it can be smart, and fresh, and imaginative, fanciful, beautiful, and thought-provoking. Not this one. I’ve read too much. I know too much. Some teens might not know that “dolor” is pain in Latin (or Spanish, which is the romance language I’m familiar with). Therefore, the significance of Doloria’s name might not be immediately apparent to them. Her identity might surprise them. They may not be familiar with Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury, and Clarke. Doc’s allegiances might strike them as a question without an answer – until the answer is intentionally revealed. They’re just starting out. They’re just beginning to form their knowledge base and participate in the cultural conversation. I’m not. What that meant is that precious little of the plot development came as a surprise to me. I was always one step ahead, and always frustrated when Stohl spelled it out for me. But she wasn’t spelling things out for me, she was spelling it out for them. For those younger kids. She was teaching them things, which is great! For them, Icons probably does feel fresh and not stale at all! It was just frustratingly elementary for me, as an adult reader. When I read YA, a lot of the time I do feel as though I’m being self-indulgent; I know I’m capable of reading at a higher level. But I don’t feel like I need to be a less-developed person to enjoy it. I did feel that here. I’m just too old.
Oh my god.
I kind of felt like that with Unbreakable, too! I hope this isn’t going to become a trend. If I stop being able to enjoy teen supernatural romances, I will be inconsolable. I know it’s something that happens to people. But please, not me. Not yet. It’ll be like that scene from The Neverending Story when Atreyu loses his horse in the Swamp of Sadness – except that the horse is YA.
Please pray that this is temporary. Don’t let the Nothing get me! I want to believe! I want to hope! I want to read about vampires and werewolves and crossbows and first love!
3. The Way Doloria Treats Ro.
Ro’s the best friend part of the love triangle. He’s the one that’s always been there. He loved her first. (I’m fiercely loyal, and I have a hard time not rooting for the one who’s been pining for the protagonist from the beginning). Then Lucas, the love-sac comes in. And Doloria swoons, as does every other girl he comes into contact with. I have nothing against Lucas. I understand that love is more alluring than rage. I think so, too! And if Doloria doesn’t feel romantic love for Ro (which remains to be seen), it’s okay if she chooses Lucas instead – but she should still be a good friend. And it doesn’t seem like she was ever a good friend. She’s been too self-involved to be generous and kind. On her birthday, Ro makes her climb to the top of a mountain. He gives her electricity that he’s generated by bicycle-power! Christmas lights illuminate a tiny shack, and he plays music for her, which she can listen to while basking in the glow. He welds a picture frame for her to display the photograph of her mother in. He’s so thoughtful. What did she do for his birthday? Nothing. Oh, he doesn’t have a birthday. He doesn’t remember the date, no written documentation survives, and his best friend never even thought to make one up for him so he could be spoiled and treated, too. She’s just ignored that fact for seventeen years. It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t matter. She’s so shitty and selfish!
What Made the Book Totally Worth Eating:
Tima is “the other woman” in the novel. She’s Lucas’s Ro. They’ve been together since childhood. Obviously, she and Doloria don’t get along at first. They’re cruel to one another and are overly judgmental. Because God forbid two women have a strong, healthy, supportive relationship. God forbid they smile or joke or encourage or be direct and honest and open. Better have them figure out how to take each other down a notch, behind each other’s backs, instead. Better figure out how to kill that other bitch! Send her out with the trash! But all of that aside, I really liked Tima. She has long, silver hair and big thick bangs. Her hands are very expressive, her fingers constantly moving. She’s powerful and smart, and despite being the incarnation of “fear” (or “timidity”), she doesn’t let that emotion rule her. She exhibits incredible bravery on more than one occasion, showing that Icon Children can be multi-dimensional human beings! I was starting to wonder… She’s always the catalyst behind the group learning more. One of my favorite quotes from her is, “I don’t like people knowing more about me than I do. I don’t like being a bullet being shot by somebody’s gun” (190). She also says, wisely, “You might not know what’s possible, but that doesn’t limit possibility… Obviously” (167). And later, she points out everyone else’s uselessness in a wonderful, snide way. She says, “Based on this new bit of research I’ve so cleverly recovered — not by moping, I might add, or by showing off for some girl… I’ve made a few educated guesses about why we’re all here. Why we’re different” (338). She even has a killer tattoo of a Gnostic symbol. It’s of the triad – the three levels of existence – or the world soul (146). The only thing I don’t like about her (aside from the fact that she doesn’t really eat) are that the tattoos are “blood tattoos,” which are never adequately explained. Stohl packs way too much world-building into the first book of her series without explaining things in any detail. I’m sure she’s setting things up for the coming books, but you’ve got to say at least something. Especially when other characters make judgments about people based on these small details and you don’t understand why. Like when Tima gives herself another blood tattoo later (stitches up the backs of her legs) and Doloria notes that she must be crazy/losing her mind. Just… what? Why do tattoos lead to insanity? I wish Tima was the girl we followed around instead of Dol. I’d prefer a character with a thirst for knowledge over someone who actually says, “I don’t want to know. It’s safer that way” (166).
2. Doctor Orwell Brad Huxley-Clarke, the super computer.
Thankfully, Stohl injects some humor into her text through Doc. It’s interesting that it takes a being of Artificial Intelligence to provide that, as if humor’s not something humanity’s capable of. A lot of the humor comes from Doc not understanding humor, which adds another layer. He’s made a great effort to “learn” jokes, in case people want to laugh, and he’s constantly needing things to do with emotions explained to him. He’s very literal. Things have to be phrased just so in order for him to respond properly. I liked ‘im.
I also liked Fortis. Fortis is a “Merk,” or merchant. (I dislike the term “merk,” for the record. It’s way too close to the word “merkin,” which is – vocabulary expanding opportunity of the day! – a pubic hair wig). He’s hilarious, too. I like that when he talks to the Icon Children, he supplies answers for them when they don’t respond to him like real people should. He talks in a high falsetto for Doloria, since she never expresses gratitude and also sometimes fails to acknowledge that he’s even spoken (again I repeat: she’s awful). He felt real, when so many of the characters fell flat.
4. Some of the Sentences Are Wonderfully Disturbing.
Okay, so the real reason I wanted to read Icons is that I wanted to compare Margaret Stohl’s writing with Kami Garcia’s. (They co-authored the Beautiful Creatures series together, and each came out with their first solo novel this year; I wanted to know whose writing I like more. I wanted to know who was more responsible for a book series that I absolutely adore). Weirdly, although Kami Garcia’s novel stands firmly in the horror genre, I actually found Margaret Stohl’s to be more terrifying. Here are two gems:
“Once again I let myself fade into a faraway world where there are no babies screaming in cribs – no silent radios, no rag-doll fathers, no crossless mothers” (136). A father who falls down the stairs, breaking his neck, and a mother who has the crucifix ripped off of hers by scavengers post-mortem is much more disturbing to me than a ghost who makes knives fly through the air. She also writes, “This is what my life has become. This and nothing more. Mysterious news and sudden death. Blood spatter on the wall and kumquats rolling on the floor. This is my life now” (260). Horror is in the small details.
5. That One Scene With Dol & Lucas at Our Lady of the Angels.
It’s got beautiful architecture, orange blossoms, scarlet bougainvillea, and a halo of sky. Doloria muses about the difference between angels and aliens, both coming as they do, from above. And the facts get even more muddled in her young mind, since the Padre told her as a child that aliens “sent her parents to heaven” (27). Stohl’s alien mythology is pretty interesting, actually, despite the fact that they’re never physically described (which almost makes it better. It’d probably be cheapened if she decided they were green with bulbous heads, big eyes, and long, spindly extremities. The unknown is scarier). I love early on in the novel, when she writes, “Nobody calls them aliens anymore. Because they aren’t. [After seventeen years.] They’re familiar” (27).
So, at the end of this, what do I have to say? I’m stymied. I still don’t know whose writing I like better – Kami Garcia’s or Margaret Stohl’s. I have huge issues with both of their solo novels. And, the two of them have instilled a desperate thought in my brain that I might be losing my taste for YA. That’s kind of awful. I didn’t hate either book. They were both just average. There are so many books in the world, though, that I hate to waste my time on average! I don’t know if I’ll read the next Icon Children’s book. Not liking a protagonist is pretty serious business. I’d like to say that things can only go up from here, but that’s not true! Things could get much, much worse. Wish me YA happiness in my future! (I’ve got the next “Morganville Vampires” book, the second in Maggie Stiefvater’s “Raven Cycle” series, and Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall in my “to-be-read” pile). This Pooka needs something magical to occur – and nothing less than a double Reading Rainbow will do!
Pooka Rating: 3 out of 5 Nibbles.