Book Review: Across the Universe by Beth Revis

(This is a semi-joint review. Mostly, it's Alz with input by Krispy.)

I was excited for this book since I read the promotional 111 pages released on the release day of 01-11-11. I offered to pick the book up for Krispy since I could get it sooner, and shamelessly finished it that night. While I was thoroughly engrossed, some issues arose that led to me having mixed feelings by the end.

Across the Universe by Beth Revis

Pros: Engrossing writing, identifiable narrators, beautiful world- and ship-building. (Krispy's input: deft handling of themes and narrative mood)
Cons: Excessive heavy-handed clues = mysteries are no longer mysterious, violation of the laws of physics, author withholds info and eschews character depth and development for the sake of a plot twist.

Intellectual Rating: 7 out of 10 stars
Emotional Grade: B-

Book Blurb: Amy is a cryogenically frozen passenger aboard the spaceship Godspeed. She has left her boyfriend, friends—and planet—behind to join her parents as a member of Project Ark Ship.

Amy and her parents believe they will wake on a new planet, Centauri-Earth, three hundred years in the future. But fifty years before Godspeed's scheduled landing, cryo chamber 42 is mysteriously unplugged, and Amy is violently woken from her frozen slumber.

Someone tried to murder her.

Now, Amy is caught inside a tiny world where nothing makes sense. Godspeed's 2,312 passengers have forfeited all control to Eldest, a tyrannical and frightening leader. And Elder, Eldest's rebellious teenage heir, is both fascinated with Amy and eager to discover whether he has what it takes to lead.

Amy desperately wants to trust Elder. But should she put her faith in a boy who has never seen life outside the ship's cold metal walls? All Amy knows is that she and Elder must race to unlock Godspeed's hidden secrets before whoever woke her tries to kill again.

Alz's Take: I've seen this book promoted as a science fiction love story, but it's far more interesting than merely that. There is romance, but it is by no means as headbangingly drippy as a YA romance novel, and romance is not the sole focus. There's a murder mystery going on in an enclosed space, a dystopian society ruled by a questionable despot, and the question of how things ended up this way. Amongst other things, of course.

The book is first-person narration and chapters faithfully alternate between Amy's POV and Elder's. The writing is strong, although I should make a small note that I wish Amy and Elder's voices were just a little more distinct; cultural references and differences in vocabulary aside, they sounded a bit similar to me—strong, and reacting to different situations differently, but all in the same tone. But the narration is very, very close to the speaker, as opposed to, say, The Hunger Games where the narration is first-person but somewhat distant. Engulfing emotion rolls off the pages of Across the Universe in waves. It's great!

Amy is a realistically portrayed teenage girl, and her vulnerabilities are made as evident as her strengths, which I liked. She doesn't immediately somersault out of her freezer box wielding a phase rifle and a flamethrower and ready to gun down her attempted murderer, or emerge clear-minded and level-headed and ready to take on the challenges of shipboard life. No, she emerges crying and dazed and suffering from no little trauma, and her distress is neither brushed off nor glamorized. As she recovers her physical strength, she recovers her personal and character strengths as well. Amy has several very intense scenes and in all of them she is presented for what she is: a seventeen-year-old girl and a stranger in a strange land. She is likeable and identifiable without feeling doctored to appeal to a target audience—she is what she is: Amy.

Elder is also likeable, has his own motivations and frustrations and worries, and he's also a good window into the world of the Godspeed. You know how I say I like to learn about worlds through immersion and context? This is what I'm talking about right here and now, in Across the Universe. Elder introduces us to his world, either with a casual description of the "floppies" that are computer membrane-sheets or simply spitting out cursewords like "frex." (Yay, another F-word addition to my scifi lingo lexicon: Frak! Frell! Frex!)

The Godspeed is a world built unto itself as much literally as metaphorically, and I felt the ship around me as a reality when I was reading. The senses of entrapment and frustration were intense. The mood is meticulously crafted and the story itself deals with many social and political themes, as well as handling mature subjects (read into that term what you will) in a tactful and insightful way.

The chapters are super short, averaging around five pages each, sometimes much less—there are 398 pages divided into 80 chapters. So it reads quickly and the book is probably a lot shorter than it looks because of so much blank space between chapters. The chapters are also written so that they frequently leave off on emotional epiphanies or situational cliffhangers. I tore through the book in about three and a half hours because I didn't want to stop.

That's the positive stuff. Let's move on to some of the less positive stuff.

Aside from Amy, Elder, and one of the characters named Harley, all the others seem a little flat. If Amy, Elder and Harley are three-dimensional, Eldest, Doc, and most everyone else of note is two-dimensional—not so flat as to be one-dimensional because there are hints toward deeper character, but by halfway through the book I was getting impatient for some change or revelation; by the end of the book, I was disappointed because all that potential remained unfulfilled.

Most of the plot is very transparent. Although Krispy has accused me of being uncommonly perceptive and I admit I have a suspicious nature, these glaringly obvious clues should have been glaringly obvious to the characters too. There were a lot of times when plot-blindness came into play, by which I mean that otherwise intelligent characters failed to notice obvious things or make obvious connections simply in the interest of prolonging the book. Because stuff is so obvious and you've already figured everything out, there's not much tension surrounding the mysteries, no matter how much the story tries to play it up; most of the tension lies in wanting to see how things pan out and wondering if there's going to be a plot twist of some kind.

(Note from Krispy: I have to agree here about the transparent nature of some of the clues. I'm one of those readers that gives everything the benefit of a doubt, which is to say, I pretty much turn off my brain for full immersion in story and I REALLY suspend my disbelief. To begin with, I will take most in-story facts/laws/what-have-yous at face value. But EVEN I SAW some things coming almost as early as Alz did, which is saying a lot.

Then again, I do watch a lot of crime dramas.)

There were some plot twists, yes, but the two main ones—which is to say the two that I didn't see coming from the first quarter of the book—I have beef with. Serious beef. Like a whole herd and a half of Apollo's sacred white cows kind of beef. Unfortunately I can't get into the meat of the problems since that would be spoilerific, so I shall attempt to describe them without really describing what's happening.

Basically, we're told something via a plot twist that's a Very Big Problem and very integral to the plot—but this plot twist ignores the laws of physics.

However, it is something that if you're reading quickly because you're absorbed in the book (and it is quite absorbing) and you're not really thinking about it, you might not notice. For instance, Krispy did not catch on until I pointed it out to her. (Note from Krispy: I would like to confess here that Physics was by far my worst subject in school, EVER. My reader perception being low aside, I think this was another example of how much Physics and I just do not get along.)

Now, this is science fiction, and it's clear the author's done some research to fill in certain details and put a hell of a lot of thought into sustainable life on a spaceship that'll be centuries in reaching its destination. I applaud her for that and enjoyed the fruit of her efforts up until the Very Big Problem part, when it suddenly turned sour. I can accept without question or thought the technologies of cryogenic freezing, artificial gravity, and a ship on a 300-year-old autopilot system. But I can't accept a violation of the laws of physics. That's the basic foundation of science fiction—screw up there and it skews everything before and after, and creates a very shaky house indeed.

(Krispy has informed me that Beth Revis announced that two of the things we learn in the book are actually lies that will be revealed in the next book, but I'm not taking that into consideration. I shouldn't have to rely on external authorial input to excuse a glaring inaccuracy, especially since there's no hint or other indication that this plot twist is indeed a lie.)

The other plot twist I didn't like because it made me feel cheated and deceived—it was an authorial plot device wherein the author kept a very important tidbit of information from the reader simply for the sake of revealing it as a huge twist in the end. This sort of thing can be done well, but it's very hard to do it when everything is first-person narration, because then you have to wonder: Why didn't the character ever think about this during the hundreds of pages of the book? Especially if it's something that should've evoked a great deal of emotion.

I went back and reread around the events concerning the plot twist, and there were some vague hints, but they were ambiguous enough that I didn't bat an eyelash when I read them the first time. There was no other setup, clues, or hinting toward this twist.

In light of the twist, though, and the fact that the character involved didn't dwell on this matter or think about how it influenced things, it changes my opinion of said character for the worse. I'm pretty sure my opinion isn't supposed to plummet as much as it did, and if I'd just taken everything at face value and not thought about the deeper implications, it might've been more okay. But if I'm offered depth, I'm going to take the plunge, even if that's not what the author intended.

The book is open-ended to the point that I was a tad unsatisfied because there are so many loose ends, though there is some resolution for some of the immediate problems and mysteries. I initially thought the book was a standalone but after I'd gotten halfway through Krispy told me it's actually going to be a trilogy. I'd rate my level of ending-satisfaction at around 70%.

(Note from Krispy: I was more okay with the ending than Alz was because while there were still big things to be resolved, the main mysteries and thematic focuses of this book were resolved or satisfactorily dealt with. There was also enough of what I characterize as "a feeling of hope" in the tone of the end that let me be okay with the loose ends. Of course I'd like to know what happens after, but as it is, I think I would be okay if I didn't know this book was part of a trilogy.)

Alz's Conclusion: Across the Universe is a fast-paced, absorbing read, and stylistically well-written. The plot is too easily predictable from the plethora of obvious clues which the characters' plot-blindness prevents them from seeing; it also suffers from an integral but incorrect assumption about the laws of physics. I'm somewhat disappointed and unsatisfied due to my high expectations and the story's brilliant start, but I did enjoy most of the book. It's worth reading and I definitely want to read the sequel.

(Krispy's Conclusion: Mostly ditto what Alz said, though my high expectations were probably the result of being a bit overhyped, but it was still a good read and Ms. Revis is a skilled writer. I'm looking forward to the next book, and I still definitely recommend this one. Grade: B)


Melissa said...

This is the most in depth review of the novel I've read so far and also seems to be a lot less unbiased.... I mean, glowing reviews are great but they really gloss over things.

Reading about the second plot twist that the character knew about the whole time but never thought of it actually has REALLY turned me off the idea of buying this book. I absolutely HATE when that happens. In a first person novel you just can't get away with that kind of thing. Third yes. First NEVER. And if the book can't work as vaguely standalone-ish in the first of a series... then I'm very turned off.

Now I don't know whether I'm going to get this one or not. Thank you for your honest review.

Krispy said...

Thanks Melissa! I think it really depends on what kind of reader you are for some of these things.

In general, Alz is a more critical reader and I'm more laid-back.

The 2nd plot twist REALLY bothered Alz, but not me so much, though that kind of thing usually does. Maybe it was because I was prepared for it?

As for the stand-alone ability of this book, I think it would satisfy the "vaguely standalone-ish" requirement. Alz didn't think so and compared it to another YA we read that ended really abruptly, but I don't agree with her there. I would say that other book is NOT standalone, but Across the Universe could work as one. Sure there are some big over-arching plot type loose ends (probably stuff to cover over the course of the forthcoming books), but if this were the only book, I'd be okay with that. Don't know if you read Incarceron, but I feel like AtU ended in the same kind of vein - with loose ends and a sorta precarious situation but enough book-plot resolution for me to feel satisfied (or at least not in PRESSING NEED of a sequel).

Anyway, if you're on the fence about getting it but were interested in reading it, I rec it enough to say, definitely borrow from library or friend. Despite its cons, it is a fast, well-written read. :)

Alz said...

Melissa - As Krispy said, yep, I'm way more critical than she is, however I was really into the book when I read it. I agree with Krispy--check it out at the library or borrow it from a friend. For myself, I think I wouldn't pay list price for it (though the hardcover dustjacket is gorgeous), but if I received it as a gift or saw it on sale for really cheap, I might pick it up. Overall, though, I'm still glad I read it.

Lydia Kang said...

Hey Krispy and Alz,
As always, thank you so much for the honest review.
I'll probably happily buy this book anyway...I'm dying to read it...but being a total science geek (and I did not like physics either but that stupid class had be aced for premed) I may be irritated with bending the rules of physics too.

Weronika Janczuk said...

I wasn't sure if I was going to review this, and now I don't think I will, as you've taken every single thought -- Alz, particularly, as it seems we are equally critical readers -- and put it into this review.

I enjoyed it. I think the concept is one that will get non-readers to read, yes. But as someone who demands to be challenged, particularly in mystery-esque scenarios, I was disappointed, but not enough to keep from recommending it.

FANTASTIC review. I applaud your honesty.

Unknown said...

What a well written and in depth review!

I'm more of a laid-back reader like Krispy, so the twists didn't bother me and it looks like I just breezed by the physics mistake. But now I really want to know! So this might sound kinda strange, but if you have time to shoot me an email at kat-tastic(at)live.com, I would really love to find out what you're referring to!

Again, great job on writing such a well thought out review!

Christina Lee said...

I glossed over some parts here b/c I am smack dab in the middle of reading this. :-)

Tere Kirkland said...

Great review. Hope you don't mind if I link to it, ladies. ;)

I adored the characters and the premise of Across the Universe, and the writing itself was lovely (though I did sometimes mix up which of the 2 pov characters I was reading at times, and felt their voices could have been a bit more unique).

I did wish the mystery was less obvious. But sometimes it created more tension knowing something about another character that the pov characters don't. And I did guess the second plot twist before it was revealed, and felt a little cheated that the character never dwelled on that in all the other dwelling going on, but over all, I enjoyed it, and I'm looking forward to the next one.

Again, great review!

Hannah said...

I'm here from Tere's blog...

I haven't finished reading it yet but I completely agree with everything because I can already guess what the twist will be. I love this review. I read so many reviews where people just gush. I will be back for sure.

Alz said...

Lydia – A lot of my space science and physics I learned from Star Trek (because they get so many things wrong that people like to point out online) and Futurama (because they actually get so many things RIGHT). :) In Across the Universe's case, I didn't really question any of the science or tech until the physics thing came up.

Weronika – Thanks! Challenge on multiple levels is EXACTLY what I was expecting/hoping for and too much of the book just didn't do that. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and hope that the next book will dig a little deeper into areas that were too shallowly explored this time around.

Kat – Thanks! And done!

Christina – Keep going! It's a pretty fast read anyway but near the latter half of the book, it went even faster because of everything that was happening.

Tere – Thanks for the linkage! I actually didn't see the second plot twist coming because I just took everything in that character's POV for granted. My initial reaction was pleasant surprise and shock—omg plot twist!—but a half a second later I felt cheated once the implications hit.

Hannah – Welcome to A Nudge! I'm glad you like what you've read. I try to emphasize the highs and lows of books as well as intellectual VS emotional enjoyment, because sometimes a book is really bad but enjoyable or really good but just not my cup of tea. (Also I'm way indecisive about rating things, which is why I have two different rating methods.)

Ishta Mercurio said...

Interesting review! Very in-depth, and very objective. I like reviews that give the pros and cons.


Lydia Kang said...

Alz and Krispy, I just finished it and I need to discuss plot twists with SOMEONE!
Please email me. Physics begs to be discussed.
lydiaykang (at) gmail (dot) com.
Thanks in advance!!!

Alz said...

Ishta – Thanks! Glad to hear that I did sound objective—I was worried that I'd come across as being overwhelmingly negative.

Lydia – Done! :)