Book Review: The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken

The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken The Darkest Minds - Alexandra Bracken

Published: December 18th 2012 by Disney Hyperion

Source: local library (audiobook) 

Synopsis (Goodreads): When Ruby woke up on her tenth birthday, something about her had changed. Something alarming enough to make her parents lock her in the garage and call the police. Something that gets her sent to Thurmond, a brutal government “rehabilitation camp.” She might have survived the mysterious disease that’s killed most of America’s children, but she and the others have emerged with something far worse: frightening abilities they cannot control.

Now sixteen, Ruby is one of the dangerous ones.

When the truth comes out, Ruby barely escapes Thurmond with her life. Now she’s on the run, desperate to find the one safe haven left for kids like her—East River. She joins a group of kids who escaped their own camp. Liam, their brave leader, is falling hard for Ruby. But no matter how much she aches for him, Ruby can’t risk getting close. Not after what happened to her parents.

When they arrive at East River, nothing is as it seems, least of all its mysterious leader. But there are other forces at work, people who will stop at nothing to use Ruby in their fight against the government. Ruby will be faced with a terrible choice, one that may mean giving up her only chance at a life worth living.

My thoughts:

Listening to a book rather than reading it is an entirely different experience. I’ve had limited success with audibooks. I’ve liked poetry read by the author and light non-fiction like Bossypants. I’ve often abandoned the audio when it was taking to long to finish and picked up a paper copy instead.

But oh, how commutes can change things. Since I now spend 3 hours a day in a car 4-5 days a week, you can expect a lot of audiobooks reviews. I chose this randomly for two reasons: I was in the mood for YA urban fantasy, and LPL has an MP3 audiobook. I don’t like changing discs when I drive. I didn’t even really know what it was about, but knew it shared an editor with Cristine Terrill’s All Our Yesterdays, which I enjoyed.

While it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, it wasn’t an entirely disappointing experience. The Darkest Minds is a blend of dystopian and paranormal elements, so while not quite urban fantasy, is close. The concept isn’t anything too ground-breaking: kids with different psychic abilities are rounded up, thrown in camps, and treated poorly. The kids are classified according to a color system that lumps those with similar abilities together, whether they can move objects with their mind, control electricity, or manipulate people’s minds and read their thoughts.

WRITING

Bracken has an amazing way with words. There were beautiful metaphors and great descriptions, and I really enjoyed these aspects of her writing. But I’m just not sure they always fit the character or her story.

See, Ruby has spent her formative years, from the age of 10 to 16, in a prison camp with no contact with the outside world. Some of her observations and references just didn’t seem like something she could possibly have the life experience to know about.

One interesting bit that I kept noticing was how many references to classic rock there were in the book. Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin. Note that this is not the kind of music that today’s teenagers would classify as classic rock. This is the music that my parents listened to growing up, and I think most references will be lost on contemporary teens. It really dated the novel for me, and I imagine, most teens.

Bracken explains this choice in this interview with Anna Reads, so I understand the decision, but it really stood out to me in the book as a way to alienate the intended audience. Even if there is not an audience for new music for teens in this world since they’re all in prison camps, there is still an audience of people my age, in their late 20s and early 30s, who grew up on Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, or Smashing Pumpkins (or other stuff, I mean, that’s just me). The throwback to an even older generation’s music struck me as an odd choice. It was so pervasive and specific, that it really stuck out. I’m sure this won’t really matter to every reader, but it didn’t sit right with me.

CHARACTERS

Ruby was not my favorite character. At times, her knowledge seemed to be beyond what a girl who has spent most of her life in a prison camp, cut off from society, could reasonably have. Her voice didn’t match what I understood about her character. Worst of all, she was indecisive.

It was the supporting characters, particularly Zu and Chubbs, that I most enjoyed. Zu, an 11-year-old girl whose touch messes with electricity, forcing her to wear rubber gloves most of the time, is silent by choice. Bracken’s strength as a writer showed in how she showed the ways Zu communicated and developed her character without speech. Chubbs was a nerdy guy, but not a stereotype, and his dry demeanor and cynical point-of-view resonated with me.

Liam wasn’t a character I felt strongly for, and I knew right away that Clancy was slimy. It made sense that Ruby wouldn’t immediately develop romantic feelings for Liam, and I appreciated the lack of insta-love. A girl who has spent puberty and adolescence segregated from boys and is running for her life would probably not have kissing on her mind, and that felt realistic to me. Her naïveté about both boys interest in her was believable.

The Darkest Minds really suffered from a lack of a clear villain. There’s the President—Clancy’s father—who has taken on a dictatorial role in the government. There’s also bounty hunters and Psi military agents after kids who have escaped from the plants. There’s the people behind the Children’s League, who purportedly want to help kids but really just want to harness their powers to further their own agenda. But none seemed fully formed or omnipresent. They were plot devices, not true characters.

PLOT

So, trilogies. They happen a lot in YA fiction, and sometimes I love this. It’s an opportunity to deeply explore a new fantasy world, or show great character development.

Sometimes they just seem as a way to draw out a book, and in this case, that’s what it felt like.

I actually waited until I listened to a book I already read so I could get a feeling for pacing with audiobooks, because I had thought this just moved way too slowly; after comparing it with other books, I decided my initially feelings were correct. There is just not enough that happens in this book for my taste.

I didn’t get enough of a taste of how or why a generation of kids suddenly develop these superhuman abilities, or the how of the government’s takeover. The ending felt more like a turning point than any resolution. To me, the plot just didn’t seem like enough to carry an entire book. In fact, the synopsis give away 90% of what happens. The hook is the plot.

AUDIO

I might have given up on this audiobook if I hadn’t enjoyed the narrator. She sounded young enough to believably be 16. I’ve listened to other YA audiobooks in first person, and the adult narrators completely ruin the illusion of a teenager telling the story. But Amy McFadden had a great voice, distinguished between characters well, and was pleasant enough to listen to. I checked to see what other books she had narrated, but they were all contemporary romances, which aren’t really my thing. I’d definitely check out any other YA fiction she narrated.

FINAL THOUGHTS

There is a crowded field of YA dystopian fiction with paranormal elements. I’d recommend this to people who liked the concept of Shatter Me but couldn’t get into Tahereh Mafi’s stream-of-consciousness, lavender-colored prose of that series. While I liked Bracken’s writing style well enough, I’m not particularly invested in the story. Though I’m not inclined to read the rest of this series,  I would be tempted to check out any future novels with a fresher hook by this author.

Second opinions:

Sash and Em: “Kids who have superpowers isn’t exactly a new concept in Young Adult (or in books in general for that matter) – but wow – was I pretty impressed with the execution of this book. I feel as thought Alexandra Bracken took the whole “superpowers are bad and the government is locking us away” and worked it into something that felt fresh. I was completely consumed in almost every single moment of this book – and that my friends, is a great thing – to be able to lose yourself in a book. I can’t quite put my finger on what it was about The Darkest Minds that made me love it so much but I think that the snarky dialogue had something to do with it.”

More than Just Magic: “Amy McFadden did a great job breathing life into each individual character. She had a huge cast to work with but she did each one justice. They all felt like very distinct people to me, and that’s key in a book like this.”

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