***Note: this review assumes that you've read the first two books in the Under the Never Sky series.***
I listened to these in audiobook form, so please forgive misspellings of names, places, and terms!
One-sentence summary: A book isn't great just because it has no glaring flaws.
I give up. Well, drat, I won't be moving on in this series. I've finished the first two books, but I'm not learning anything from the writing or the story, and my reading time (or listening time, in this case) is precious to me. Don't get me wrong--not everyone is a snob-face like me, and demands to learn from the books they read. As pure consumption, there's more than enough that's fine about this series. It's just there's nothing special: it's a workmanlike post-apocalyptic dystopia, with the nice addition of heightened senses and Aether storms. The pluses are the lack of a love triangle (most of the time), the competence and intelligence of the female protagonist and lack of emphasis on her beauty (though she is beautiful, and I have one related qualm, more on that below), the lack of creepiness or stalking on the part of the male protagonist, and the concentration on survival and on loyalty to family and clan during catastrophic times, rather than on romance. I'm not quite damning with faint praise here, but these traits are minimums that should be in YA novels, not maximums.
Plot Summary, so I won't forget. In a future version of our planet, "massive solar flares have corrupted the earth's magnetosphere, opening the door to cosmic storms--to an alien atmosphere that was unimaginably devastating [a.k.a. the Aether]." I'm quoting that from the book because without a degree in geophysics, I can't be sure whether there's real science in there. In any case, as the Aether storms increased in severity, humans devised pods (think "Biosphere 2"--a closed ecological system) that they could live in underground (Dwellers). The space was cramped, and they developed a reliance on visiting virtual realms together through a "SmartEye," to give themselves a feeling of freedom and space. Unlike a video game, the realms mimic sights, sounds, smells, taste, and touch. (There is no biology included about the health effects of living underground, and the lack of exercise that I presume is prevalent.) Another population was forced outside (Outsiders), to live a more primal existence, bombarded occasionally by Aether, which comes in funnel-like storms mainly during the winter and scorches both people and the earth, destroying farmland and ranches.
The Outsiders think the Dwellers are weak and selfish people, and the Dwellers think the Outsiders are savages. The outsiders do, in fact, form into pretty fierce tribes, who fight with bows and arrows and knives, and one group (The Croven) are cannibals. Of course, Aria is a Dweller and Peregrine (or Perry) is an Outsider. Aria is exiled to the outside, blamed for the destruction of an agricultural wing of her pod, Reverie, through a fire that Consul Hess's son, Soren, actually started. Perry discovers her while he's on a quest to find his nephew, Talon, who has been taken by the Dwellers. They make a pact: Aria will help Perry get back to the pod to find Talon, and Perry will help Aria find her mother. In fact, unknown to Perry, Talon was sold to Dweller scientists by his own dad, Perry's brother, Vale (who is Blood Lord of the Tides), in exchange for necessary food supplies. Vale also sold his sister, Olivia (or Liv), to a tribe in the north led by a Blood Lord named Sable (also for food). When Perry discovers the betrayals, he challenges Vale for the title of Blood Lord and kills him. There's a sub-plot where a character named Roar, who has been in love with Liv since childhood, sets out on a quest with Aria to find her. And another important sub-plot involves a young boy who has the extraordinary power of controlling the Aether, although every time he manipulates it it kills him a little bit inside.
Some of the outsiders are Marked, which means they have a heightened sense: scires can sense emotions in other people, seers can see exceptionally well, auds can hear exceptionally well. ("Marked" refers to the fact that they get a tattoo advertising their special skill, for full disclosure, i.e. so that anyone can see what they are at a glance.) Perry has two special senses: he's a scire and a seer, and his seeing ability is further specialized into night vision, which is unusual. Roar is an aud. It turns out that Aria is an aud as well, her mother having conceived her au naturel with an Outsider (Aria doesn't know who he is yet).
Book Two is devoted to rescuing Liv (she is killed...apparently?), rescuing Talon, finding the Still Blue, getting the Tides into a safe cave (with Marron's contruction and technological help), allying with Soren against Hess, and trying to get the Tides used to the idea of Perry and Aria being together.
Points added for: "Fractioning" while using the SmartEye.
Linear plot. These books plod along like they're a padded outline. X happens and then Y, and then Z. Ms. Rossi wants to show us that Perry is an inexperienced leader, despite his natural talent, so hmm, what should she do? Ah! She starts an Aether storm, churns up the water, puts the fishermen in danger, and then has Perry risk his life against the advice of his bodyguards to save an old man. Every plot point feels like it's there to tell us something, so that it can be checked off an outline: "Perry is having trouble adjusting to being a leader."
Lack of tension. The conflicts are truncated before tension can build. For instance, at the end of Book One, Aria decides at the last minute to send Perry a violet, as a message, through Roar. For about ten seconds we're worried that she's not going to contact him, out of principle, and then she changes her mind. It means we see them together again, yes, and the book ends on a restful conclusion rather than an annoying cliffhanger, but it's not a satisfying suspense. In Through the Ever Night they hide their love for each other from the Tides, but we don't sense any risk to that because we know that they know they love each other. There is no miscommunication. (In fact, one plotting problem with the scire skill is that it's impossible to miscommunicate!) Another example occurs when Aria and Roar decide to steal back the SmartEye from Sable, but lo and behold Liv has already done it for them.
Killing Vale. This seems to be there to introduce angst for Perry, but we know that exiling is a tool used by all the tribes (and in fact, later Perry exiles Wylan). Why would Perry slaughter his beloved brother when he can exile him instead? There was no internal mulling over whether Vale was such a strong leader that he'd be a threat as a "dispersed," so it seemed unnecessarily cruel. (Maybe we could believe that Vale might be able to amass an army, but show us that somehow.) Also, Perry had to look to Reef to make the call about Vale's loyalty, because he couldn't scent his own brother's feelings. So from the reader's point of view, "judge and jury" is Reef in this situation, and "executioner" is Perry. It does seem just a tad savage for these supposed non-savages, doesn't it?
Reef and his men. Was it believable that Reef would swear fealty to Perry so quickly, after a single drunken battle that Reef could have won while Perry was vomiting? And later we find out that Reef was himself a Blood Lord, with considerable strength, experience, and decision-making skills?
Aria's beauty. If you know me, you know I'm on a mission against unnecessary beauty in YA characters (particularly heroines) in literature. There's a saving grace in Rossi's books that other characters mostly don't dwell on Aria's looks, which I applaud, but the fact remains that she's unnecessarily beautiful. Here's a girl who can sing like a professional opera singer or pop star at will (with natural performing bravado, I might add). Later she's great with a knife, and such a badass she can grab Roar and pull him over a balcony in a deliberate death fall with him. She's bright, and has a steep learning curve in new situations. She has super sonic hearing. For cripes sake, she doesn't need to be beautiful too. Besides, we're initially led to believe that she was genetically engineered by her mom to sing magnificently and to be beautiful, but later we learn that she was born of a love affair with an aud. So is this actually an insidious sort of political incorrectness that she's naturally beautiful and talented? Just, no.
Ordinary writing. This may be the primary reason that I'm dropping the series. I felt like I was filling my brain with pedestrian writing, and I was going to forget the magic of words, and how powerful and lyrical prose can be. One of the tics that caught me up was repeated words, which should have been caught by the editor, copyeditor, and proofreaders, if not by the author herself.
The Guardians pressed at wrist pads on their gray suits and donned helmets, moving in quick, practiced movements.
It was all he could do to keep them fed every day. They were overworked and underfed, and he needed a solution [editor's note: have I mentioned all the telling, not showing? It's another thing that makes the writing feel like an outline.]
[In the glass case at Marron's there was] a red old-fashioned sporting shirt with the number forty-five in black numbers across the back.
He usually had the upper hand when they wrestled, but he took it easy because of his hand...
Help me, reader, you're my only hope. Since I won't be reading the third book, feel free to use the comment section to tell me what happens in Into the Still Blue. Do Aria and Perry manage to rescue Cinder? Do the Dwellers that Perry, Aria, and Soren have saved (Caleb and friends) pave the way to sharing the Still Blue between Dwellers and Outsiders alike? Is the mystery of Aria's dad solved? Is he's Roar's dad, by any chance? Is the supposed curse of "blending Marks" resolved? Do we find out what illness killed Mira and was making Talon sick? Why is Aria good at singing and physically beautiful if she was not genetically engineered in a test tube?
Character list (for me):