Sunday, October 11, 2015

Book Review: Death Ex Machina

Death Ex Machina (An Athenian Mystery)
Gary Corby

Murder mystery set in Periclean Athens. This wasn't published as a young-adult novel, but--aside from a small amount of "adult content"--that's about its level. It's competently written, it has a moderate level of period detail, it doesn't go overboard in trying to convey the real alien-ness of ancient society, and the characterization is simple (one character, one adjective).

As a mystery, it's ordinary. If you don't spot the villain and the motive about fifty pages ahead of time, you're not paying attention.


  1. I am re-reading Harry Potter for my kids. While I don't think there is anything amazingly wrong with it, I also don't think it is amazing. I kind of got caught up in the frenzy about the books back in the early aughts, and read it happily enough. YA, as a genre, really saw a resurgence because of it, I think.

    If a story is YA, though, then the story doesn't need to be terribly new. It is, by nature, introducing the story structure to young people. Doesn't make it worth reading for us old folks, tho.

    1. Once you've read enough, you start demanding more of your fiction. (Well, some people do. Some do not.) YA fiction is often enjoyable because YAs will not put up with the BS that writers try to pull; they demand a story, dammit. On the other hand, that's sometimes all they demand.

      The best YA fiction combines narrative power with imagination. I liked the first of the Hunger Games books, for example, because it really brought out the idea that good people can nonetheless do, or be induced to do, bad things.

  2. Hunger Games is very formulaic, however. It is the hero's journey.

    Orphan > Wanderer > Warrior > Martyr

    It isn't really a terribly original story, in my opinion. What it has is personality. The female hero who has mixed feelings about the men in her life is what makes the story interesting. But the plot itself is not original.

    1. I'm not sure that originality is always a primary virtue, particularly in YA.

    2. What plot, pray tell, is highly original. There are only so many variations on a story...

    3. Var, this, too is true.

      JT and I have had a couple of discussions about this. Agreeing more than not, but occasionally disagreeing, too. Where we agree is this, we both want something thought provoking. It could be an interesting turn of phrase, or it could be a twist in plot that both makes sense and surprises. Sometimes I just want an interesting journey, well written. Well crafted descriptions are often enough to satisfy.

      But you have a point. All plots have already been written.

    4. Well, there's plot and there's plot.

      From one standpoint, Star Wars is a hugely unoriginal plot. Young person yearns to escape dull and constricted life, discovers that he/she is heir to strange powers, goes off with wise mentor, confronts Evil, saves the day. See also Potter, Harry; Baggins, Frodo; Arthur, King; etc. etc. etc., including The Hunger Games.

      Yet the film was widely hailed as "a breath of fresh air"--a phrase that occurs in several contemporary reviews--even as reviewers noted Lucas's conscious nods to other movies. Nobody had ever put together those ingredients in that way. It felt fresh then, and it feels fresh now.

      For another example, consider the classic mystery story. The plot there is even more constrained. The situation is set up, a crime occurs, the detective examines the scene, everyone is questioned, the solution is propounded. And yet, done well, it's still utterly enjoyable. (Done poorly, the lack of originality becomes obvious.)