30 December 2014

Review: Untaken

Untaken by J.E. Anckorn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Young adult novels continue to be a hot property as of late publishing-wise, with readers of YA novels pretty much driving the industry at present. Even so, straight, non-dystopian YA science fiction tends to be a little hard to come by. We've come a long way since the Heinlein juveniles and the Tripods series, yes, but when everything feels like it's either a retread of The Hunger Games or Twilight (and may the higher powers help us all if someone ever finds a way to combine those two things), adult readers of genre fiction and YA fiction may feel like they're out in the cold.

I was able to land an advance copy of J. E. Anckorn's debut novel Untaken, and it follows well in the old-school tradition of science fiction for the younger set. Instead of trying to push the envelope with over-the-top ideas and themes, the book is instead an enjoyable throwback of sorts to the alien invasion science fiction of another era while keeping things feeling fresh and new.

The story follows two teens in New England following an alien invasion. They're pretty sure they can get to a family member's cabin to safety, but it's not going to be easy. One girl's parents have already been taken by the aliens, and the two kids have everything working out until they meet a 5 year old kid who won't talk and is pretty hurt. What becomes complicated is when the teenagers learn that Jake has a secret, and it is likely to change everything.

Untaken works best when it is allowed to exist in its own setting. In a way, the book feels like a love letter to the Boston area, with references to landmarks and cities and even a local AM radio station. The alien threat is handled in a different way from what I'm used to as of late as well - the alien existence is a given, and while it feels real, it also feels like part of the setting itself, much like any other problem someone might be facing. Compared to, say, The 5th Wave (a book I definitely enjoyed), the difference in how the threats are handled by our protagonists and by society feel stark. The kids aren't superhuman, they're just surviving, and it ends up being very realistic.

I can't discount, either, the old-style feel it has. While it might be a turn-off for some readers used to a different type of setting, this story feels a lot like the old science fiction that Gracie enjoys in the book. Consciously or not, the book feels very War of the Worlds-ish at times, and that is mostly to its benefit. The narrative along with the plot speaks directly to this sort of throwback, and I love the cover as a result - this would have absolutely sat on my shelf 20+ years ago.

My chief criticism, however, is that the book does take a while to get rolling. The first quarter or so of the book does move a bit slower than the rest as it works to establish what it seeks out to be, but this is both a product of the style it's presented and a product of modern expectations. The payoff (especially the way the book ends) is well worth the wait, but readers looking for a more direct route to the story might find themselves frustrated to start.

Overall, though, an excellent debut and a sci-fi novel I didn't realize I wanted until I was done with it. The book doesn't come out until March, but there is a pre-order available at Amazon that won't break the bank. I'm glad I got to take a look at it, and you will be as well.

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