Tuesday, May 28, 2013


Unwind captivated me so much, I got fanboyish. The first thing I did after reading it was grab the sequel from the library, something which I never do. I originally intended to review them both at once, but backed off on that because my feelings on them are radically different. While a perfectly good book, UnWholly isn't quite on the same level as its predecessor.

The story is certainly gripping. As before, Shusterman sets a fast pace, and his world-building is excellent. In fact, in terms of craftsmanship UnWholly is arguably better than Unwind. The latter had issues with characterization and occasionally slapdash plotting. UnWholly gels much better as a story, but it's also a much more conventional story. I'm reminded a bit of The Matrix trilogy; The first installment was never really intended to have a sequel. Yes, the ending left things open, but the story that the writer intended to tell had been told. More importantly, all the good ideas had been used up. So the creators escalated, going from battles to wars while keeping the same basic style and format.

So too with UnWholly. The first thing that happens is that the hopeful ending of the first book gets a reality check. Turns out that's it's not as easy as implied to change the world. The small victories of the first book have created new problems, and those that benefit from the existing social order are fighting back. The plot proceeds with both new and returning characters caught up in a struggle to keep what they won from falling apart. Good drama, but not as original. Several plot points are retreads, and one of the new characters is a blatant carbon copy of a major player in the previous book. And while the ending doesn't leave us hanging on everything, few of the major points are resolved, because a trilogy (Now expected to be a quartology) is soooo much more interesting than a duology.

Well, that last bit is a little unfair. I can't in good conscience accuse Shusterman of the issues that usually go along with writing for a series. There's no padding; in fact, he crams quite a bit into these 400 pages, and most of it is interesting. He also paces perfectly: brisk movement, but not so fast you lose track of what's going on. And while there are open threads at the end, he wraps up just enough to make the reader feel satisfied instead of teased. But he does cram in too much. We have heroes both major and minor returning from book 1, additional protagonists, and two or three new villains. That's a lot of plot to go around, and at times it feels like those NYC dog-walkers who march through the affluent areas holding a dozen leashes at once. The author is able to keep all the dogs walking straight and the leashes relatively untangled, but one hopes the third volume doesn't collapse from the mass of it all.

My major issue with the book, however, is that the nature of the conflict has changed. Unwind had no major  antagonist. Minions like juvey cops and uncaring beaurecrats were personified, but they were punch-clock villains or glorified muscle. The main villain was a nameless, faceless, disembodied social order. This isn't bad; Winston Smith never meets Big Brother, and the closest thing to an antagonist Guy Montag has is his disillusioned boss. In both cases, it worked marvelously well. When you remove any guiding force from an antagonistic society, the villain becomes the society itself, and a society is simply a manifestation of the will of its citizenry. In other words, the villain of Unwind was us, the readers. Our decisions, our desires, our failures in the present are what caused this mad world of the near future to come into existence.

By giving us clear antagonists, UnWholly dilutes the effect. We now have someone to point at and say "You are the problem!" Worse, UnWholly adds a conspiracy angle, which means the problems are no longer our fault at all- we were tricked by some distant schemer or schemers. Both of these plot developments are well executed, but one of the themes of Unwind was that people must be treated as people. Giving the audience a human target upon which to project their disgust undermines the message.

I don't mean to imply that UnWholly cheapens its predecessor. Dystopians and realpolitik stories have been written with human antagonists, and they've worked. And UnWholly works, too. I dove right in, finished it in less than a week, and then cursed under my breath that the third volume isn't out until September. I rarely recommend a book more highly than that.

But while it's not a step down, it's definitely a step sideways. It's driven by story and character where Unwind was an exploration of ideas. They're both great, and I recommend them both, but I recommend them for different reasons. UnWholly is Tom Sawyer to Unwind's Huckleberry Finn. The latter will be studied decades from now. The former is that other great book with many of the same characters.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed Unwind and Unwholly. I am quite excited for book 3 to come out this year (so it is rumored). I believe Unwind is a book that will be very important in years to come. I know I read it 2 times to fully absorb its message and it made such an impact on me I didn't stop talking about it for months.

  2. Well, I wouldn't read it twice back to back, but yes, it's a very important book. :) It's one of those books that is very much a product of its' times, which means that future generations will be able to look back and understand what things were like, and why they inevitably turned out as they did.


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