Pre-read reaction: Something tells me I'm going to regret this, but I seriously want to figure out how McGuire handles sci-fi. I didn't try "Red Hill" because I love zombie novels too much and with the issues her past paranormal series have had with worldbuilding (i.e. Providence) plus with awkward or non-existent character motivations (Beautiful Disaster, Walking Disaster, etc.), I didn't think I'd find anything in that worth writing home about.
Post read-reaction: I didn't think I was going to survive this one, but I managed to scrape my way out. Ye gods, this was bad.
*exhales slowly* There may be the lot of you who say "Rose, you brought this one on yourself, woman. You ran into the fire and got burned."
I did get burned, but probably not the way I expected to with this read. Because I had the feeling that Jamie McGuire writing sci-fi would probably end up being disaster-ridden (no pun intended). I expected a hero like Travis Maddox being an alien arriving on a ship from outer space, and a virginal, damaged heroine holding out her arms saying "Take me with you!" a la Katy Perry's song of "E.T." (which ironically McGuire said inspired her to write this book.)
But that's not what happened. Instead I ended up observing something much worse. Much worse than Maddox-esque alien and virgin heroine with troubled past making babies? Yep, if it were possible, this was worse.
First off, this book felt like two very different stories that were smooshed together to try to make one. This book is titled "Apolonia", but that's false advertising and not accurate to the book's presentation at all. I'll explain why in a bit. Second, the vast majority of the book was so boring that watching paint dry would be a much more effective use of time. Poor writing was a constant through the book, and honestly - I don't think it had an editor. It was that obvious. Sentence structure and phrasing was repetitious, spotty, and very tedious to read. The conversations between the characters were static, the so-called humor missed the mark on several counts, the characters themselves were dull and trite NA cliches, and couple that with the racism (I apologize to anyone who identifies as Egyptian, because this book will make you rage on the level of undermining your cultural history and people), sexism, ageism, and pretty much ridiculous paint by numbers story that has shoddy motivation and expansion - this book was not good.
I'll divide my reactions to this book into two parts: the New Adult college romance story, and the so-called epic sci-fi thriller story. Ready, steady, go!
Part I: The New Adult Romance with non-sapiosexual friendly characters and a tragic past that would be more tragic if it wasn't beaten over your head umpteenth million times
So here's the breakdown of where this book begins. We have a heroine (Rory) who is a SUPER-genius (not really) and scientist supposedly picking up under a professor (Dr. Z) that her father used to work with. The "used-to" tag being linked to a part of the heroine's tragic past.
The tragic past being that her whole family was murdered. She is the lone survivor. The book take the opportunity to choose odd times in telegraphing to you about how this tragedy unfolded. Before I get to my issues with how hard it was to identify with Rory's situation a la the "tragic past", let me talk about why this book is not-sapiosexual friendly. (For the record, I'm sapiosexual, which means I tend to find myself attracted chiefly toward intelligent stuff, people, etc. for the long and short of the explanation.)
This entire book gives off an air of false intellectualism. It makes me think that McGuire was trying to write a story with a smart heroine, and the whole measure came across as very fake and seeming like it wanted to delve into science-y topics, like brief mentions of organic photosynthesis and running experiments in a laboratory environment. But really - someone (like yours truly) with a science background can look at this book and see that many of the expansions (or lack thereof) were chock full of tritely explained B.S. And you can tell it - it feels fake as it tries to limp its way through studies on a rock that came from unknown origins. Someone who did their research into organic matter or earth science or planetary musings could've actually given something to the table with this and made it seem like the heroine (and pretty much all the characters in this book) knew what they were talking about.
All of the haphazard incorporation of studies and lab experiments, and trips to The Gym (don't ask me why it's capitalized, I still have no idea) were supposed to be measures to establish the environment of the heroine working towards the love triangle relationship that she ultimately finds herself between as the book goes on. It also provides something of a framework for her work given the murder of her family and their sacrifice for something greater in that.
Unfortunately, none of it worked. Even from the angle of Rory's tragic family demise and her being the one lone survivor, I couldn't feel for her because of the way this narrative chose to beat me over the head with her expansions of this event. Also, the way that this was done left a horrible taste in my mouth that had very little to do with the crime/tragedy that came across.
Yes, the book begins with "They killed me, but I survived" - but that's pretty much the only interesting and non-cringe worthy line you're going to get from Rory's account of things. Instead of being identifiable with Rory's grief, you get all-the-love-of-holy lines like this one:
"Christ, she was beautiful. Even her last day on this earth with mascara running down her face and a rag tied tightly across her mouth, she was the embodiment of beauty."
This is Rory describing her mother in the moments before she died. Oh yeah, really beautiful image of Rory's mother having blood pool at the back of her head and her eyes staring blankly into space in death. Just beautiful, right? /sarcasm
This is so not cool. McGuire tends to think that romanticizing torture is an acceptable thing and makes people feel for the person who suffers at the hands of it. Rory's telegraphing of her torment and the tragedy befalling her family threw me out of the story several times - on behalf of lines like this and others that supposedly tell me what I'm supposed to feel and somehow romanticize her parents and sister's deaths in a way that undermines the natural emotions of rage, anger, hurt, and horror among other things that she feels in this situation.
In a line from an Emilie Autumn song that sums up my reaction to this: "You think this torment is romantic/Well, it's not, except to you..." (from "Swallow" off her "Opheliac" album)
There's another issue to be had here, considering Rory's work with Dr. Z. You have two dudes who come into the picture in a haphazard love triangle (Cyrus and Benji) who vie for Rory's affections and have rather cumbersome issues getting in the way of that process. The conversations leading up to these attractions were unfulfilling, tedious and just plain odd. I think even romance readers would be bored at the lack of chemistry and plodding pacing in the interactions between Cy, Benji and Rory.
Rory (of course) is your typical slut-shaming, holier-than-thou abrasive virgin. (In other words, it's following a long line of cookie cutter characters in this genre, with haphazardly handling of important issues and identities.) She telegraphs all of her emotions (leaving no room for imagination), and falls for guys at the drop of a hat. Including (note: not Benji and Cyrus) men that she knows have had a history of sexually assaulting women and somehow don't get convicted because somehow the women "drop the charges."
I think I'm starting to realize how much McGuire (and I have no idea why) somehow wants to shame people who are survivors of sexual assault who have the audacity to report it. As if it's not hard enough for people to take victims seriously. And - on another level - somehow romanticize people who *would* sexually assault. And no, it's not made okay by the fact that the heroine decks this dude who makes an advance on her, and one of the heroes follow up with threatening and beating up the moron. The fact that she knows the dude who looks "hot" as being a perp of sexual assault and desiring him despite that made me want to scream my rage to the skies above.
*sighs* Rant on that aside, this book is utterly devoid of any kind of sci-fi leanings for a good chunk of the book (to the latter 60% range). It would be a typical College NA romance with contrived, duly paced progressions until you realize that one of the LIs is an alien who's trying to avert a disasterous circumstance where not only his angry, powerful alien fiance could wreck havoc on Earth, but also a dangerous parasite could wipe out humanity from the wide expanse of space. And it all has to do with that one little rock that Rory and Co. happen to be studying.
Sounds weird and implausible? That's because it is. So we'll move to the next section.
Part II: The Sci-Fi "Thriller" that never was, and all the cultural offenses that came with it
There were many times that I kept wondering why this book was even classified as being sci-fi until I hit about 65% of the book (or thereabouts). It's not until that point that the novel's namesake even shows up, so really this book has no business being called "Apolonia" - it's false advertising. Really, this book felt like it was written in two separate scopes that never came together right.
It seemed like on one hand it tried to appease the NA contemporary romance crowd, but at the same time tried to bring in a sci-fi crowd with a promise of developed, pulse pounding action. The reality? Everything felt contrived and rushed. No explanations, very little expansion, and a whole mess of offenses on the caboose of the derailed train. But hey, as long as the girl gets the guy (at least one of them, and it's obvious after a time who it is), who cares, right?
In addition to the usual offenses of sexism/gendered stereotyping, this book added to a line of cultural appropriations that made my jaw drop at the mention. Usually I would love learning about mythology, especially of cultures (like Egyptian) that have mysterious elements to their roots and links to deities and their identities. Unfortunately, while McGuire chose to make one of her heroes "Egyptian" - it was just a way to make the character supposedly "exotic" and "otherworldly"- in a fetish type situation that made me think "I can't believe I'm reading this."
Oh, and not to miss the line in which Rory says something akin to "Those of us who are non-Egyptian say it like this." In a humored way.
WTF man? Cultural isolation, arrogance and belittlement, much?
There's a really haphazard explanation of Egyptian mythology tying into the alien prophecy and conflict of the rock being studied, the alien that Rory discovers, and the whole mess of them trying to avoid CIA operatives who wish them harm (really, dude? I don't think McGuire knows how to write about the CIA and what they're in charge of accurately).
Then there's the issue of the women who are in this novel. Apolonia included. She's supposed to be the alien fiance of one of the heroes of this book. She's given an "exotic" appearance, an angry temper, broken language skills (she knows English, but her language is given a non-descript, vaguely beautifying flare), and a penchant to kill anyone who stands in her path. But her development and handling feels empty. As well, pretty much all of the women (probably save for the heroine) has traits that are somewhat all encompassing in villainizing them - either they're bitchy/whorish (and there's plenty of sexual shaming to go around, mostly at the lips of the heroine), angry and ready to destroy anything in their path, or other single-dimensioned portrayals. It's true that each character may have a fatal flaw, but to play into so many gender stereotypes at once? In a genre that's already problematic and formulaic with them? I think not.
Apolonia's supposed to be portrayed (I think) as a POC, but it's such a threadbare and stereotypical presentation that I hung my head at the portrayal and notations surrounding her. For a character that was the namesake of the novel, she really didn't have much ground to stand on. Neither did those working under or around her. Instead, it was all about the love triangle and the petty back and forth of "who is Rory going to choose?" Whether it was the mysterious alien lover (who really had little chemistry with her other than his constant confessions of love) or the guy who waited hand and foot on her for much of the novel but somehow had a dark secret of his own.
The overarching sci-fi conflict is really threadbare and even noted by the heroine as being implausible. That tells you a lot there - it's hard to be convinced of an explanation if your own character is so actively dismissing it in different instances. There are some moments that manage to ramp up the tension, but it's killed just as soon as it begins, and really has no heart behind it.
When I finally finished reading the digital copy of this, I could feel nothing more than relief at having gotten through it. From this, I have no confidence that McGuire can successfully blend genres or even write a tale in the vein of sci-fi or romance (and notably, I love both genres, even with sci-fi being one of my all time favorites to read). My advice: skip this one. It's not worth the time or expense. It's poorly written, poorly paced, lacks any kind of identifiable characterizations and action/intrigue.
Overall score: 0 stars