Author: Lisa McMann
Genre: Dystopian, Fantasy, Middle Grade
Publication date: August 30th 2011
Hardcover: 390 pages
Every year in Quill, thirteen-year-olds are sorted into categories: the strong, intelligent Wanteds go to university, and the artistic Unwanteds are sent to their deaths.
Thirteen-year-old Alex tries his hardest to be stoic when his fate is announced as Unwanted, even while leaving behind his twin, Aaron, a Wanted. Upon arrival at the destination where he expected to be eliminated, however, Alex discovers a stunning secret—behind the mirage of the “death farm” there is instead a place called Artime.
In Artime, each child is taught to cultivate their creative abilities and learn how to use them magically, weaving spells through paintbrushes and musical instruments. Everything Alex has ever known changes before his eyes, and it’s a wondrous transformation.
But it’s a rare, unique occurence for twins to be separated between Wanted and Unwanted, and as Alex and Aaron’s bond stretches across their separation, a threat arises for the survival of Artime that will pit brother against brother in an ultimate, magical battle.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel (with potential to be turned into a series?)
How did we get this book: We both picked up copies at BEA
Why did we read this book: We enjoyed Lisa McMann’s Wake trilogy as well as her Horror YA novel, Cryer’s Cross. When we learned she would be writing this middle grade Dystopian novel, we knew we had to read it.
Thea: When I first laid eyes on The Unwanteds and read the novel’s intriguing summary, I was hooked and knew it was one of my MUST GET OR DIE! titles at BEA this year. As a long-time lover of both dystopias and fantasy, the blend of these two seemingly incongruous components always wins me over. I’m a little chagrined to say, however, that while The Unwanteds is an undeniably fun book featuring some wonderful characters and an imaginative magical system, I had huge problems with the central premise of the story and plot aspects. I liked the book well enough and am certain that both children and older readers will enjoy it, too – but I cannot shake my irritation (even horror) at the central dichotomy for the book. Maybe I’m taking things too seriously. But more on that below.
Ana: I don’t think that Thea is taking things too seriously and I totally understand where she is coming from. Although I think I liked the book a bit more than she did, I do think that there are considerable problems with the very premise of the novel. However, I made a conscious decision half way through to just accept it because I liked the characters and the writing and was able to enjoy the ride because of that. You can call it self-preservation (and usually I would drive myself crazy over this).
On the Plot:
Quill prevails when the strong survive – so the motto of the isolated nation-state that is Quill reverberates in each of its citizens. From birth, children are indoctrinated to this lifestyle wherein anything artistic and creative is seen as anathema, and only those that follow instructions and excel at the practical, hard sciences and related subjects (math, economics, etc) are allowed to survive and succeed. In the year of their thirteenth birthdays, all the children of Quill participate in The Purge and are sorted into three groups – Wanteds (who will go on to study at Quill’s university and become vital members of government and social planning), Necessaries (those who will do the menial labor for the good of the nation), and Unwanteds. The Unwanteds are immediately loaded on a transport and sent to the Great Lake of Boiling Oil to be killed, so they will no longer a blight on Quill’s perfect society of intelligence and strength. Alex has long known that he will be deemed an Unwanted, but he is still shocked and terrified when he hears his name called on the list for execution during the year of his Purge. Meanwhile, his twin brother, Aaron, has surpassed their Necessary parents and has become a full-fledged Wanted. Alex steels himself for his fate and with the rest of the Unwanteds leaves Quill forever and faces imminent death…
Except Alex doesn’t die. When they reach the Great Lake of Boiling Oil, the devastated and terrifying landscape melts away to reveal a luscious paradise where emotions and artistic abilities are honored, and magic is commonplace. Alex and his new friends discover that Unwanteds have not been killed as eveyrone in Quill believes, but have taken refuge in Artimé under the protective wing of Mr. Marcus Today. As it turns out, Today is an immensely powerful mage that has been duping High Priest Justine, the iron-willed leader of Quill, for years. As Alex grows in his skills as an artist in Artimé, becoming a powerful mage in his own right, he cannot shake the feeling of longing he has for his beloved twin brother Aaron, and he vows to find a way to save him and bring him to the magical realm beyond the coldness of Quill. But to do so puts all the Unwanteds and Artimé itself at terrible risk – because if Aaron refuses to come with his twin, Quill and its mighty Quillitary will come to destroy the safe haven that Mr. Today has built.
Thea: Let’s start out with the good. I loved the brutality of Quill, how instead of simply imprisoning or segregating Unwanteds they chose to have their children murdered – it’s terribly bleak but also incredibly believable in this type of black and white society. On the other side of the spectrum, I loved the idea of magic derived from art – there are very unique and wonderful spells that these children learn and create together, from origami paper dragons that attack, paintbrushes with invisibility spells, magic three dimensional doors, and rhyming couplets that can kill. I also loved the menagerie that is Artimé, rife with marvelous creatures like flying stone panthers, art teachers with alligator heads and octopus appendages, as well as artifacts like talking slates/blackboards and tubes that can transport people instantly from one room to another. The writing and the story itself are executed well enough and the pages will fly by, even if there is an annoying degree of repetition to certain plot elements (let’s put it this way – every scene in Quill had at least one chant of “Quill prevails when the strong survive!” Now that I think about it, this would be a great drinking game…well, you know, for adults).
I have two huge, un-overlookable problems with The Unwanteds that seriously put a damper on my enjoyment of the story. The biggest problem is the central premise of the novel, and Ms. McMann’s portrayal of “creativity.” In this world, “creativity” ONLY comes from the arts. ONLY those who are artistic (in terms of painting, acting, musical instruments or dancing) are considered “creative” and only they are singled out as Unwanteds and only they are the ones that can wield magic. Let me use a few quotes to illustrate:
“You already know that your parents and the government of Quill believe you to be eliminated by now. You know they are not mourning for you. They’re doing what they do every day, which is to work to build Quill into a place of extreme power and super intelligence. You, dear children, are what they call creative. Imaginative. The government, and especially High Priest Justine, wants to eliminate creative thinkers like you – they see creativity as a weakness. After all, it could lead to something horrible…like magic.”
and then there’s this quote:
[…]Aaron was being rewarded. First for his excellent work in solving the beef problem for the high priest, second for his insight into the matter of the Favored Farm at large, and third for his program, which outlined precisely how to run the farm most efficiently. It had been his last assignment in math class, and since all of the university students’ work was checked by the governors, it did not take long for Governor Strang to notice Aaron’s penchant for economics. And economics was something that the High Priest Justine was very fond of. Especially because it always benefited her.
This drives me absolutely insane. Some of humanity’s most brilliant and creative minds have been mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and yes, even economists (as an economics graduate, I resent these implications so very much). The central premise of the novel precludes the possibility – nay, the reality – that it takes creativity to be in the sciences or related subjects. You’re trying to tell me that Einstein’s theorems are the product of a non-creative mind? That brilliant economists like John Nash or Adam Smith, or that Watson, Crick and Franklin in their discovery of the double helix structure of DNA have not an iota of creativity in their being? What of Euler, Da Vinci, Tesla, Curie, Newton, Darwin, or Galileo?
I’m sorry, but I call BULLPUCKY.
The dichotomous environment that Ms. McMann paints in her vision of Artimé versus Quill shows Artimé as a land of plenty; a veritable paradise where technology is unneeded (because, yo, they got MAGIC), people are loved, can express emotion, and play around all day doing magical artsy things. On the other side of the spectrum, Quill is a dilapidated, rusty wasteland with brainwashed zombie-like inhabitants, crumbling infrastructure and a shortage of both food and water. Those Unwanteds who are taken to Artimé are passionate, intelligent young people capable of experiencing the whole spectrum of human emotion…and those people in Quill are the cruel, small-minded people that are good at math and keep their heads down and follow rules.
Is this really the type of comparison that we want to see, especially in a time when math and the hard and applied social sciences (including the dreaded, “selfish” economics) are seeing a decline in enrollment and interest from students at all ages? So many children already think of these subjects as icky, terrible burdens, and books like The Unwanteds sure ain’t helping much. By the way, can you imagine the magic that someone could do with math!? PHYSICS?! CHEMISTRY!? How badass would those magical tools and spells be? Alas, in Ms. McMann’s skewed world of The Unwanteds, we shall never know.
The other main problem I had with the story was in the bizarre lack of power structure for magic – it becomes clear at the end of the novel that Mr. Today could vanquish the entire Quill army with a single phrase. Really? If that’s the case, then why have a “war” at all? Why wouldn’t he have stopped Justine years and years ago and liberated the people of Quill, rather than let it fall into ruin and then live in (supposed) fear? It doesn’t make any sort of logical sense. Beyond that, I didn’t really buy that Quill was so dilapidated after some fifty (less?) years, and that people were so shut down and unemotional. What exactly happened to this society? Was there a devastating war, or something of that nature? There’s never really any explanation given, so as things stand, Quill seems to be such a terrible place just because it has to be in order for this to be a real dystopia. And I’m not buying it.
Ana: It is the strangest thing. I completely, 100% agree with what Thea is saying and usually something like that would drive me completely insane. If I had to compare this book with another recent Dystopian novel, I would compare it with Delirium by Lauren Oliver. I was not able to finish that book, because I found it really hard to accept the premise that the society in that book chose to eradicate LOVE because it was such a negative emotion. Not only because the premise itself is ridiculous (why love and not hate for example? Surely hate is a more negative emotion) but also because it is hard to understand how “love” can be defined as one single, straight forward emotion when there are so many things that come attached to it (lust, compassion, friendship, jealousy, etc., etc.). I think it is the same principle with creativity – how can you single out what makes one person creative or not? As Thea so aptly says, creativity does not solely exists when connected to arts.
Having said that, I was able to accept the premise here much more easily that I was able to accept when reading Delirium and I will put it down to Lisa McMann’s writing: it is not perfect, far from it, but it is engaging as hell because I think she gets writing characters just right. And even though I had this niggling feeling at the back of my mind telling me that things did not make a lot of sense (the ending and how easy it was to win the war, was particularly well, senseless), I have to say that I was able to let go and enjoy.
On the Characters:
Thea: While the central premise of the society and the plausibility of the plot are highly suspect, I did, in fact, enjoy the characters (this is what saved the book from meeting the wall for me). The protagonist of the story is young Alex, who earnestly loves his twin brother and is willing to risk everything to be reunited with Aaron once again. The bond between twins is a unique thing, and the relationship between the Wanted and Unwanted brothers is a complicated bond, steeped in both love and hate. I appreciated that Alex is not a flawless character and makes frequent missteps, especially in the treatment of his friends – it’s all part of the growing process, right?
Beyond Alex, my favorite characters had to be Lani and Sam – Lani, is brilliant as the feisty, smaller girl who tries to get Alex’s attention and bring him back to reality when he’s being a jerk. Sam is curmudgeonly but for good cause, and the friendship that develops between him and Alex is a tentative but wonderful thing. Both of these characters also go through the ringer in the book’s final climactic act, with both confronting their parents and playing dramatic roles in the future of Artimé and Quill. It’s awesome stuff.
Ana: This is what completely made the book for me. I just LOVED the characters and how very flawed they were. Alex was the main hero and he made loads of mistakes and some of them had real terrible repercussions. He shared the spotlight with many other kids and out of all of them, I loved Lani the most – because she was totally and completely merciless when necessary.
I also really enjoyed how the author explored the connection between twins and whether it truly exist or not. And I appreciated how the author actually never shied away from having her characters making terrible, horrible decisions and acting on them. In that sense, even though the ending seemed a bit too easy overall, each character went through the ringer before the final pages. Granted, those could have been better developed especially with regards to the aftermath of those decisions and how the character dealt with what they did.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Thea: I’m torn – I loved the characters and the story zipped by quickly enough, but I despise the disingenuous central premise of the novel. I’m certain that many people will love this book and not have a problem with the dichotomous nature of “creativity” as defined in The Unwanteds, but I am not one of them.
Ana: As with any Dystopian novel, I believe that a reader’s level of enjoyment when reading The Unwanteds will be directly connected to how much they are willing to buy into the premise of the novel. I liked the book well enough but did question my way through it.
Thea: 5 – Good, but I can’t bring myself to truly recommend it
Ana: 6 – Good, Recommended with Reservations
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