September 13, 2020

Review: Rebelwing

Rebelwing Rebelwing by Andrea Tang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is frustrating. I was about to give up on it, irritated by (among other things) the shallow characterizations and incoherent worldbuilding, when about halfway through it seemed like a light went on in the author's head. Specifically, after a pivotal plot point and an excellent scene involving the protagonist and her mother, the author had a sudden epiphany: Hey, I need to delve into my characters, tighten up this story, and get serious.

So she did, with the result that the latter half of this book is greatly superior to the first. But that doesn't eliminate all the flaws, or take away the sour taste in my mouth left by the first part.

This book is set in a future world following the Partition Wars, during which a megacorporation, the United Continental Confederacy, Incorporated, took over and dissolved the governments of Canada, Mexico, and the US. (Which is just Part 1 of the incoherent worldbuilding. The author tries her best to build a non-crooked house out of her world, but it never really makes sense.) Prudence Wu, the protagonist, is a prep-school student and book smuggler in New Columbia (the former Washington DC area), smuggling uncensored media across the border to UCC territory. On one of those drops, she is ratted out by her contact, and while trying to flee she runs into...a giant cloaked mecha dragon.

This high concept is why I bought the book in the first place. A girl and her sentient mechanical dragon is quite a hook. Unfortunately, except in spots in the book's latter half, it doesn't live up to expectations.

The first problem with this book, and one that never really goes away, is the rapidfire cutesy snarktastic smartass dialogue. I don't know if the author is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan and had the Scooby Gang in mind when she wrote this, but that's what it reminded me of. But Joss Whedon's style wears thin fast, especially when all the main characters talk like that. It was enough to bring on a headache, if I was prone to such. I'm not a fan of overabundant dialogue tags, but in this case I wished there were more of them, just so I could figure out who was speaking.

The second problem is that, after setting up her intriguing concept, the author proceeds to do next to nothing with it. To be blunt, the titular Rebelwing should have been a main character from the get-go, right along with Prudence and her three sidekicks, Anabel, Cat and Alex. There should have been a helluva lot more focus on Pru's and Rebelwing's relationship, as in: what does it mean to bond to a sentient mechanical dragon? How does that even work? (Although that is Part 2 of the incoherent worldbuilding, as Rebelwing seems to have a telepathic connection to Prudence and later Alex. Psi powers are not scientific, any more than hyperspace or FTL travel, but they're more or less accepted as genre tropes. But a psionic connection between a computer consciousness and an organic brain? Really? I would have had a lot easier time accepting this if Pru had some sort of implant, even a phone chip in her wrist instead of an actual cell phone, that Rebelwing could have hijacked for its own use. As it was, every time that came up I had to grit my teeth and plow past it.) How does Pru connect with Rebelwing and learn to fly it...or "her," rather, and how did Rebelwing decide it was female? Where's the struggle, the learning, the communication between the two of them?

This is by far the biggest problem here, that the title character, the concept of the entire barely present in her own book. She certainly doesn't have any personality. In the latter half of the book, despite the greater emphasis on the characters (except for her), Rebelwing is little more than a plot coupon, moved around on the chessboard with painfully obvious author manipulation. It's damned frustrating. I would far rather have dispensed with a little (or a lot) of the snarkass dialogue, and had some real relationship-building between Pru and her mechanical dragon.

Having said all this, the back half of the book did level up its game, enough to get me to finish it. There were some well-done fight scenes, a few philosophical discussions involving the value of one life, and the relationships between the main (human) characters were explored and deepened. The climax, involving Pru's mother and Alex's father and uncle, was sad and poignant, as was the final chapter revealing the mystery of Pru's mother's past. But the book as a whole seems very much a missed opportunity, and ended up spoiling its considerable potential.

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