narfna’s #CBR4 Review #54: Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver
It’s been a couple of months since I’ve read this book, but apparently I still have some things to say. This is going to be long, and I have strong feelings about it, so I apologize in advance on both counts.
First of all, I hate that cover. Hate it hate it hate it. What is it with publishers and putting these nondescript shiny-lipped teenage girls on the cover and then calling it a day? And what the fuck is going on with that flower over that girl’s ear? What, is she like, sticking her head out of flower bush or something? HI, MY NAME IS LENA AND I’LL JUST BE SQUATTING IN THIS BUSH WHILE YOU READ ABOUT ME IN THIS HERE BOOK. DON’T MIND ME. MY SKIN IS GLOWING LIKE AN ALIEN AND I’M NOT BEING CREEPY AT ALL. It’s completely awful in every way and not even relevant to the story or theme of the novel. Fail, YA publishers, FAIL. PLEASE STOP DOING THIS.
The surprising news? I liked the book. I liked it much, much, much, much better than it’s predecessor. Delirium was such a conflicting and frustrating read for me, but nearly everything I had an issue with in Delirium was either answered directly or significantly reduced in Pandemonium. I went into the novel ready to give it a fair shake, even though in the back of my mind I had essentially written the series off, and I was completely surprised at how much I enjoyed it.
Pandemonium picks up about six months after Lena’s flight into the Wilds. She has found an ersatz family in her fellow rebels, and has become firmly entrenched in the rebellion. During flashbacks which run through almost the whole book, we watch as Lena transforms from a scared newbie to a battle and loss-hardened rebel. She ends up in New York where, posing as a student, she becomes involved in a kidnapping plot with the wealthy son of a fanatic who is famous for promoting The Cure, even for people too young to handle it. Even for his son, Julian, whom The Cure would most likely kill due to Julian’s previous operations to remove cancerous brain tumors. The alternating structure of the book keeps it flowing at a lightning fast pace, and the effect is that as we watch Lena growing as a person, in terms of the narrative, she is simultaneously helping Julian to heal and grow as well. And of course they fall in love and have adventures, and there’s a conspiracy and people who live underground, and there were some other details as well, but I don’t remember them right now.
Here are some reasons why I liked Pandemonium so much more than Delirium:
Delirium Complaint #1: Too much flowery language, not enough story.
While Oliver’s style remains consistent from book to book (and thus consistently bothers me), the substance of Pandemonium as a story is dramatically different from Delirium. Because Pandemonium had an actual plot to concern itself with and there were actual things happening on the page, Oliver didn’t have to constantly resort to diving deep into Lena’s psyche, thus necessitating page after page after page of poetic metaphors that are cool at first but then quickly begin to grate once you realize that while it may be a pretty cool trick she’s pulling out of her writer’s handbag, it’s basically the only trick she has. Story is about substance, and metaphor does not constitute substance. In fact, metaphor (or simile) by itself often feels very shallow if it’s not attached to something real and concrete. Pandemonium had concrete shit happening all over the place; it had movement, and thus I was either so busy being caught up in the story that I didn’t notice her overly written poetic imagery as much, or she didn’t use as much of it as filler because she didn’t need to — she had a plot instead.
Delirium Complaint #2: Alex
I know I’m in the minority on this one, but look, I just don’t like Alex all that much as a character, and I was happy he wasn’t in this book. I was holding out hope that he had actually died, but I knew it was a fool’s hope, and not just because I’d been spoiled. It seems YA authors these days just can’t resist the siren lure of a love triangle, lo though it may lead them to their deaths. It’s not that I don’t like the idea of Alex, because I do, or that I think he’s a jerk or something, because I don’t — I just find him useless as a character in this book series. In Delirium, he was nothing but a perfect and deliberately sculpted man-candy for Lena to fall in love with. He was a cypher, a catalyst through which Lena’s change of character was enacted. He was not a character in his own right, and he was much too tragically perfect to read as a real character for me. He was designed to be the perfect lure to make Lena realize how fucked up her life really was, to get her out of Portland and into the Wilds, and he served that purpose admirably. The problem is that he didn’t really do anything for me beyond that purpose.
But Oliver did something really interesting in Pandemonium, which is that she essentially gave Lena Alex’s role. In Delirium, Alex was the rebel, but in book two it was Lena taking the lead, showing new enemy turned boy-toy, Julian, the light. This accomplished two things, both of which I felt were missing in Delirium: 1) It gave Lena a more active trajectory — instead of things happening to her, she makes things happen, and 2) It allowed Julian as the love interest du jour to actually develop some character depth outside of his relationship to Lena. Lena being the new Alex allows us to re-experience the journey through Julian’s eyes, to see how far Lena has come as a person, but more importantly, it finally allows us the chance to see how that change is actually effected internally. Giving Julian a journey like that instantly made him a more interesting, dynamic romantic lead than Alex was because he wasn’t just some perfect dude dropping in from the heavens to get the plot (and Lena’s heart) moving.
I liked Julian. I liked him a lot. I may even love him. I liked reading about his life as the son of someone so entrenched in that world. I liked seeing his assumptions crumble in front of him. I liked seeing him fall in love with Lena and grow as a person. Even if it does turn out to sort of be all orchestrated and even if the Lena/Julian romance is trope heavy as all get out (a couple of problems I had with this book, see below), it was enjoyably so.
Delirium Complaint #3: Predictability
Even though this book was much more enjoyable for me than its predecessor, the underlying problems of the main narrative are still there. And the biggest underlying problem with the story is its predictability. I don’t necessarily have issues with predictable stories as long as its clear they acknowledge they’re being predictable and not like they’re writing this sort of thing for the VERY. FIRST. TIME. EVER. But Oliver is approaching this world like it and all its moving parts is a totally original creation, and that still kind of grates on me. Like we’re supposed to be surprised that Lena falls for Julian, that the whole thing turns out to be orchestrated, that Lena’s mom turns out to be that guard lady, etc. And for that matter, like we’re supposed to be surprised by the whole conceit of the world, which is really just one variation among many, many YA dystopias. And again, this wouldn’t be a problem for me, except that everything about the world Oliver has created feels overly familiar except its central premise. Like you could almost substitute Oliver’s THING (The Cure) with the things from The Selection, Divergent, Everneath, etc. You have to have more than an original central conceit — the whole world has to be fleshed out, and it wouldn’t matter if tropes and predictable things were happening if the world was specific and felt real enough. Pandemonium is a lot better in this regard than Delirium was, but the problem is still there for me.
And on top of all that, Oliver decided it would be a good idea to add in a damn love triangle. It would have been incredibly brave of her to kill off Alex. I mean, can you imagine? That is probably the least predictable thing she could have done. As it is, this all feels like familiar territory, so why are we stomping all over it? I’ve been here before, didn’t really like the view the first time. Show me something new, not something that was done as soon as Twilight wrung it to pieces and then handed those pieces off to The Hunger Games (which is actually one of the better done love triangles because of the way it poses the choice between Gale and Peeta as Katniss choosing between different versions of herself, as opposed to OMG THIS IS TWU WUV). I seem to be in the minority in not really liking Alex here, and I KNOW I’m in the minority in wishing he was actually dead, but I want it to be clear that it’s because he was more of a function than an actual character for me. In contrast, Julian is INCREDIBLY likable precisely because he’s dreamy on top of actually being allowed to grow and change, and we’re also allowed actual glimpses into his psyche. We learn about him and learn to love him as Lena does, and also in contrast to Delirium, I can see exactly why Lena might fall for him. They’re kindred spirits.
Really, this book probably deserves more like 3.5 stars, mostly because of the ending and the predictability, but I was just so taken with my surprise enjoyment of the rest of it that I was clicking 4 stars over on Goodreads before I even knew it. For those of you who liked Delirium, you probably won’t like this one as much (you might even hate it), but for the rest of you, check this one out. If it could surprise me, it might surprise you, too.