103 – Adaptation by Malinda Lo

Purchase Adaptation by Malinda Lo at Amazon.com - I'll let you know if Inheritance is any good Reese can’t remember anything from the time between the accident and the day she woke up almost a month later. She only knows one thing: She’s different now.

Across North America, flocks of birds hurl themselves into airplanes, causing at least a dozen to crash. Thousands of people die. Fearing terrorism, the United States government grounds all flights, and millions of travelers are stranded.

Reese and her debate team partner and longtime crush David are in Arizona when it happens. Everyone knows the world will never be the same. On their drive home to San Francisco, along a stretch of empty highway at night in the middle of Nevada, a bird flies into their headlights. The car flips over. When they wake up in a military hospital, the doctor won’t tell them what happened, where they are—or how they’ve been miraculously healed.

Things become even stranger when Reese returns home. San Francisco feels like a different place with police enforcing curfew, hazmat teams collecting dead birds, and a strange presence that seems to be following her. When Reese unexpectedly collides with the beautiful Amber Gray, her search for the truth is forced in an entirely new direction—and threatens to expose a vast global conspiracy that the government has worked for decades to keep secret.
I feel like I’ve had a pretty good experience with Malinda Lo’s books so far. Huntress and Ash weren’t perfect, but I remember them fondly, and I was excited for Adaptation, Lo’s step from medieval fantasy into contemporary sci-fi. Unfortunately, I don’t know that I’ll be able to remember this one with as much affection as the others. It was kind of a slog. An on-the-bad-end-of-mediocre slog.

Adaptation‘s saving grace is that its heart is in the right place. There’s no uncritically perpetuated bigotry, misogyny, or racism, the cast is racially and sexuality(ily?) diverse, no stereotyping or tokenism, and it feels more accurately reflective of the world we live in than most things I read. Most importantly, Adaptation features a bisexual protagonist who finds herself caught up in a respectfully-handled bisexual love triangle.

If there’s anything to recommend Adaptation, it’s the protagonists’ discovering her sexuality: Reese’s experiences beginning her relationship with her female love interest, Amber, are by far the best parts of the book. I have issues with the plot and pacing and characterization and whatnot that I’ll get in to soon, but the scenes in which Amber and Reese went out on dates and spent time together were when the characters felt most real, when they had a depth and a sincerity that was harder to find in the rest of the novel. Their relationship is first-love sweet, and I love the way that it was handled, how accepting everyone was of Reese and her relationship, and how frank and forthright the portrayal of the relationship itself is. It’s a much-needed portrayal, and I’m glad that it exists.

That being said, it felt like something out of a completely different novel.

I have a bundle of problems with Adaptation, and I feel like they all come from roughly the same place: it’s disjointed as fuck. The beginning of the book is intriguing, and it’s got a great disaster movie kind of hook: all over the United States, Mexico, and Canada, planes are crashing thanks to literal flocks of birds suiciding into the engines. Air travel is suspended all around the continent, so naturally people get paranoid and suspicious, fearing terrorism or some other doomsday scenario, and shit goes Mad Max almost overnight. Our protagonist, Reese, her classmate David, and their teacher, stranded states away from home because of a school trip, attempt to drive back to San Francisco, but are met with a series of terrible accidents that leave the teacher dead, and Reese and David horribly injured in a car crash.

Days later, Reese awakens in a top-secret military hospital, where she’s told that she and David only survived the accident thanks to “advanced experimental medical procedures”. They’re made to sign NDAs, and then they’re sent home, to find the intriguing disaster of the opening is completely over and life has returned more or less to normal.

It’s an interesting way to kick off the novel, very hectic and tense and cinematic and mysterious – I mean, birds? – but it makes promises the rest of the book doesn’t keep. The apocalyptic feel is completely abandoned once Reese and David wake up, and while I’m intrigued by the idea of a post-post-apocalyptic America on the mend, that’s not really what Adaptation is about, so what feels like a very sudden genre shift is jarring.

Given the set-up, you would expect the middle half of Adaptation to be the discovery part – you know, the investigation into what happened to Reese and David, what was going on with the bird thing, and how the two tie together, because you know they will. Instead, the focus shifts to the romance and Reese’s awakening sexuality, and the tone changes dramatically.

Like I said, I generally liked the romance between Reese and Amber, the girl who definitely has absolutely nothing to do with the other part of the plot, nope, but it doesn’t mesh AT ALL with anything that’s come before, or anything else plot-related that’s happening alongside it. It comes out of nowhere, and even though you know, logically, that it will HAVE to tie into the overall plot later, while you’re reading it, it feels like someone is flipping back and forth between a fluffy romance movie and the weird sci-fi flick that you started watching originally. There’s just such a disconnect between the two.

That being said, I’d almost rather watch the fluffy romance full-time, because the weird sci-fi flick has gotten boring as fuck at this point. Basically Reese discovers that the advanced medical procedure has given her Wolverine-esque regenerative powers, as well as the ability to, er, feel people from the inside when she touches them. It’s a weird power with no practical application that I can think of – worst X-Man ever, right? Meanwhile, David has developed the much more useful ability to hear people’s thoughts, but before you start thinking that this could lead to interesting power-exploring places, understand that all of this comes out reeeeeeeeally slowly, interrupted by a handful of date scenes, over the course of the junior detective investigation into the plane crashes that Reese’s best friend and conspiracy nut Julian drags her in to. It’s here that Reese just stumbles on to information linking the plane crashes to the government and the procedures that she and David underwent.

It’s at this point that I should probably pause to mention how utterly lacking in agency Reese is. Almost every single thing that she experiences, and ALL of the things that make up the plot and move it along, just happen to Reese. I’m going to be saying “stumbled on to” a lot in this review, because Reese doesn’t MAKE things happen, she doesn’t even really go out looking for answers after the bad shit has happened to her, that’s almost entirely Julian’s doing. Reese just finds stuff when the story requires it. She happens on to or gets dragged along to or kidnapped off to places where plot-relevant things are happening, and I think that this lack of an overarcing goal or mission for Reese has a lot to do with why the story feels so disjointed. The lack of a unifying personal drive towards…anything leaves Reese afloat in the river of the plot, drifting from place to place in a way that can often feel random.

Anyway, before Reese can do anything with the information that’s been doled out to her, she stumbles upon a scene between her girlfriend and the doctor who treated Reese at the secret military facility and discovers that, OH NOES, her girlfriend totally IS plot-related, here to keep tabs on Reese for…someone. They break up, which is understandable but a shame, because on her own, Reese has all the personality of a cardboard cut-out. David, too, actually, which is why I have issues getting behind that pairing.

So time out again to talk about the love triangle – it’s not exactly a love triangle in the sense that there’s not really any simultaneous pursuit. Reese falls for Amber despite her crush on David, because she believes he couldn’t possibly be interested in her. David is interested, but only confesses this after Reese has broken it off with Amber. There are lots of simultaneous feels, but it’s never framed in a competitive way. Like, Reese never agonizes over who she should choose – her bag is more about whether or not she wants to date anyone at all, and after Amber’s betrayal, whether she wants to take that chance with David. Obviously towards the end of the book things come closer to something resembling a romantic conflict – Reese commits to dating David, but Amber comes back, and the two love interests meet fully aware of their respective feelings for Reese for the first time – but the book ends before any progress is made on that front, so it’ll be interesting to see how this whole thing plays out in Inheritance. I’m Team Threesome, personally.

why not both gif

Speaking of, the bisexual aspect is very respectfully handled – there’s never any questioning of Reese’s “true preference”, no slut-shaming or biphobia, and David is neither weirded out nor threatened by the fact that Reese’s ex is a girl. It’s nice. Granted, biphobia is absolutely a real thing that bisexual people face in the real world, but there’s something to be said for the portrayal of the sort of environment in which a character is able to explore their sexuality free from judgement.

Anyway, the Amber thing happens and before Reese can do anything even slightly proactive on the “investigating-my-powers” front, she triggers a cut scene and we’re subjected to yet another setting/goal shift. This time David and Reese are taken to a completely different secret military base to be involuntarily experimented on, and the goal becomes escape. Also, because we’re like 3/4 of the way through the book, it’s time for some Answers. Both of these things are totally underwhelming.

The Answers are yet again just dropped in Reese’s lap. A little expositional dialogue here, a secret report mysteriously uploaded to her phone there, a couple lab reports, a Presidential address and voila, your answers, mademoiselle, on a silver fuckin’ platter.

Before we get into spoilers though, we need to talk about dat writing. Even putting the weird pacing and the lack of agency and the fractured feel of the story as a whole aside, the writing is just bad. I hate saying it, but it’s really, really bad. I mean, I had issues with the writing in Huntress and Ash, but both of those books had a sort of style to them, a Ye Olde Storytelling affectation, in Ash especially, that made all of the telling and the weird feelings-exposition at least kinda make sense. But here there’s not even a pretense of a style, it’s just normal contemporary prose and oh my godddd no. Stahp.

The characters are all incredibly shallow and/or boring, like Reese has one emotional hangup that she has to get over, but aside from that she has no interest or personality trait to speak of, aside from debate, apparently. David is just as bad, and their romantic interaction is bland city. It’s all tell, no show, all the time, with everything, to the point there’s a noticeably weird recurring redundancy where a character will say something that implies an idea or emotion, and then the descriptor tag following that statement will outright SAY the thing the dialogue implied. Like “Oh, this statement suggests that I am freaked out,” THE CHARACTER SAID, FREAKED OUT-EDLY. IN CASE YOU DIDN’T GET IT.

Plus, a lot of the background information on the military projects and the government conspiracies and the aliens and stuff is conveyed via “articles” and “medical reports”, which I get is meant to fill us in while cutting down on explain-y dialogue, but none of these articles or reports or news broadcasts or even the presidential speeches sound even remotely like what a news article, radio broadcast, medical report, or presidential speech would ever sound like. They read like a child’s approximation of what one of those things might sound like. I know, it sounds like a small quibble, but these things turn up ALL THE TIME and it’s really distracting.

Anyway, back to the story. ANSWERS. Speaking of childish approximations…


It’s aliens. Yeah. The “advanced medical procedure” was combining alien and human DNA to make Reese and David alien/human hybrids, which actually raises a whole lot of issues about medical consent, because the aliens are supposed to be the good guys in the end, but they did some previously lethal-ass experimental treatments on the two of them and fundamentally altered their bodies without asking anyone. On the upside, Reese actually brings this up, so hopefully that’ll be something addressed in Inheritance. I’d hate to see it brushed aside.

Also Amber is an alien, and knowing that one of the love interests is an alien is completely and totally a spoiler, THANKS ROBIN.

So I mean, it’s not a terrrrrrrible explanation in itself, but it comes so close to the end of the book that there’s no development of any of the alien stuff, and I just find it really hard to buy. It just seems so…silly, like, I WAS A TEENAGE ALIEN-silly. The whole approach this book takes to its aliens and conspiracies and its junior detectives and secret military labs is so middle grade, none of it feels like anything that could conceivably happen in the real world. Not because the premise is outlandish, I’ve bought books about dumber things, but because the execution feels so cartoonish and…loosely drawn. It just doesn’t have the right details for me, I guess.

Honestly, without more development of the alien stuff, that whole revelation means not a whole lot. Impact is minimal. Well, that’s not true. The real impact is sequel bait, and I’ll admit, in the last ten pages or so, Adaptation FINALLY picked up that intrigue ball that it dropped after the accident, and went somewhere unexpected. It succeeded in making me curious about the sequel and where it could go, even as I was thoroughly underwhelmed by the road it used to get there.

So yeah, Adaptation, man. Not great, but not awful, either, and if Inheritance is good, it might get a sort of retroactive boost for setting all this shit up. As a stand-alone, though, it’s pretty disappointing. I’d say that even if you liked Malinda Lo’s fantasy stuff, as I did, there’s still no guarantee that Adaptation is gonna do anything for you. I’d make it a rental.

Here’s hoping Inheritance makes it worth it.


Two Stars


2 Responses

  1. elinorcackett

    March 13, 2015 11:50 pm, Reply

    Just from reading the description, this sounds like Birdemic only with teenagers. Being forced to sit through that was bad enough; except for the bit with the coat hangers.

Leave a Reply