Something Completely Different: Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Glow cover What if you were bound for a new world, about to pledge your life to someone you’d been promised to since birth, and one unexpected violent attack made survival—not love—the issue?

Out in the murky nebula lurks an unseen enemy: the New Horizon. On its way to populate a distant planet in the wake of Earth’s collapse, the ship’s crew has been unable to conceive a generation to continue its mission. They need young girls desperately, or their zealous leader’s efforts will fail. Onboard their sister ship, the Empyrean, the unsuspecting families don’t know an attack is being mounted that could claim the most important among them…

Fifteen-year-old Waverly is part of the first generation to be successfully conceived in deep space; she was born on the Empyrean, and the large farming vessel is all she knows. Her concerns are those of any teenager—until Kieran Alden proposes to her. The handsome captain-to-be has everything Waverly could ever want in a husband, and with the pressure to start having children, everyone is sure he’s the best choice. Except for Waverly, who wants more from life than marriage—and is secretly intrigued by the shy, darkly brilliant Seth.

But when the Empyrean faces sudden attack by their assumed allies, they quickly find out that the enemies aren’t all from the outside.
Glow is a freakishly gripping book. It’s the kind of book that sucks you in to its world and wraps you up in its events, its conflicts, its characters, and leaves you wanting more. Unfortunately, it’s also the kind of book that time, and a little retrospective discussion, tend to take the shine off of, as we both have learned writing this review.

But we’ll do something different for once, and start with the good stuff. For one, the story, while plagued by a few plot holes and believability issues, is engrossing, and the concept is great. While the overall setting and situations are undoubtedly sci-fi, the focus on interpersonal drama and the use of more grounded, familiar conflicts and obstacles (such as escape and survival) go a long way in making Glow more accessible to those who wouldn’t normally find themselves interested in a book that takes place on a space ship.

Glow also carries an unexpected amount of emotional weight. Despite some serious likability issues – or perhaps because of them – you find yourself becoming involved with the characters, mourning their losses, getting angry with – and for – them, and hating the characters who are doing them wrong. This really isn’t something that happens often with YA books of any genre, at least for us. Most of the time, the only emotions we experience are annoyance and disgust, but Ryan does an excellent job of capturing the emotion of the moment in Glow. You get the sense panic, or loneliness, or hopelessness, or fear, or indignant rage, or all of the above, that these characters feel in each situation, and that may be Glow‘s greatest strength.

Unfortunately, it has its fair share of weaknesses as well. As we mentioned, though it’s easy to become engrossed in the story as you read it, it stretches your suspension of disbelief on several occasions, and breaks it at least once. For example, how, exactly, is it that every single adult on the Empyrean managed to be either killed, taken hostage, or severely injured, effectively removing them from the story? Every single one? You’re telling me that out of hundreds of people, not one of them went and like, hid in a closet somewhere? Or didn’t go to one of the three areas that would result in their demise or removal?

Not only that, but while the New Horizon attacked, the adults of the Empyrean sent all the kids to a “safe area” and went to defend the ship, but they left no one behind to stay with the children. They didn’t think that the kids might need someone to protect them? Their stupid decisions left them dead or incapacitated, which in turn left the kids to fend for themselves. Great planning, guys!

And the girls really just went along with total strangers, to a completely different ship, just because they said so? And didn’t resist at all? Including our heroine, Waverly? Where the hell did these people acquire such obedient children?

And Waverly really couldn’t unlock ONE lock with a freaking key to free her parents?

Probably the single most unbelievable plot element, though, was the way in which Waverly and her friends plotted their escape from the New Horizon – Waverly talks their head captor, Anne Mather, into allowing the thus far pointedly separated girls of Empyrean to have classes together, in hopes that she will be able to communicate with the other girls from Empyrean. Unfortunately it’s closely monitored, keeping them from being able to speak freely. They then figure out a way to communicate without other people knowing by – we shit you not – encoding messages in the assignments they have to read aloud in class. Ridiculously easily decoded messages that they READ ALOUD so that everyone, even the guards, can hear them. Assignments that they each copy down word for word EVERY SINGLE TIME. And NOBODY NOTICES.

Worst. Guards. Ever.

Even Glow‘s ending and obligatory sequel set-up were plagued by plausibility issues, especially when conflict starts between Kieran and Waverly. Even though the WHOLE time they were apart they couldn’t stop thinking about and missing each other, it took only one day for a rift to form between them. While this is understandable, considering the places their opposing experiences have brought them, the part that’s difficult to believe is that they don’t try harder to resolve the issue.

Although they do have a short discussion – which is more than we get in most books with a conflict-inspiring misunderstanding between love interests – their arguments are very vague, and it doesn’t do much to make their problems any clearer to the other. They end up going their separate ways: Kieran completely forgets about Waverly and their argument in order to follow the New Horizon and get their parents back, and Waverly goes straight to Seth to get his opinion on Kieran’s dramatic turn, despite all the horrible shit she knows he’s done to Kieran in the past.

Are you serious? These characters have been pining over each other the entire book, and they can’t sit down to have one clear conversation that could solve this potentially disastrous difference of opinions? Neither character’s actions ring true, and so they come off as obvious ploys to a) create conflict, b) sustain a very, very weak love triangle, and c) set up book number two.

The difference of opinions we’re referring to, by the way, is one that’s prominent throughout the book, and slowly shapes up to be a series-long theory, as well. That is, that being a Christian or having faith in God in the world of Glow makes you do crazy shit.

The book’s villains, for lack of a better word, are the inhabitants of the New Horizon, the “Christian ship”, who have become so blindly faithful to their captain/pastor, Anne Mather, that they do whatever she asks and believe in her whole-heartedly. This includes sabotaging their sister ship, the “secular” Empyrean, killing most of its inhabitants, kidnapping and holding its young girls against their will, and even stealing the eggs from their ovaries in order to solve their fertility problems.

But wait, there’s more! The leader of the boys on the Empyrean, our male protagonist, Kieran, one of the few church-going boys on the Empyrean, officially starts losing his shit once he starts thinking he “hears the voice of God”. This is, naturally, in his head, but that doesn’t stop him from essentially starting a cult of his own based on the idea that he “knows the mind of God”, and His will, and His plans.

So clearly, believing in God either makes you an idiot or a loony. But that’s okay, because not believing in God makes you a rapist!

Yep that’s right! The non-believers of the Empyrean – or specifically, the Captain and his crew – apparently decide that when the younger girls of the Empyrean are old enough (like 15 or so), they are “fair game”. Even better, the mothers seem to know this, but do little to stop or prevent it, aside from warning their daughters to “be careful” around these amoral men. It is implied that this is all because the Captain and his men don’t have Christian values, since when Waverly visits the New Horizon, the Christian men who reside on it don’t look at her with the same “predatory” hunger that the ones on Empyrean did.

Even better, not only were the Captain and his men rapists, but they were also vindictive, sexist bastards who had no problem sabotaging the fertility of an entire ship because its occupants were “people of faith”, and its captain dared defy them.

So, Christian = crazy and Non-Christian = rapist assholes.

Classy. But Glow is a book of extremes, thematically, and its characters seem to echo this, being either crazy, violent, or heading down that road, though Waverly is something of an exception.

Waverly was the one person that we liked through out the whole book, because she was the only one who was, you know, consistently not crazy. She also comes into her own as the story progresses, becoming pretty damn bad-ass, ridiculously tough, and the kind of girl who doesn’t take shit from anyone, not even Kieran. We loved that Ryan never allowed her to buy in to her captor’s excuses for what they’d done to her, and that she actually stood up for herself, holy shit, angrily declaring that Anne and her followers “basically raped her” by stealing her eggs. Waverly was admirably strong and defiant, and our favorite main character. There isn’t really anything bad we can think of to say about her.

Kieran, on the other hand… We liked Kieran okay for most of the story. Yeah, he chokes under pressure, but he’s our protagonist, surely he’ll evolve, right? YEP! He evolved right into believing that he was talking to God! That’s when he lost us. He went a little crazy, and who likes crazy church people?

Honestly though, the delusion confused us, and put us off his character in more ways than one. We weren’t – we kind of still aren’t – exactly sure what Ryan is trying to say about Christianity and faith and belief – or lack there or – and Kieran’s transformation made us even more weary of the book’s possible message. We thought we were supposed to be on Kieran’s side, and then he goes off the deep end. We weren’t sure if we were supposed to follow him, but we were sure that it so wasn’t happening with us. The ending made the idea of whose side is “right” clearer, but we’re still not sure where Ryan ultimately wants to go with it. Non-believing heathen rapists are a little hard to get over.

Then there’s Seth. He was likeable for about ten seconds, and then he changes into this horrible asshole. The author tries to go back and redeem him at the end, but this didn’t work for us because the things he did were too horrible to excuse, and his excuses were too little too late.

As if flat-out lying to undermine Kieran’s authority, imprisoning and starving him almost to death, and then trying to kill him wasn’t enough, Seth also used his authority to bully the children of the Empyrean. He was violent with them all, and even little two and three-year-olds were injured during Seth’s reign over the ship. And yet at the end, he excuses it by saying he what he was doing was just “what his dad did to him”, and we’re supposed to what, be like “Aw, poor psychotic asshole was abused too, we forgive you!” Um, no. That just makes it worse, because he knows what it was like to be abused, is aware that he’s perpetuating a cycle of violence, and STILL DID IT ANYWAY.

The only thing we actually ended up liking about him was that, unlike Kieran, Seth was competent when it came to running the ship in stressful situations. He actually knew what he was doing.

Seth’s also the third point in our very, VERY weak and obligatory love triangle in Glow. Supposedly he’s been in love with Waverly – from afar – since childhood, and it’s implied that Waverly may have had feelings for him, as well, but Kieran got to her first. That’s pretty much all the development we get on this subject, because the two spend virtually no time together, and never exchange more than a few words. Other than that, they really have no existing relationship. The mere presence of a love triangle feels forced, like it’s only there because all YA books these days have a love triangle.

But even if the triangle were well-developed, it’s still a shitty situation. Yay Waverly, she gets to choose between a violent asshole or a delusional crazy person who thinks he can talk to God.

One last thing. As we mentioned above, the writing was very good in that it was very captivating and kept you wanting more. But there was one issue that we couldn’t ignore. Switching from Kieran’s perspective to Waverly’s was a good idea, as far as keeping you informed about what was going on on both ships, but rather than switching back between characters every chapter, we spent an entire “part” – made up of five to eight chapters – with one character. This threw off the timeline significantly, because you would read ahead from one person’s POV and then have to go back a couple of months to get to the other character’s story. As a whole, it just took too long to get from one character’s perspective to the other, to the point that the book lost some of its momentum. Though both stories are interesting, you are also left wondering what is going on on the other ship.

All in all, despite all the issues we’ve brought up, we still really enjoyed Glow., As we said, it’s absurdly engaging, captivating, and interesting – definitely a four while you’re reading it. Unfortunately, looking back on all the believability issues, unlikable characters, and questionable themes, such a rating doesn’t hold up. So we’re going to split the difference here, and give it our first three and a half star-rating. But we didn’t draw that, so even though it may APPEAR to be a three, there’s a half in there, too.

three stars


2 Responses

  1. LupLun

    September 15, 2011 3:20 am, Reply

    Oh my god, it’s Battlestar Galactica: the YA version. All the elements are there: remnants of humanity drifting through space, evil monotheistic antagonists, good guys who do horrible things in the name of survival, major character having weird quasi-religious hallucinations… even the burglarized ovaries bit is something that happened to Starbuck at one point. Wow. Seriously?

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