I was pretty excited to read Talker 25 by Joshua McCune because, well, DRAGONS. Despite futuristic-the-world-sucks novels not at all being my thing, I couldn't wait for this one. Again I say, DRAGONS. I will read anything with a dragon in it. Unfortunately this book is heavy on the life-sucks and light on the dragons. (Except when they are being tortured in horrific graphic detail.)
I read an ARC received in exchange for a fair review.
It's a high school prank gone horribly wrong-sneaking onto the rez to pose next to a sleeping dragon-and now senior Melissa Callahan has become an unsuspecting pawn in a war between Man and Monster, between family and friends and the dragons she has despised her whole life. Chilling, epic, and wholly original, this debut novel imagines a North America where dragons are kept on reservations, where strict blackout rules are obeyed no matter the cost, where the highly weaponized military operates in chilling secret, and where a gruesome television show called Kissing Dragons unites the population.
The writing in Talker 25 is almost hypnotic. I was certainly drawn into the story and it was riveting reading. When I was reading it, I was completely engaged. Dragons came to earth 15 years ago, no one knows how or why (including the dragons). Some people got killed. The government went into high security mode, locked down the population, and went on a dragon killing rampage. They are still attempting to annihilate the remaining dragons. There are groups of insurgents trying to protect the remaining dragons. The military is engaging in controlling dragons and injuring civilians in order to blame the insurgents. They've even created a war camp where they hold teens capable of telepathically communicating with the dragons to help control them. The plot is fast paced and, while purely derivative of other stories, explores some interesting themes about modern entertainment, loyalty, government power, and ethics in war. The problem is the execution of all this is incredibly muddled and this is largely due to the characters.
I'm sure that there are a lot of reviews out there that will declare Melissa as unlikeable. And she is. She is supposed to be. She is an angry, confused, lonely teen as the story opens. There's little there to like. But she is so very human and I appreciated that about her. Her character almost made me really like this, but there was too much I couldn't overlook. One of those things is that none of the character's motivations every made any sense to me, and that included Melissa's even though the story is told in first person from her point of view. This a plot heavy story, and with so much action and characters, the character development is bound to suffer. I think it is a major flaw though when the reader can't figure out why anyone is doing anything they are doing. Melissa's original hatred of the dragons was understandable. Her sudden desire to rescue a random insurgent boy (hot, of course) in the midst of a military hospital is less so. She throws some line about the dragons not being what they thought out during this scene, which I read four times to figure out where the heck that came from. I still don't know. If you ask me, she still had reason to be wary of the dragons. They aren't evil incarnate, like the government is making them out to be, but they aren't fluffy bunnies either. They are often hungry and they like to eat humans. And at this point she had no real reason to fear the military both of her parents worked for. She spends a very brief time at some dragon caves communing with a couple dragons and not liking them much still. Once she is captured by the military and sent to the camp, she suddenly becomes the dragons biggest champion. Part of this is a deep-seated desire to not be broken, which I can appreciate. And it turns out the government is evil incarnate. They are killing innocent people, torturing dragons, and being all around horrifically cruel and villainous. And for the life of my I can't figure out WHY. I know power corrupts and all that, but the villainy here is almost cartoonish and a bit excessive. In books like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, I understood the government's motivations. One of my major complaints about modern books of this sort, is this. I can't figure out why the governments even want to be doing what they are doing, and this book suffers greatly from that flaw.
Another issue I have is how gruesomely detailed the violence and torture scenes are. You can write scenes of great impact that leave the reader chilled and horrified without going into gruesome detail. (I offer as evidence chapter three of The Queen of Attolia and all of Code Name Verity.) In fact, I am often MORE impacted by descriptions that leave more to the imagination. I have a very good imagination. And when violence is this descriptive I simply start to shut down.
Reading Talker 25 was rather like experiencing a video game to me. And I didn't particularly enjoy the experience. I'm sure there will be readers out there who will and won't have the same issues I do, but I can't really recommend this without serious reservations.
Content Note: graphic violence, strong language, sexual references, may be a trigger for those who have suffered sexual assault or abuse
I read an ARC received from the publisher, Greenwillow Books, via Edelweiss. Talker 25 is on sale April 22.