Saturday, February 6, 2016

Review: A Thousand Pieces of You

Author: Claudia Gray
Genre: Science fiction, young adult, contemporary, romance
My rating: ★★★★1/2 (4.5 of 5 stars)

Taking short-term AWOLs from our realities to soak in our daydreams is completely and understandably human. We might not always admit it, but we enjoy wallowing in unlived possibilities. But what if those possibilities exist in the form of alternate universes? What if our romantic pockets of what-might-have-beens are real in every sense of the word—that there’s a universe where the person you adore loves you back, a reality where you chose the other path that might have changed your life forever, and a dimension where you became a person you never expected to be?

Claudia Gray’s novel A Thousand Pieces of You revolves around the idea of a multiverse, with an added bonus: you can actually leap through all of these dimensions as long as a version of you exist in them. But what it makes clear is that there is more to this concept than the pretty chassis of being able travel into a parallel reality and meeting a parallel version of yourself.  This tale, at its best, elegantly crosses the high-wire of the chosen premise’s complicated science and the too romanticized structure of these What-If Worlds.

The book follows the story of Marguerite Caine, the artistic daughter of two brilliant physicists that invented a device that allows a person to travel between dimensions—the Firebird. Being the only right-brained person in a house full of scientists, Marguerite tilts the family picture off-kilter, but charmingly so; they are perfectly content, parents and sisters and hyper-intelligent assistants alike. The happy picture only cracks one day when her father is murdered. Vowing to avenge him, Marguerite and her friend Theo hop through several dimensions to chase Paul Markov, the prime suspect and one of her parents’ enigmatic protégés. But in the middle of her gritty and dangerous tour of the multiverse, Marguerite uncovers truths that befuddle her resolve for revenge and make her question her heart. Is Paul really behind the death of her father? Or is the crime really more sinister and complicated than she imagined?

Mesmerizing and deliciously addictive, A Thousand Pieces of You came as a pleasant surprise to me. After encountering a barrage of Young Adult novels that hitched a ride in the sci-fi train in an effort to cast its audience net wider, I did not set my standards high for this. I thought I have seen this kind of dodgy promotion in YA dystopias before; I thought this would be just a mushy romp about regrets, swaddled by a love story centered on yet another husk of a heroine (or worse, another Bella Swan). I have long been disenchanted by such commercial moves that thrive in this part of the lit industry, which is the reason why I abstained for a while from the genre. If anything, curiosity teased me to pick this up. How would a newer contemporary YA author approach this concept? The only other books that I devoured on the topic was the elegiac The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer and the toothsome, video-gamey InterWorld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves.

Thankfully, the book proved me wrong. While it is still a story about love, it does not simmer in romance like it is the fuel that keeps the words flowing. I admire how the storyline is woven in an intricate web of Machiavellian schemes, betrayal, rage, and the ever-changing rules of each world that our heroine jumps into. Of course, the bond of fate and love (and mathematics, as the readers are frequently reminded) between the main characters are the common denominator between each universe. The fact that the author does not underscore the romance part every time an opportunity pops up helps the reader relish in it when the author does decide to focus on it. In its stead we get fragments of indulgent fantasy and tons of engaging scientific explanations...notwithstanding the constant propensity of our main character to squirm from technobabble.

World-building is a tricky cogwheel in a multiverse. Fleshing out one world is in itself a toilsome task, how about constructing several believable ones? The author branches out the tale from the contemporary world where the main storyline begins to (1) a futuristic London, where holographic social media populate the streets more than actual face-to-face conversations do; (2) Imperial Russia, precariously replete with cutthroat politics; (3) an underwater world eerily similar to the labor colonies in Chang Rae-Lee’s On Such a Full Sea; and to (4) a dimension pretty similar to where it all began, except with a few different choices taken by the characters. I understand how making these all pop out realistically in less than 400 pages is going to be impossible. The most developed one, if only because Gray dedicated a big chunk of the story to it, is in Russia. I admired how the transitions between these worlds are seamless…reader-wise, that is. (It is quite rocky for our characters in there, like that time when Marguerite literally falls down a flight of stairs as she takes over the body of her other self in a different dimension.)

Characterization here steps up on a delightful, Inception-esque notch. In the changing universes, the main Marguerite must try to learn how her other versions will act, which means she has to manipulate her behaviour to con people that she is perfectly normal and did not just hijack that dimension’s Marguerite’s body. That is basically a character attempting to fit into a different mold of her character. I adored her in that sense, and even beyond the fourth wall. I did not fall for her at the get-go; she appeared to be a messy stew of emotions in the beginning, a portrayal of angsty teen leads that I became so tired of before. I was indifferent towards her for the first few chapters. Over the course of the story, though, I learned to like her. She is both soft and spunky, fired up alternately by rage and love, emotionally confused, and, even if she has too much on her plate for being a harried dimension-hopper, still has time to worry about the morality of taking over another person’s body while they carry out their self-assigned missions.

Now, Paul? He’s a different beast entirely. Aside from the very obvious multitude of a person's—Paul's—versions in other universes, I guess one of the reasons the story bears A Thousand Pieces of You as its title is that we get to see many fragments of him across the book: we get glimpses of him through flashbacks and Marguerite’s observations, and we spend only a few moments with him when he appears in the dimension where the main Marguerite is in. Logically, the most complete portrait of him is his bashful bodyguard version in the long section of the story set in Russiaverse, which in a way is not him at all. Now, illogically, despite not having a stitched-together presentation of him, he is the character that tugs at my heartstrings the most. Selfless almost to a fault, shy, mysterious, he will do anything for the Caines without asking anything in return. He does not even care if Marguerite loves him back or not. His heartbreaking tragedy here is that when he finally gets his chance with her, he finds himself in competition with none other than a version of himself…a version that the girl actually loves. Yes, not him. The other him. It is a truly unconventional love triangle, where the guy is present in two corners and still does not quite win.

(Speaking of love triangles, let us kindly not include our darling Theo into that. I love the guy; he is your typical hipster, happy-go-lucky brother-that-isn't who totally has your back. I just guess he just does not fit into the romance equation in this book, no matter how charming of a character he is. It is just a choice between Paul and…well, Paul.)

A certified unputdownable treat, A Thousand Pieces of You is one of those YA books that can make me believe in the genre again. It is nowhere near perfect, but it is amazing in its own right. I cannot wait to get my hands on its sequel, Ten Thousand Skies Above You.

4.5 stars for a brilliant experience!