Ruby Martin expects to spend her days repairing robots and avoiding the dangerous peacekeeping forces that roam the corridors of the generation ship The Creative Fire. Her best friend has been raped and killed, the ship is falling apart around her, and no one she knows has any real information about what’s happening to them. The social structure on board Creative Fire is rigidly divided, with Ruby and her friends on the bottom, but she dreams of freedom and equality.
Everything changes when a ship-wide accident reveals secrets she and her friends had only imagined. Now, she has to fight for her freedom and the freedom of everyone she loves. Her enemies are numerous, well armed, and much more knowledgeable than Ruby. Her weapons are a fabulous voice, a quick mind, a deep stubbornness, and a passion for freedom. And complicating it all—an unreliable A.I. and an enigmatic man she met – and kissed – exactly once—and one of them may hold the key to her success. If Ruby can’t transform from a rebellious teen to the leader of a revolution, she and all her friends will lose all say in their future, and nothing will ever change.
-synopsis and cover art courtesy of goodreads.
Atmospheric Analysis: This is a beautifully painted cover by artist John Picacio–gritty and atmospheric, it perfectly captures the novel’s main theme of rebellion. However, it doesn’t particularly feel like a young adult cover; Ruby herself looks a bit old here, don’t you think?
Planetary Class: The Creative Fire joins several other YA novels (off the top of my head: Inside Out, Glow, Across the Universe, and my own novel, the forthcoming Starglass) as social sci-fi set on a generation ship.
Mohs Rating: The focus in The Creative Fire is almost entirely on Ruby and her society. Technology is present–Ruby herself repairs robots for a living–but largely entirely unexplained. This makes it almost impossible to rate on a Mohs scale.
Planetary Viability: My biggest concern with The Creative Fire is that the generation ship society never quite felt real. In some ways, I suspect this was intentional; still, at times I wished for the stronger sense of setting and a sense for how this world worked. I never got one.
Xenolinguistical Assessment: Brenda Cooper’s prose is spare and plain. There are moments when these stylistics are quite effective, though overall I felt the narrative choices kept the reader at an arm’s length from what might otherwise have been a gripping situation.
Expanded Report: This is the fourth young adult release by Pyr that I’ve read in the past month. It’s funny how quickly one forms an impression of a publisher just by reading a handful of their current titles. Through this exercise, I’ve noticed certain patterns: third person narration, an adult-SF sensibility, and a certain textual density that’s lacking in other YA.
All of these traits are on display here in The Creative Fire, first in a new series by author Brenda Cooper. It’s yet another Pyr YA title with mature stylings and a classic SF feel. As per usual for Pyr, the prose is both confident and competent. And yet again–as was the case with Quantum Coin–the quantity of plot events and ideas squished into such a small space posed serious difficulties for me in my enjoyment of the book. And once again, as with Be My Enemy, the emotional distance kept me from really getting swept up in the story.
There is much to like here, particularly in the novel’s broader concepts. Ruby Martin repairs robots on the generation ship The Creative Fire. One day the path beneath her breaks and she’s trapped with a man from a higher social caste, one who she would have never met otherwise. During this interlude, she sings to him–soon, she’s tapped as the new voice of the people, pulled from her humble beginnings into broader society.
The first problem here is that the plotting is diffuse and more than a little strange; after spending time with Ruby and her lower-class cohort through the novel’s first third, we’re suddenly plunged into the world of the higher castes and the novel takes a strange turn. She’s groomed for leadership and stardom, made to practice her vocal craft by Fox, a musical producer and Ruby’s first lover. These chapters feel almost like they were taken from a contemporary novel–a YA Black Swan, perhaps–where the female characters call one another catty names and compete to win Fox’s heart.
It was a strange turn, oddly jarring when contrasted with the shipboard society that we’re shown elsewhere in the novel. However, upon reflection I realized that I never really got a strong sense of this society overall; maybe the recording studios and bachelor pads of the novel’s middle weren’t so much a contradiction, but rather only appeared so due to my own failure to understand the society’s fundamentals. The citizens are stratified by job, and forced to don monochromatic outfits. Their quarters vary according to rank, and while vague historical explanations were given for this, the ship never quite coalesced for me into a real, tangible place. Perhaps this was intentional. After all, Ruby’s spheres of reference are limited, and as she moves beyond the society of the grays she learns more and more. But still, the setting never quite came together for me as I hoped. By the novel’s conclusion, I was still hazy about the ship’s purpose, the reality of their destination, how the social stratification worked, and so on.
This haziness was complicated by the truly epic cast of characters in The Creative Fire. There are dozens of minor, named characters–enough that I had a hard time keeping them straight. Very few seemed well-drawn enough for me to have a true sense of their personality. Ruby herself, at least, is a compelling heroine with some interesting and dicey complexity. Her major motivator appears to be sexual desire (in the novel’s early pages, she laments her own mother’s promiscuity), but many of the men she encounters were sketchily drawn. Because I never truly understood the appeal of many of these men, I found it difficult to empathize with Ruby and to understand what, precisely, she wanted as the novel progressed. General narrative distance and Cooper’s reserved, sparse prose compounded this. While I found Ruby interesting, I never quite sympathized with her.
The Creative Fire does firm up quite a bit toward the end, as Ruby is thrust into the limelight and forced to cope with the repercussions of her role as a figurehead. It’s a more successful exploration of these themes than Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay, but the world, on the whole, was less believable than Panem. The book simply often felt like it was missing something. Still, readers who enjoy unadorned, mature writing might give this one a try; it’s certainly a confidently written book, even if I wasn’t quite sold on the overall experience.