Too often within the SFF genres, the books that we read have pessimistic outlooks on hope and kindness. They frequently portray optimism as foolish at best, danerous at worst; sometimes you’ll read a book that suggests people really would be kind, except that there will always be a few bad eggs that make the rest of the world hesitate to trust in their kinder instincts. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing (AART) refused to do either. Despite adversity in the form of Peter Petrawicki, despite uncertainty in the form of the Carls’ intentions, protagonist April May put her foot down and told people to work together and be kind with each other.
It was why I fell so firmly in love with AART. The main characters were allowed to have faith in humanity, even in this stange alien lifeform, and in the Dream sequences it had given them. And I had high, high hopes that A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor (ABFE) would give me much of the same.
Let me start off with saying this will be a spoiler-free review for ABFE, but this is a sequel, so for An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, I can make no guarantees. So: just in case, for AART, warning: spoilers ahead.
Let me start off by saying this: ABFE was a good book. I can’t say that it wasn’t, because it wouldn’t be true. I do think that, comparatively, it wasn’t as strong as the first book, that there may be a few elements to how it was written that may turn some people off, and I’ll get into both the good and bad below, of course. But I just first wanted to say that, while none of the aforementioned issues I had with ABFE made me hate it–I did still like the book, and the duology as a whole–it wasn’t entirely unproblematic.
I don’t know. Maybe I should have reread the first book before I read the second, but do you know how many unread books are currently sitting on my shelf right now? I don’t. I have lost track. I’m not allowed to buy any more books until I read through the ones I have. (We’ll see how long that decision lasts.)
This is not a book that recaps for you. Not that it really matters; as people come back to the series, or read it for the first time, they’ll probably read the books back to back and they won’t need the recap. But, well, as I said, it has been a minute since I read the first book. All I really remembered was that April was the champion of the Carls, that she had gotten really famous from it, that she was encouraging people to work together on the Dream sequences, and that she died in the end. As for A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor…:
With several point of view characters–there are five total–there is rarely a dull moment. What ABFE emphasizes time and time again is the importance of grounding oneself in the little things, even as we go chasing after world-changing catastrophes. As you can probably imagine, the world looks so much different after the appearance of the Carls, so much smaller, that even with their abrupt exit at the end of AART, people around the world struggle to find meaning in their life.
Of course, there’s also a lot about grief and coping as April’s surviving friends have to come to terms with their not just post-Carl, but post-April. They go chasing after mysteries or try to find other ways to save humanity or try to carry on the message of their deceased friend. But these loose threads start bringing the three friends back together.
I do think that overall the story was… I shouldn’t say fast-paced, because that does a disservice to the moments in the book where things needed to slow down. But every scene was important to the themes of the book. The only thing that dragged down the narrative is that the political viewpoints of its characters did, at times, come across as preachy. Sometimes, ABFE felt more like a philosophical debate about living in a modern-day world, wrapping the narrative to the debate as if simply an anecdote to prove a point. Not always, but, still. Enough that it mattered.
Each chapter is told in first person, no matter which character is narrating. One of the flaws of the writing was that the characters did not have their own unique voices. Andy and Miranda felt relatively distinct, in that I don’t remember ever having to flip back a page or two to remind myself whose point of view I was in for them. Maya’s resembled one of the other character PoVs enough that I frequently had to remind myself who was talking.
That said, somewhat incongruously, the characters were very much portrayed as three-dimensional. They had very human problems that they dealt with in very human ways. They make mistakes. They feel strongly about certain things, things that sometimes prove to be bad for them. They do also grow. The characters from the first book, especially from the beginning of the first book, are not the same characters at the end of the second.
It’s also worth noting that the cast is diverse without ever once feeling like the author was trying to hit their diversity points checklist. It helps that the characters are not just *diverse,* that the conflicts and tensions that come with diversity are also addressed to some degree or another.
Honestly, one of the highlights for me was one scene in particular where a major-ish character came across as ace. Admittedly, the scene in question was a little clunky, and this character didn’t out himself for the reader. But all it took was a single line that made me suddenly wonder, and a little Googling later, I found that it wasn’t just me, that other readers thought the same. And that was an absolutely remarkable thing.
Like AART, the book takes place on earth. Its culture is terribly shaken by the knowledge that entities like the Carls exist and can have such a massive impact on their lives. I don’t read much science fiction, so I can’t tell you if there are a lot of books that focus on the aftermath of a global alien encounter, but either way, Hank handled his own earth-post-Carl deftly. It is an all-encompassing, undeniable, unforgettable truth, and once it happened, every area of life seemed different.
The Carls are a force in and of themselves, and there’s some exploration into where they came from and what they wanted in this new book. Their abilities and limitations are certainly intriguing, albeit, well, alien. But although the Threat is bigger, the stakes higher, ABFE would have benefited from delving a little deeper into the limitations of the new threat. As it is, much of the main struggle happens off-page while the protagonists grapple with the lesser (though still dangerous) threat.
Beyond the characters sometimes sounding the same, I found ABFE to be an accessible, enjoyable book to read. Even when one of the characters had to explain scientific terminology, it was done in a way that was neither dry nor incomprehensible. It allowed the characters to jump off the page, for me to be immersed in the narrative. If the book didn’t spend as much of its word count being philosophical, or if it had done it as seamlessly as AART had been, it would have been even better. Still, this is probably one of the bigger flaws of the narrative (the aforementioned lack of parameters of the new Threat being the other), and I still gave the book four stars on Goodreads.
Conclusion and Rating
I got a little overhyped for this book. If we ascribe to the 5-star rating system with 3-star being not bad but rather average, then it hit like a 3-star book. And maybe that’s just because I remembered gushing about April in the first book, loving that we had a protagonist who was outspoken and defiant but also defiant about being kind and optimistic in a world that demands its people be cruel or to at least expect the worst from others. The thing that bumped it up to a 4-star was the fact that the book did, at one point, make me happy-cry, and if that’s not worth adding another star, then I don’t know what is.
ABFE won’t teach any curious fantasy writers much about writing as a craft or SFF as a whole. That said, Hank Green dares to be hopeful and optimistic, even in a story with high stakes, and for the fantasy readers who are tired of the dark realism of the genre, this is just the book to cleanse the reading palate. Maybe it’ll encourage future authors to take a similar positive tone. I doubt it, but one never knows.
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