Review: Atlanta Burns by Chuck Wendig

by phildini on January 31, 2015


I should be working on editing my own novel, but for some reason I find editing more nerve-wracking and fear-inducing than I found writing the thing, so I'm going to do another review, and see if that brings the focus. On the docket today: Atlanta Burns, the first in a series of the same name by Chuck Wendig.

I think I'll start by claiming some bias. I've been following Chuck Wendig on the Twitterz for about four months, and called upon his mighty spirit to help me get through my first fight with editing my novel. He responded with a virtual bourbon-beard.

It was a touching moment. I like Chuck Wendig, or at least the part of his persona that he shows through his blogging and tweeting. I've had discussions with co-conspirators in the past about how to define a relationship where you feel really close to someone you've never met, and I've never heard of a great word or phrase to adequately describe it. So: bias disclosed, I think Chuck Wendig is pretty great.

I'm conflicted about his latest novel.

This feels like a bit of a betrayal to put in type, and possibly hypocritical. If we look at just the facts, ma'am, the fact is that I finished the novel in *checks GoodReads* less than 48 hours. That's a pretty quick turnaround for someone who is working full-time and watching too much Futurama to boot. So I can't say I wasn't gripped by the story, or engaged by the characters, because I certainly was. Both those barrels hit me in the face and I kept going back for more.

But reading Atlanta Burns was painful. Not painful in the "Oh God, what creative writing dropout wrote this" kind of way, because the writing is excellent. Like, seriously, the man breaks one of his own rules for YA character perspective and does it amazingly. No, Atlanta Burns was painful because I felt the pain the novel's protagonist (named, as it so happens, Atlanta Burns) was dragged through practically from the the first page. It felt visceral in a way that I truly wasn't expecting.

I always feel a little strange trying to give a synopsis of a book when I'm reviewing it, because the back cover will do a better job that I ever will, and in reality you should go read the book and then come read my review. But this feels like an appropriate moment to say: Atlanta Burns is novel about high-school girl who resists being molested by her mother's boyfriend through the mechanism of a shotgun blast into the boyfriend's nether regions. That's more-or-less the start, and things kind of go downhill from there. The novel takes her through a series of Sisyphean tasks against the most downright-messed-up characters that the mind can imagine when it thinks "backwoods America". People die in this book, and not the people you want to, when all is said and done.

This is background for what I mean when I say I felt some of the pain Atlanta went through. There were moments of physical pain that made my muscles clench, and there were moments of mental anguish where I had to step away for a moment. Wendig is a great writer; it was a bit like being slowly cut by the most exquisitely crafted scalpel, perfectly honed and embellished with decorative filigree.

To say I'm conflicted about the work is an understatement. On the one hand, I've known people who have gone through situations that are approximations of what Atlanta goes through, and there's some scar tissue there. On the other hand, Atlanta takes every opportunity for agency she is given, and is basically the epitome of "don't let the bastards get you down".

It's probably against the law to talk about YA fiction with lead female characters without mentioning The Hunger Games, but here's the difference: Most of what happens to Katniss is the result of a system, of a corrupt governance inflicting oppression and pain on its people. Katniss is often a victim by proxy; President Snow never slams her head against a metal wall himself. Everything that happens to Atlanta is, more or less, personal. The villains are going after her or her friends directly. The scale of the violence is much smaller than in Panem, but it's all the more visceral for it.

Yeah, I'm conflicted.

I have one true complaint, and only one, really. (GREAT SPIRIT OF CHUCK WENDIG FORGIVE MY TRANSGRESSIONS!) I don't read a ton of YA fiction, so maybe this sort of thing is normal. There's a bit at the end where Atlanta records a video message to bring hope to the downtrodden and a warning against the oppressors. In a book where the main character has tried to fight the worst of humanity and fight for the outcast at every turn, the statement felt unnecessary, and diminished, for me, the character's power. The bad guys know what she's capable of, the audience has seen her take a beating and give it back ten-fold, neither side needs the reminder.

There's a quote by Cory Doctorow that goes something along the lines of "I write so many blog posts to help me realize what I actually think about things." Having now written a review of Chuck Wendig's Atlanta Burns, I can say:

Atlanta Burns was one hell of a ride, and worth reading. I'm both excited and terrified for the next volume, but I will certainly be checking it out.