It takes incredible skill to be a master storyteller. After Unwind and even UnWholly, I would have easily put Neal Shusterman on that list. I read UnSouled, though, so I’m withholding final judgment for now. I’m not as encouraged to keep reading, but I’m glad I did. I have to push through to the end, just like Connor, Risa, and Lev.
Spoilers for Unwind and UnSouled ahead.
The story picks up right after UnWholly. After the destruction of the Graveyard and the dramatic execution of Starkey’s stork mutiny, our main characters are scattered once again. Risa has betrayed Proactive Citizenry but made it out alive—and walking. Connor and Lev are on their own, now running from parts pirate Nelson and making their way toward Sonia and toward the whole truth. Starkey and the storks are embarking on a plan to make him a hero no matter what the cost. The politics are heating up in the background, making the unwinding of teenagers seem like a mere prelude to a much bigger scheme. Camus Comprix is finding slow acceptance in the world and discovering who he was really made to be, whether he likes it or not. Before long, their paths once again converge as they head toward the climax of their journeys and the saga.
I liked a lot of things about UnSouled. Some of the holes from previous installments were filled in. The ethical and political background is chilling, assisted by Shusterman’s use of real, modern-day news items. Cam became a much stronger character in his own right. I was surprised to have so much from Lev’s missing months filled in; I’d thought that was going to stay in the novella UnStrung (which I have not read). I always like it when Connor, Risa, and Lev come back together. Starkey’s storyline was just the right amount of shocking and unsurprising. We should have seen it coming. There was a brief Catholic cameo that I found intriguing if not especially flattering. I even like the pun in the title!
I also disliked a lot of things about UnSouled, though. Nelson’s progression seemed like a huge waste of time. Some of the scenes on the futuristic Native American reservation failed to take the story anywhere. The “big twist” at the end was the biggest letdown since The Village (which I liked until the end). It might have actually been worse than The Village.
Overall, in UnSouled, the pacing just felt wrong. I was astounded at how much I enjoyed the fast pacing of Unwind. I don’t usually like stories that move too quickly or are too heavy on action scenes, but I distinctly remember sensing that Unwind was moving at just the right speed. UnWholly had a slightly slower pace but enough suspense and complexity that I wanted to keep turning pages. I had to know the story was going to unfold. I think the so-called word “unputdownable” is lazy and clunky, but if I used it, I would apply it to those first two books.
I would not apply it to UnSouled. It felt much too slow. Granted, Shusterman had a lot of story to tell, yet I didn’t feel connected to the slow growth. From the first two books, I was accustomed to rich character development and world-building even when the action became less packed. I can point to specific scenes in UnSouled that were slower-paced but gave me the growth I was looking for… and I can point to scenes that just seemed like time-wasting.
This installment suffers from two basic problems: it is both too rushed and too slow.
It was rushed because it was published so quickly after UnWholly. Unwind is an excellent novel that could stand on its own even if there had never been another book. UnWholly is clearly the result of years of work and careful planning. UnSouled feels like it was rushed to capitalize on media exposure and the trend toward multi-part YA series. Not every book needs a sequel, or two, or three. (I love To Kill a Mockingbird as much as the next guy, but I’m wary of Go Set a Watchman.) It is also riddled with typos that another editing pass should have caught (“chose” instead of “choose”, and even misspelling Connor’s name).
It was too slow because UnSouled suffers from Middle Book Syndrome, which is a term I wish I had to make up. There are rumors that UnSouled and UnDivided (the fourth and final installment) began as one book, but the story got too long, so it had to be split up. I’ll pretend that everyone missed the irony of dividing a book about teenagers fighting to not be divided. It’s the Unwind “Dystology’s” equivalent of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the first two-thirds of Mockingjay, and (from what I’ve heard) Eclipse, the third Twilight book. There are some critical story developments buried in a lot of waiting, hiding, holding patterns, and so on. I suppose that not every scene in a story can be action-packed, but Shusterman managed to do it for two books, so can you blame me for being miffed that he suddenly took an entire book to slow things down?
That said, I will still be reading Undivided. I’m not encouraged by the “big twist ending,” but I want to find out how Connor defeats Nelson once and for all. I want to know if all the teens make it to adulthood. I want to know how the legal issues work out. I want to read more meditations on the soul and what makes us human. Ultimately, I want to know if this is a good series or just some decent follow-ups to one incredible book.