Review: Tankborn, Karen Sandler (Sept. 2011)

Best friends Kayla and Mishalla are GENs, Genetically Engineered Non-humans. In other words, slaves. Built in tanks from human and animal DNA, designed with special “skets” (skill sets), they are at the bottom of the strictly hierarchical society humans have built on their colony planet Loka. They have no say about where they work, where they go, and who they talk to. But there is a resistance movement, and it needs both of them to succeed…

This is one of the first books from Tu Books, the new Lee & Low imprint devoted to YA genre fiction with protagonists of color. I’ve blogged about them quite a bit, and was super excited about Tankborn in particular. It’s not a perfect book, but there was a lot I liked about it. It certainly kept me turning pages, and I’m still thinking about it a couple of weeks after I finished it.

Criticisms first, because that’s how I roll. While of course I understand intellectually that slavery happens and I can see how a group of colonists could theoretically set up that hierarchical society, I never believed the particulars. It felt like a collection of parallels to specific Earth cultures rather than a believable world of its own. (The author mentions her fascination with the Indian caste system; the connections to African-American slavery are also pretty obvious.)

I also didn’t get Kayla as a character, or Mishalla for that matter. A chapter or two at the beginning where we see them as friends, their lives before their Assignments separate them for work, would have added a great deal.

That said, I really wanted to know what was going to happen! I read the last third or so in one go. It was clear that something was off, that there were going to be twists. I guessed some of them, but never too soon, and I was surprised but satisfied by others. There was romance, but it never took too much attention away from the girls’ bravery — their choices were partly based on love, believably for teenage girls, but they never forgot that they had other responsibilities that were more important.

Since the whole point of Tu is to bring more people of color into YA fiction, I feel like I need to address how race is handled in the book. There’s a lot of discussion of color, because the castes are more or less stratified that way. The “high-status trueborns” are described as being a “perfect” brown, with straight dark hair; the implication is a sort of South Asian look, which is emphasized by the South Asian feel of many of their names. Lower status people have either much darker skin or much lighter; it’s emphasized that there’s no way someone with red hair and pale skin (like Mishalla) could be high-status. The girl on the cover, for once, actually seems darker than the description of the character (presumably Kayla). I’m mostly okay with that, given the cover-whitewashing Tu is trying to combat, though I do wish the cover had shown Kayla as the more mixed-race girl it’s implied she is.

So okay, class is still tied to color, just differently than we as Americans are used to. The most interesting thing, though, is how class is handled, particularly the cross-class relationship between Kayla and her high-status employer’s great-grandson. He starts off defending the system that puts him on top, with the expected “but you’re safer and happier this way” arguments, but slowly comes to see the great wrongs being done. What I liked was that Kayla doesn’t immediately accept his guilt. She basically says, “Yeah, that’s very nice, but you’re still comfortable in your nice house and your safe life, and I’m still a slave. I’m not going to congratulate you on your epiphany.” I wished that attitude had lasted longer.

Overall, this is the kind of social commentary science fiction I always want more of. I can see Uglies fans getting into this.

Also reviewed by: Wandering Librarians. Uma Krishnaswami talks about being a “cultural consultant” for Tankborn, and interviews the editor Stacy Whitman.

ARC yoinked by Wandering Librarians’ Arianna for me, by request, at ALA. Thanks!

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