The pitch: Mika has never gotten over the disappearance of his twin sister Ellie; everyone says she’s dead, but he can’t believe it. When the Northern Government introduces a contest — fly simulated pod fighters and win fabulous prizes! — Mika just knows winning is his ticket to finding Ellie.
And of course, he’s right: we know Ellie is alive, because she’s the first character we meet — recklessly flying her stolen pod fighter through London’s impoverished underworld. Ellie knows a secret, the biggest secret in the world, and she’s determined to escape from government leader Mal Gorman before he kills her to keep it.
The review: This is a near-500 page book, but hey, it starts off with a pod fighter chase! And as Eoin Colfer’s blurb enthuses on the cover, it really does “fly along like a laser beam from a blaster” from there. The comparisons with Ender’s Game are inevitable, and in some ways I thought this worked even better. The switches between sibling perspectives serve to ratchet up the tension rather than drag it down *cough* Peter and Valentine, and the frequent touches of humor keep this rather dark story from becoming depressing.
The ending, unfortunately, was far too abrupt. (And a less plausible, less effective punch in the gut than the Ender’s Game big reveal.) It’s a classic “first novel = individual peril”/”sequel = now it’s time to save the world” framework, and I see why Clayton needed to end it before the next stage takes off. (Did I mention it’s really long?) But trying for a little less of a cliffhanger would have been appreciated.
If you can get a science fiction/adventure reader to look past the size and start the first chapter, they’ll probably be hooked. I can’t wait to pick up the sequel. Thanks for the recommendation, Paula!
Apocalypse how? (Big, huge spoilers):
A plague infected all the animals on the planet, sending them into a killing frenzy. Humans were herded into the northern reaches of the planet, while all life beyond the Wall was bombed into oblivion. Of course, there isn’t enough space for everyone, so most people live in cramped Soviet bloc-style apartments in the cities’ lower reaches, while rich people get soaring luxury towers. (The dense urban tower/underworld setting is very similar to Unison Spark.) The whole story is set up as a 99%/1% tale about increasing wealth disparity — hugely important, topical, and effective in this adrenaline rush of a book that doesn’t whap you over the head with its politics.
It also hits the same “old people are sucking the lifeblood from the young” theme that Starters does, only I bought this version more. People weren’t allowed to have kids for 40 years after the animal plague forced everyone behind the Wall, so a generation is missing just like in Starters. Unlike in Starters, though, it isn’t all old people who are powerful and evil, just the handful at the top of society who take the Everlife pills that keep them skeletal but alive. We see people of all ages who are poor and stuck in crappy lives by the ruling class. In both books, though, the evil old characters actively hate children, which I found cartoonishly unnecessary — isn’t it enough that they’re out for their own selfish gain at the expense of everyone? Do they have to get all Cruella deVil about it?
At the end, perhaps unsurprisingly, you discover that there was no animal plague at all; it was a media invention by the wealthy to clear out the growing population. Similarly to Uglies, there’s some question about the morality of that decision: we were destroying the natural places, so maybe separating people from nature was necessary? Mika and his friend Audrey wonder at the end, when they discover the Secret, what will happen if they tell everyone — won’t people just rush back in and destroy everything? They hope that the children will have the right attitude about protecting everything, but what good will that do? These questions are brushed off too quickly for my taste, but that’s part of the difference between middle grade and older YA: there’s only so dark this can get.