CW: mention of past suicide, drug use, pedophilia, abuse
I bought this book immediately upon its release but never got around to reading it, though I never had any concrete reason not to. It was probably the hype or the fact that it was sci-fi that made me a bit skeptical but I don’t think I ever doubted that I wouldn’t like it. But now that the release date of its sequel is near, and I’m trying to reduce my huge owned tbr by atleast a bit, I decided it was time to pick it up and it completely blew my mind.
I have to mention that my interest in the book went up by many notches when I listened to a couple of panels attended by the author Victoria Lee at the Baltimore book festival. I was left very impressed by their conviction to create worlds which are queer normative, where marginalized people get to be full fledged characters with the color of their skin or sexual/gender orientation is only one part of their identity and where they get to do all the things that usually white cis het characters get to do in science fiction. And the author very well succeeds at that endeavor in this story.
Immigration and refugee crisis form the crux of this story – how countries which are built upon the principles of equal rights can forget their roots due to corruption, fear and manipulation; the Carolinia First ideology in the book was too real and scary to contemplate because we see it playing out in front of our eyes everyday; how the inhumane treatment of refugees results in catastrophes and countries end up blaming it back on them, resulting in a vicious cycle that only leads to more abuse and even deaths of refugees. The author also showcases the affects of long term abuse in a very visceral manner, which just made me feel more helpless.
I had been trying to read a couple of adult fantasy books but was finding myself not at all able to follow their style of writing, so when I finally decided to pick this up and had reached 30% of the book before I even realized it, I understood why I love YA SFF so much (and also that’s it’s ok to not want to read outside my comfort zone). The writing is easy to follow, the pacing is a bit on the slower side, and while I knew what the endgame was supposed to be, I couldn’t truly understand the big picture. There is a layer of mystery and uncertainty throughout, we are never sure who to trust or who might be the villain, which country is the big bad – and I think the author did an amazing job keeping that suspense till almost the end. The world building is not very expansive but we are able to glean what is necessary for the story from historical documents interspersed between chapters and other small infodumps. We also don’t really get to know all the possible magical abilities and the consequences of using it too much, but I really enjoyed the abilities of the main character. And wow that ending. I found the book very interesting but it was the tension filled last few chapters and that absolutely heartbreaking ending that has made this a favorite.
Noam is a survivor – a child of undocumented immigrants who knows what living in poverty means, he lives through his mother’s suicide and his father’s complete catatonic state and ultimately surviving alone during a virus outbreak. Even being accepted into the government’s elite magical training and being the powerful defense minister’s protégée is not enough to make him forget his roots or the anger he feels towards the government which is directly responsible for the inhumane plight of the refugees. His determination to fight for their rights and use all his new found abilities to take down the establishment from the inside is very admirable. But he is also sixteen, naive and an idealist, justifying to himself that sometimes bad things have to be done for the greater good. He is such a complex character with flaws and we get to know all sides of him, making us want to root for him whole heartedly while also hoping that he doesn’t go down too dark a path. It’s really been a while since I’ve read such a character and I tip off my hat to the author for writing him.
I really have no words to describe Dara except maybe a tortured soul. He moves in the world with a carefree mask on his face, only showing his true vulnerable side in little moments, struggling to tell anyone about all the secrets he is protecting, all the while also trying to work on his amazing magical abilities. We never get to read his POV but as a reader we can tell that he is suffering and just want to hold and comfort him somehow.
Noam and Dara’s relationship is not something that develops steadily through communication like in other books. It’s depicted in small moments of tenderness, affection, anger, helplessness and everything in between and it was so beautiful to read. Whatever the flaws in each of their characters, they are selfless in their love and I can’t reiterate enough that the ending broke my heart.
Lehrer is a fascinating character who I still can’t describe properly without giving away the plot. Just trust me when I say that nothing is at it seems and it was both enjoyable and uncomfortable to read about such a person. There are a few others with magical abilities in the story and while I enjoyed the scenes that Noam or Dara shared with them, no one really left a big impression on me. I really hope we get more fleshed out side characters in the future.
To conclude, I already had expectations going into this book but it really surpassed them. If you enjoy character focused YA sci-fi stories with a diverse cast, with a post apocalyptic world that also feels close to our own political reality, a story where you don’t know who to trust – then this book is perfect for you. I’m completely devastated after that end but I also have hope, and because I’m too impatient to wait, I obviously read the sequel immediately after and you can find the review for it on the blog in two days 🙂