The Thousandth Floor
This is one book with a reputation that precedes itself. Already optioned for an ABC television series on word of its tonal resemblance to the Gossip Girl franchise, HarperCollins is working mightily to make this the next big YA series on the block.
The setting initially carries far more weight than the soapy GG world. The book opens with the apparent suicide of a teenage girl and immediately and incongruously shifts back in time to 2118 and to another teenager returning from a party in the same building.
This is Avery Fuller, our main character, genetically engineered to be perfect by her hopelessly average yet filthy rich parents (that she is revealed to be thin and blonde is to side-eye the book and sigh once again at the young adult genre’s lack of diversity). She lives on the highest floor in The Tower, a thousand story apartment complex and playground for the rich that has turned much of the five boroughs and lower Manhattan into a ghost town as its elephantine size has literally put most of the surrounding area in shadow. Avery is a country music loving fashionista with a greenhouse and an obsession with hanging out on the roof of the building. And an adopted brother named Atlas with whom, in the grand tradition of gothic-leaning YA novels past, she is secretly in love. Yep, ten pages in and we already have forbidden love and death on our plates.
The drama does not deescalate from there. We are rapidly introduced to other characters, each of whom get PoV chapters. There’s tough-minded Leda Cole, Avery’s BFF, of humble origins she’d prefer to forget, just sprung from a drug rehabilitation program. Leda was hopelessly addicted to the fictional drug xenperheidren, a sort of cross between Ritalin and Prozac due to HER one-night stand with Atlas and the fact that Atlas has blatantly ignored her ever since, causing her to obsess over him. Next there’s Rylin Myers, raising her little sister Chrissa on level 43 and living hand to mouth, drug to drug and party to party. She trades a job at a coffee concession stand for work as Cord Anderton’s maid – she soon has to decide between her rebellious lower-class drug-dealing boyfriend Hiral and grieving, jockish Cord – and between dealing drugs on her own to ensure Hiral’s safety or letting him swing for it. Then there’s Eris Dodd-Radson, a flirty, happy party girl whose family disintegrates in a single evening when she learns she isn’t biologically related to the man who raised her. She moves downtower with her mother and they are forced to learn how to live without luxury, leaving her torn between two cultural worlds, two identities – and dealing with the fact that she’s started to fall for her neighbor, a waitress named Mariel Valconsuelos. And lastly, there’s Watt Bakradi, a downtower hacker and techno wiz with a super AI named Nadia uploaded directly into his brain (he uses her as a personal guide and an assist on the hacking and tracking cases he takes up), who is hired by Leda to blend into life on the upper floor of The Tower to gather info on Atlas and in the process falls in love with Avery. Each of these characters share the story’s narrative as events escalate throughout the course of the year – ending with that dramatic death.
The early buzz comparing this to the Gossip Girl series is, in a word, inaccurate. While The Thousandth Floor strives to give juicy angst and semi-risqué melodrama, it’s actually a car crash between the glossy pulp of the GG series, a cyberpunk aesthetic and entertaining world building. There’s no mistaking this for something thoughtful; it’s a popcorn read from start to finish, the kind of thing you sneak under the covers at midnight to sip incognito and highlight the “good parts” to pass along to your best friend. If your teenager is old enough to consume Cassie Clare, then they should be able to handle this book; I expect it to be on the proscribed list for many a high school this fall anyway for its sexual situations, language and portrayal of casual drug and alcohol use.
Yep, this is a Twinkie of a book, sweet junk food, and when it tries to have a major point (as when it explores the ugly divide between social classes) it unintentionally exposes an ugly underbelly of racism on the part of the author. Why is every single poor character coded as a PoC except for Eris? Why is the epitome of genetic perfection and the narrative axis of the book a blonde, white teenager? The book simultaneously looks down on and rallies behind poor, unattractive people, with no central unifying position. The author doesn’t bother to confront the uncomfortable underlying business in their own story, resulting in a book laden with messages I wouldn’t want a teenager taking seriously. The key, therefore, is to have as much fun with the tale as possible. Thankfully there’s enough soapy, melodramatic, glossy meat to entertain anyone who might pick it up.
The characters are a mixed bag quality-wise. The best of the bunch is Watt, who I’d love to uproot and move to a much more complex novel; aside from his obsession with Avery he’s interesting and compelling. Rylin, too, is complex and fun to read about, and it’s possible to bond with both Eris and Leda. The very worst part of the novel is, frankly, Atlas’ existence. He is a bland waste of space of a jock, there’s nothing particularly impressive or interesting about him; he runs around playing video games, participating in athletics, partying, and spouting off about traveling the world to ‘learn as much as he can’ like Johnny 5 with abs. In a last-act switch, he becomes so goopily obsessed with Avery that it intentionally adds another layer of creepiness to their already squicky relationship (there are several gross instances where Avery’s sexual hunger for him is framed in context of their lives as siblings). I can’t figure out why someone as lively as Leda would obsess over him.
I must also duly inform you that Avery is a bit of a dud; her thought process revolves nonstop around Atlas. We’re told she likes art, plants and country music, but these are informed attributes used to make her “quirky” and she never comes together to form a fully thought-out being.
The prose and writing are generally smooth. The teenager lines of thought are also appropriately facepalm-worthy (Prime example: Eris is the kind of person who has super deep thoughts like “Maybe it was because she was named after a Greek goddess, but she’d attributed an omen like significance to even the smallest of things.” Maybe the author should’ve named her Cassandra…) At least one of the major twists remains obscured successfully throughout the course of the whole novel, which is something of a feat.
The world building is fun to great, and one of the reasons I’m recommending the story. It manages to modernize the world around Avery in a way that works for the novel; there are holograms, messenger bots and jump skiing via drone parachuting and vegetable hybrids and meat grown in test tubes. My favorite technological advancement is the hilariously over complicated Spin the Bottle replacement “spins”, which will include holographs and privacy cones in 100 years. Also people will want to swallow nanotechnology in the form of screaming gummy worms.
The Thousandth Floor might be junk food, but it’s fun junk food; operatically soapy, with world building that’s a lot of fun. Just don’t take it seriously. And watch out for those haluci-pens…