Dystopian young adult novels are thick on the ground right now. Some, like The Hunger Games and Divergent, set the standard. Others, like Ann Aguirre’s Enclave and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, show that following a trend can still produce a good product. Then there are those books that make us regret the trend was ever started.
West Grayer lives in a society where it is kill or be killed. To overcome human sterility – and to ensure survival of the fittest – children are bred in the Board’s labs as twins. Called Alts (for alternate self) they are genetically identical but are raised separately, creating lookalikes that are unique individuals. But only one can live to adulthood. When your Alt code (numeric genetic marker) comes up—any time between ages 10 and 20—you are notified, activated and a lethal game of hunter vs. hunter begins, with the winner awarded all that being a citizen of Kersh provides. The Alt battles are how the state creates a defense-ready population, and the iron wall surrounding the city is how they protect people from those on the outside (the apparently even more violent folks in the Surround). The motto of the state is “Be the one, be worthy.” Apparently, I am the only person who questions just what about being a teenaged killer makes one worthy since the population seems to pretty much accept this as fact. They also seem to accept as fact that Kersh – with its collateral damage kills and blood bathed streets – is somehow better than what is outside the walls. Without anyone ever looking. I’d be curious if my kid only stood fifty-fifty odds of survival. Just saying.
This is book two so when we meet up with West she has finished her kill and is living the grand life as a Complete. She is with her beloved Chord, attends school and everything is pretty much hunky dory except for the Striker marks on her arms. West had become a Striker – an assassin who kills other people’s Alts – to train for her own ultimate battle. She is seeing a counselor because she feels some guilt about that. Not the killing, but that she helped people cheat on their ultimate survival exam. Did she deny Kersh the soldiers it will need to stay alive? Does it matter to anyone but me that she is angsting over a city of killers? Guess not.
West figures she has all the time she needs to heal. Unless she gets killed as a collateral in someone else’s Alt battle – or the people of the Surround attack – her days of violence are behind her. Then a member of the Board makes her an offer she can’t refuse – and sweetens it by making it an offer that guarantees protection for those she loves. West doesn’t want to kill again but thinks she has figured out a way around the Boards request, a way where she gets what she wants and they get what they want. Unfortunately, figuring isn’t exactly her strong point.
One of the main struggles I had with this book was that I couldn’t buy the premise of the Alts. The idea that they somehow made for a population of warriors was ludicrous. Fighting off one person trying to kill you is not the equivalent of fighting an army determined to invade. Killing a teen whom you are warned will be hunting you for the next thirty days (unless you get them first) and whose appearance you are intimately familiar with (the Hunger Games premise) is not the same as an enemy horde at the gate. And fighting one-on-one does not train you to fight in battle groups. Setting aside the Alts, I couldn’t figure out the world they lived in. Wouldn’t people who had cell phones ever think of remote detonation? Shouldn’t every house with someone active in it arm itself to the teeth? Shouldn’t people at least look over the dang wall? These people were unquestioning sheep, living their lives as though everything the government told them was absolute truth. I couldn’t help but wonder if the author skimmed over the part where everyone was subjected to brainwashing at six or something.
Sadly, our heroine seems to have drunk the Kool-Aid along with everyone else. Not only does she, for the most part, not question what is going on but she doesn’t listen when others try to wake her up to reality. She agrees with me. At one point she says, “What I do know for sure is that I was never meant to get out of this alive. My fault for not listening to the warnings until it was too late.” Well, yeah.
Since all the characters are stuck in the quagmire that is their illogical world and never seemed to question it (or at least not in any meaningful way) I couldn’t like any of them. And the plot was predictable, so that sure didn’t save the story. But I give the author points for trying to explain things to us and for moving the plot forward by revealing some important information. The characters start to have normal human curiosity towards the end, which at least helps with my main issue with the book. She packs in lots of action so that we are on the move almost constantly which means the pacing is fairly brisk. She lets her characters have sex and hey, two teenagers with no parental supervision? She deserves kudos for treating the situation realistically.
Despite these good points, however, the difficulties I had with the book keep me from giving it any kind of recommendation. The YA market is glutted with dystopian novels many of which have good reviews here. Try them instead.