Have you ever seen the movie Total Recall? It’s a cheesy but fun sci-fi action adventure film about the planet Mars after humanity has settled there. Due to improper protection from radiation leaks a certain portion of the population has developed mutations. Most didn’t receive the cool X-Men kind but have scars, extra hands, cyclops eyes – you get the idea. I couldn’t help thinking of that film while I read this novel. Like that movie, this book has some startling, nasty mutations. Unfortunately, the author forgot to throw in the cheesy, campy fun.
The planet was destroyed in one day. Detonations of horrific nuclear style bombs killed off large chunks of the population, destroyed much of the water, and created horrors beyond imagination of the land and the few people left inhabiting it. Memories of the Before are cherished by those who must live in this desolate After. In all the world there is only one beacon of hope – the Dome which holds the best and brightest of humanity and houses those fortunate few who were able to make it within its walls before the blasts that created this new hell.
“For now, we watch from afar, benevolently.” Sixteen year old Pressia has always believed this message from the Dome, believed that those of them who live in the rubble from the Detonations were simply unlucky. Then she meets a boy named Bradwell, who has a whole different theory about what happened during the Before to cause this bleak, horrific After. She is disturbed by his story, unconvinced by the “proof” he has to back what he is saying. Then she meets Partridge, a Pure from the Dome. Pressia isn’t sure it’s wise to get involved in Partridge’s quest but she can’t seem to make herself quit helping him. But bringing Bradwell and Partridge together creates a detonation all its own.
Partridge had been told his mother had died during the Detonations. But when a slipped phrase leads him to believe she is still alive, he risks everything to leave the Dome and find her. When Pressia saves his life, he believes he has found an ally and guide to the post-apocalyptic world. It is only as their journey continues, as long buried secrets are exposed, that he learns he has found so much more.
The journey these three take is perilous but the rewards offered at the end of their treasure hunt could mean the difference between living or dying. Along the way they will meet El Capitan, who holds Pressia’s future in his hands, The Good Mother, who runs a small battalion of deadly former housewives, and a host of others who people the strange place that was once America, on a planet called Earth.
Let’s start with what is good – the beginning showcases a plot that is riveting. It does a great job of combining mystery, quest, and world building. While the world built was very familiar, it was drawn in enough detail that it became the strongest character in the book. The Dusts, the mutations, the melts – they were all depicted with a simplistic yet compelling accuracy that placed you firmly within the environs of the novel. The world of the Dome was a bit weaker but given with sufficient detail that you could still picture it. Fortunately, we didn’t spend much time there anyway.
The author’s writing style is smooth and precise but had one major flaw which demolished many parts of the book. That flaw? She has A Message and she is so convinced of its righteousness and goodness that she couldn’t take the tiniest risk we would miss it. To avoid that possibility, she uses characters as mouthpieces. This scene, where Partridge explains a visit to a friend’s house gone bad, is a perfect example:
“Mrs. Fareling was my friend’s mother. We sometimes carpooled together. My mother liked her. She had a son my age, Tyndal. We showed up for a playdate at her house in a gated neighborhood and she was gone. Another woman opened the door.’State worker,’ she said. She was there as interim care while Mr. Fareling looked for a replacement for his wife in the home.” “What did your mother do?”Bradwell asks. “She asked what happened and the woman said that Mrs. Fareling stopped attending FF meetings, then church functions.” “Feminine Feminists,” Bradwell says. “Did your mother belong?” “Of course not. She wasn’t going to embrace conservative ideals.”
I firmly believe that you should never have expository writing that delivers your message in plain, simple sentences like you are speaking to the dim-witted, but the author was clearly worried we’d somehow miss her point. Here is another example:
in the heat of the day, there were battle reenactments on the museum’s wide lawn that showed the uprisings waged in certain cities against the Return of Civility and its legislation. With the military behind the government, the uprisings – usually political demonstrations that became violent – were easily tamped down. The government’s domestic militia, the Righteous Red Wave, came to save the day.
Missed the clues with subtle hints like “conservative” and “Righteous Red”? Don’t worry, there’s more. Later we learn about sinners, logged church attendance and a woman’s place being to beautify the home and to raise children. Oh, and how God loves the wealthy. I have no quarrel with any particular belief held by the author. I have a quarrel with any story being interrupted for a sermon of any kind. The ironic part of this for me is that I read this book on the same day I had spent some time on the boards criticizing LaVryle Spencer for including some less than subtle hints of certain conservative values in her book Separate Beds. I owe Ms. Spencer a deep apology. She at least tried to work her ideals into her text; she didn’t just blurt them out like I would be too stupid to guess what they were. Perhaps that’s why I so thoroughly enjoyed her book in spite of strongly disagreeing with some of the value judgments being made. She bothered to actually accomplish what she had set out to do – write a work of fiction, not just a propaganda piece.
Everything suffers as a result of the need to get out the message. None of the characters are fully realized because they are simply foils for the message. Some, such as Bradwell, will develop whatever odd skills they need to have in order to forward the plot. Others simply serve to emphasize the evil of the villain against the goodness of the Liberal cause. Common sense flies out the window as we are provided with a Joseph Mengele style villain whose rise to leadership is never really explained. In fact, the entire plot that revolves around Partridge’s parents makes almost no sense and yet it is pivotal to the novel. The mystery and quest lost their power about three-fourths of the way through the book. They became too weighted by what was happening with the message. And some of the plotting grows bizarre as it too is sacrificed to the exposition of the author’s beliefs.
No amount of world building can make up for characters that alternate between bland and preachy and a plot and mystery that fizzle toward the end. There is so much available on the YA market today that I regretfully recommend giving this book a pass. That’s a shame because it really had potential.