Books with lots of hype always frighten me. On the one hand, the build up for them is so high that it is easy for them to fall short simply due to ridiculous expectations. On the other, it is easy for them to fail because there was never much there to begin with. It is rare that a hyped book at least partially succeeds, so I was pleasantly surprised by this much lauded book. It might not be the greatest thing written this year but it’s a quick, entertaining, and thought-provoking read.
He doesn’t know any others like him. In a society where there are only predator and prey, he is the prey. The much sought after heper – someone whom sunlight doesn’t hurt, who doesn’t run with lightening speed, who doesn’t sleep suspended from the ceiling. His father called them humans. But Gene knows that to people, they are just food. A delicacy that is devoured with a frenzy once discovered.
Gene and his father have managed to survive and blend in by following a rigid set of rules. Rules that involve perfectly mimicking the behavior of the blood drinkers that populate the planet. Then Gene’s father was bitten, leaving just him. He has been surviving high school by playing the cool loner. All that changes the night the Ruler makes a nationwide Declaration: The first Heper Hunt in a decade will be taking place. The winner will be picked by lottery. The odds are so low Gene doesn’t even worry about being one of the chosen but wouldn’t you know it, Fate conspired against him. He was picked. There is no way his illusion will last under the scrutiny of a Hunt. Adding to the stress of the event is that he is sharing it with Ashley June, the girl for whom he has long carried a torch. He is considered attractive by the fanged horde with which he dwells and he knows she finds him alluring as well. But she is the most forbidden of fruits, for his disguise will never hold in a close dating relationship.
Once the two of them reach the Institute where the last hepers are held, things begin to disintegrate rapidly for Gene. The lovely Ashley seems to follow him everywhere. Gaunt Man, an elderly contestant, also seems to want to become a constant companion. He is away from all the comforts of home – water, decent food (all the fanged eat is bloody meat), showers (fanged don’t bathe), and razors. Gene grows increasingly concerned about hiding his scent and several times fears his fellow hunters are on to him. Then he meets the hepers he is meant to hunt. And discovers a startling secret about the Institute and its inhabitants, former and current.
Gene’s tale is a compelling one. Part I Am Legend and part Hunger Games, this creative story places us in a world where vampires are called “people” and humans exists only to be eaten. There is a strong sense though that the vamps did not not completely win because they are not exactly the brightest bulbs on the evolutionary tree. Yes, they are stronger and faster than humans. They have taken control of the city and, therefore, of learning and technology. But those of us reading know the history of the world that was and we know humans once ruled there. Slowly, the book reveals the weaknesses of vampires and what might allow humans to exist somewhere far away from them.
Gene makes a great narrator for the tale. He is a complex character, someone who has had to completely suppress all his natural instincts just to blend in and survive. He is both intelligent in the intellectual sense (he excels at school) and quick witted. He has needed the latter just to make it through the day to day of his life. He has a dry sense of humor, and you can’t help but feel for him as he speaks of his daily stresses. I was moved by his description of eating fruits and vegetables – it’s just a very poignant reality that must be kept completely secret. Gene has developed the cold heart of the sole survivor as well. At one point, when I expected compassion to take root in his narcissistic little heart, I was frustrated by his coldness. He was willing to take help, but when the chance came to return the favor in a way that wouldn’t have hurt him any, he chose not to. He changes and shows compassion as the story develops but that initial moment sort of shook me.
Ahsley June is an enigma for much of the tale. We are never sure if she is just a teen girl with a crush or someone with a much darker agenda. Then again, a teen girl with a crush can be a dangerous creature. When we first meet her, she is queen of the school. She sits at the Desirables table in the cafeteria and coolly reigns over the less desirable that surround her. As we get to know her while preparing for the Hunt, we learn she is both competitive and fierce. We also learn she has secrets of her own – secrets she is willing to kill to keep.
We meet Sissy, head of the heper community, later in the book. She is an anomaly to the scientists studying the hepers because she is a female ruler. For many years scientists believed the hepers to be a patriarchal society. She is a tough, resilient young woman. Unlike Gene and Ashley June, she is also kind hearted. We don’t get to know her very well, but she plays an increasingly important role toward the end of the novel. I am glad. She brought some heart to a story that was lacking that vital aspect.
The writing is smooth and the plot riveting. Everything about this book screamed A except for one small thing: The premise leaped past improbable and stretched into inconceivable. Based on what happens so often in just the short time we are with Gene, it is clear that it would have been impossible for him to maintain this charade for years. The fact that he physically couldn’t move like the others would have given him away at some point. It just would. This isn’t like pretending to be another nationality where it is custom and appearance that need changing, this is another species. Faster. Stronger, Unbleeding. No sweat. Completely without body hair. You would have to never get sick. Never be touched. I didn’t buy it. It would have worked – as all things can in fiction – if the author had in some way acknowledged the unlikelihood of it, but we are supposed to accept in all seriousness that it did work. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t.
That probably sounds like a huge flaw. It’s not. Every once in a while it knocks you out of the story for a second, but it is only a second. Then you find yourself obsessed once more with wondering what happens and how it all comes together, and you forget everything in the joy of the story.
There are some harsh moments here (a kindergartner gets eaten) but they are not graphic and they fit smoothly in with the tale. If you can handle the violence in The Hunger Games, you can handle it here. If you are tired of vampire hero and heroines and want a tale of something new, let me recommend this one. It’s a fast and intriguing read.