“You are the Tribe, Ashala.” I frowned, and he continued. “You were the leader, the glue that held them together. Now you’re gone, it won’t be long before they start squabbling with each other, and leave the safety of the Firstwood. We think it shouldn’t be more than six months until they’re detained. The enforcers here are taking bets on it.”
The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, the first book in an Australian dystopian series by Ambelin Kwaymullina, is set 300 years in the future. All of the earth’s resources have been depleted and the world has been decimated by fires, floods and earthquakes. Some believe the destruction was caused by humanity’s abuse of the environment, but the majority believe those with superhuman abilities are to blame. Along with other laws, The Citizenship Accords is established to prevent superhumans from upsetting the natural balance and bringing about further destruction. All individuals must undergo the Citizenship Assessment after they turn fourteen, in order for the government to determine whether they possess superhuman abilities. Those who are deemed illegal are placed in detention centres.
Sixteen year-old Ashala Wolf has been betrayed by a friend of her Tribe, Justin Connor, and placed in a detention centre under Justin’s watch. Prior to her capture she had heard rumours of secret experiments conducted on Illegals leading to the development of an interrogation machine. Chief Administrator Neville Rose straps her to a machine to forcibly draw her memories out, intent on finding the rest of her Tribe, a group of Illegals who possess superhuman abilities. Ashala doesn’t know who she can trust, and is scared of what memories Administrator Rose will rip out of her mind, but she is determined to find out as much as she can about the detention centre to protect her tribe, even if it means she doesn’t make it out alive.
The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is narrated by Ashala. She is a natural-born leader, as she is assertive, empathetic and willing to sacrifice her own needs for the good of her tribe. She’s a refreshing female protagonist to follow, as she doesn’t wallow in guilt and is proactively trying to better her situation. Her greatest flaw, as noted by Ember, one of her Tribe, is she always sees the best in others. Her inclusive nature results in being betrayed by Justin Connor at the outset of the novel. Connor is her guard throughout the novel, rarely leaving her side. Despite his betrayal and his presence as her captor and guard, Ashala still takes time to ponder about his physical perfection. While her behaviour is consistent hopeful/empathetic/trusting aspects of her character, her preoccupation with his attractiveness detracts from the intensity of the detention centre, which is vivid and harrowingly conveyed, and the impending interrogation.
I’m normally apprehensive about covers that feature recognisable faces, as I prefer to conjure up my own image of characters based on their appearance and characteristics. However, this cover captures the ferocity of Ashala without appearing melodramatic or detracting from the supernatural elements.
The novel gains momentum once the interrogation begins. The structure shifts, cutting between scenes of Ashala’s tense stand-offs with the deceptively kind-faced Administrator and his subservient staff in the detention centre, and memories of the Tribe and her time in Firstwood. Scenes within the confines of the detention centre are intense, as Kwaymullina deftly creates situations where characters are manipulated right when they think they have the upper hand. The employees of the detention centre all have a great depth of character that feeds into Ashala’s anxiety about recognising friend from foe. Boomers, Skychangers, Rumblers, Firestarters and other superhumans are introduced in the interrogation scenes, but a greater understanding of their capabilities is gradually revealed through Ashala’s memories. Ashala’s memories contain elements of Dreamtime beautifully woven with sensory descriptions of Firstwood. Ashala is viewed as the leader of the Tribe, she is not the only force to be reckoned with. Tribe members including Amber and Georgie have much to offer, but it is the evocative Firstwood that commands attention and continually raises the stakes.
The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is the first in a series, but works perfectly as a standalone novel. An evocative and deceptive read. The Disappearance of Ember Crow and The Foretelling of Georgie Spider are both available.