Review: Welcome to Orphancorp by Marlee Jane Ward

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In an Orphancorp, there’s not a lot of physical contact, and the touches we do get usually hurt. Without each other, maybe we’d go through life thinking that hands are just slaps and fists, not for grasping or stroking.

Welcome to Orphancorp is a gritty, first-person dystopian novella following seventeen year-old Miriiyanana Mahoney. Mirii is seven days away from Age Release when she is transferred to a new Verity House. It doesn’t matter to Mirii where she is transferred to, because all of the compounds have the same layouts and the same wardens, known as Aunties and Uncles, who use brutality and humiliation to keep the orphans in line. The Orphancorps buy unaccompanied minors from the state, but they have to release them back into society when they turn eighteen. That is, unless the orphans mess up before they’re due for release, in which case they are transferred to Prisoncorp.

There are only seven chapters in Welcome to Orphancorp, which are listed in descending order, counting down to Mirii’s her release date. Upon her arrival to a new Verity House, Mirii is warned by one of the aunties that she needs to keep her mouth shut in order to make it to her release date. While the novella is structured around the seven day countdown, Welcome to Orphancorp isn’t so much a novel about escape, as it is about survival. Given that Mirii arrives at the new orphancorp in a gag and chains, Mirii’s situation is bleak, but she is by no means a downtrodden pacifist.

Marlee Jane Ward has crafted a complex protagonist and narrator who is both aware of her limitations but is also driven by a need to push back against an institution devoid of compassion whenever a chance arrives. Like the majority of orphans, Mirii has been in the system for most of her life. The orphans are raised amongst themselves, with the majority of older teens made to care for the toddlers. Mirii has proven incapable of looking after the younger ones, so she is assigned to electrical manufacture. The natural inclination for Mirii is to not form any emotional attachment, as orphans can be transferred out to other compounds or sent to Prisoncorp if they have enough infractions.

The novella contains explicit sexual content as well as drug references, but neither is gratuitous. By day, the orphans are bound by rules and hierarchy brutally enforced by the Aunts and Uncles. But once the lights are out, they showcase their skills through black market trades and cling to their humanity and identity through sexual encounters.

Welcome to Orphancorp has echoes of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, as both present a near-future dystopian world that offers little hope of change at a societal level, as the compounds operate within a larger world which has no interest in intervention. The beauty of both novels is the show of defiance the characters can achieve by daring to live.

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Review: Maladapted by Richard Kurti

Maladapted

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Science created him.

We created him.

Now we have to use him.

 

Revelation

He will destroy everything that makes us human … He must be uncreated.

 

The following review contains spoilers.

Cillian is the sole survivor of a terrorist attack on a packed Metro train. He carries his father out of the wreckage, but rather than imparting final words of love, his father uses his final breath to utter the word ‘Gilgamesh’. How did Cillian survive the attack when everyone around him died? What is Gilgamesh? Images of Cillian carrying his father out of the wreckage go viral, and Cillian finds himself on the run without really knowing who he is, or who he should be, running from. Tess is a survivalist, having joined Revelation after the death of her family. Like Cillian, she is also a sole survivor of an attack. Revelation sends Tess to make contact with Cillian, forcing her to re-evaluate her own belief system. With both characters displaced from their home and any sense of family or security, they must either join forces or do what they’re each programmed to do.

Told with a third-person omniscient narrator, Maladapted is an action-packed story set in the futuristic Foundation City. Themes of connectivity and temporality are explored through various forms of technology, including gun-building apps, security bots and encryption tabs. Foundation City is an aspirational city where everything is temporary, as pop-up shops and cafes evaporate on a daily basis. Unfortunately, much of what the reader learns about the ever-shifting Foundation City is through exposition, rather than showing characters experiencing temporality.

The plot of Maladapted races forward at the expense of character development. There was little reason for Tess to have any internal struggle with her allegiance to Revelation, as the religion is presented as nothing more than an extremist group from the outset, with their mantra,While we Breathe, We Trust,  furthering the cliché of mindless/brainless disciples. The only element of suspense is achieved through the possibility of Tess either killing Cillian or being killed by Revelation. Cillian is a lone genius, who shifted schools every few terms before finding a place at an academy for gifted students, and eventually securing a scholarship at the age of fifteen. Like many fifteen-year-olds, his greatest stressors in life are dating and finishing assignments on time. Both Cilllian and Tess lack depth, and serve as tools to move the plot along, presumably because there is so much story to cram in. It’s only once Tess and Cillian are inside Gilgamesh that Maladapted gains depth and feeling, as passive anecdotes of the city and the politics of religion versus science give way to the experience of their time in Gilgamesh.

I really wanted to like this book, as it had so many elements to make for a great read, but the abundance of exposition and lack of depth of character made it a hard slog. Maladapted is the first book in a series, so here’s hoping the second book has room for greater character development.

 

With thanks to Walker Books for providing a complimentary copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf

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“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.

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Review: ‘The Sky so Heavy’ by Claire Zorn

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Set in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, The Sky So Heavy is a dystopian YA that follows Fin Heath, his 12-year-old, quick-witted brother Max, friend and schoolyard crush Lucy Tenningworth, and classmate Arnold Wong as they are thrown together in a survival quest following a nuclear missile disaster.

There have been numerous comparisons with John Marsden’s Tomorrow series, which actually kept this book on my ‘to read’ shelf longer. The Tomorrow series had such a huge impact, I didn’t want to be comparing the two. Thankfully, I found the comparison to be too far-reaching. The Tomorrow series is an action-packed guerrilla warfare, whereas The Sky So Heavy is a slow-burn, psychological journey. The perpetrators of the missile launch are never revealed, as the focus of the novel is centred on how much of their own humanity the characters are willing to risk in order to survive, rather than any direct involvement in the conflict. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are referenced throughout, reinforcing the themes of survival and the treatment of refugees.  The title, The Sky So Heavy, encapsulates the mood and pace of the novel, as the characters at first attempt to wait out the nuclear fall-out, before realising that time and resources may run out.

The strength of the novel lies in the relationship between the characters. The characters are quickly established as multidimensional and flawed. Fin’s mother is, for the most part, out of the picture, having left her family to pursue work in a disaster management position with the government, with the added bonus of a boyfriend. Fin’s dad is preoccupied with proving to the world that he is not too old for his new wife. Max is on the threshold of adolescence and grappling between wanting to be treated like an adult and maintaining a semblance of security by acting like a child. Lucy is emotionally and physically resilient, but reluctant to take the lead when it comes to her relationship with Fin. Fin is a refreshingly flawed narrator, as he downplays his role of having bullied Arnold Wong since they were at primary school together.

If anything, it felt like I didn’t know enough about the characters in order to feel any major emotional impact. Having said that, the fact that many of the characters withheld information from each other and the reader added to the realism of their situation and character. Fin reveals that he read the letter his mum had intended for only his father to read when she left, but Fin stops short of revealing the exact content of the damning letter. Arnold spent most of his life being bullied by Fin (whether directly, or indirectly), but still goes with him. The ending was satisfying, as, in keeping with the overall tone, it does not attempt to resolve all of the questions it poses. An enjoyable read.

 

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Review: ‘Win the Rings’ by K.D. Van Brunt

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Win the Rings is a young adult dystopian novel, narrated in first person from the perspectives of two sixteen year old shifters, Jace and Gray. Shifters have the ability to ‘acquire’ non-shifters through touch. Once acquired, shifters take on the physical form, memories, emotion and knowledge of the person they acquired, without losing their own sense of self. Taken by CRACD (Classified Resources Academy Delta, colloquially referred to as ‘Cracked’, a secret branch of the U.S. Army that trains young shifters) at five years of age, Jace is introduced to the reader as a powerful shifter who is both feared and bullied by her fellow cadets. Gray has been on the run with his non-shifter sister, Nia, since he was five years old. He manages to scrape by, by acquiring white-colour criminals and stealing their money. After one of his victims files a police report after realising her bank account has been emptied, Cracked sends Jace to track Gray down.

I found the front cover off-putting, because I personally feel that having a recognisable protagonist featured on a cover intrudes on my interpretation of a characters’ appearance. Having said that, I was captivated by the premise of the book, as described in the blurb, of Jace being ‘the property of the U.S. Army … (who has become) one of its most valuable weapons’.

The alternating chapter narrations makes Win the Rings, for the most part, a fast-paced, enjoyable read. As I was reading a Gray chapter I wondered how the events would effect the following Jace chapter, and vice versa. There was a great contrast of worlds, with the grim regimented military stronghold of Cracked that Jace inhabits add odds with the open-world inhabited by Gray and Nia, where each location presents high risk opportunities for loss or gain.

Jace’s chapters were, at times, frustrating to follow. The reader is often told about relationships and events, rather than shown. I got a sense that this was because there was so much back story about Jace, her relationship with others at Cracked, and the politics and history of Cracked, to cram in. For instance, Jace tells the reader: Once, years ago, I was friends with Max. We survived together at Cracked, but he stopped being a friend a long time ago, as our mutual feelings slipped from friendship to indifference to smouldering hatred. I wanted to see their history, to have a scene played out that showed their friendship dissolving, or, failing that, to see their smouldering hatred played out in a scene, rather than have Max leering in the background. Information, such as the HSK test and the abilities of a shifter, is delivered in bits and pieces in different chapters, which may have been done in such a way as to create suspense, but I found it jarring, as, thinking I had missed information, I found myself going back and re-reading chapters. Probably the most frustrating aspect of Jace’s chapters were references to her vanity. In one scene she expresses disappointment because she feels she is too skinny and flat-chested. In another scene she muses: somewhere in the back of my brain maybe I want to be beautiful, but beauty doesn’t survive well here. At one point she reflects: I’m not sure why I bother with make-up; it’s not like any of the guys around this place would want to have anything to do with me. While her low self-esteem and preoccupation with her image contrasts with other characters’ perception of her as a hardened bully, and would make her relatable to many female readers, I wondered whether other insecurities would have provided greater depth to her character and better matched her environment and circumstance, given she inhabits a place where cadets disappear or are killed. Would body image issues have still applied if Jace was re-written as a male character?

I felt that I learned more about Gray than I did Jace, because there was less back-story, which meant more time was devoted to following Gray and his sister as they tried to evade capture. The strength of Gray’s chapters is that the reader is taken along for the ride, and learns about character relationships as Gray does, rather than being told retrospectively. Gray was an exciting character to follow, with the bulk of his chapters being action packed. The pacing is pretty solid, as is the suspense, as Nia and Gray go from place to place, trying to survive while carving out something that resembles a normal life. It was fun to follow Gray as he acquired the white-colour criminals. There was an underlying suspense with everything Gray and Nia did, whether adventurous or mundane, as I wondered if or when they’d be tracked down.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Win the Rings and read it quite quickly. I wanted to see (not be told) more about Cracked, but I am hopeful this will be explored further in the sequel.  I don’t think the premise of the book was fully realised in Win the Rings but I am hopeful this will be fully developed in the sequel.

My rating:

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I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author, K.D. Van Brunt, in exchange for an honest review on Goodreads.