Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“After losing my mother and my sister, I didn’t think I had anything left to lose, but I do. You always have something left to lose. Until, of course, you die.”
In the beginning, there was the Divide, when the earth and air Above became so polluted that humankind retreated Below the sea, founding the underwater city of Atlantia. The citizens of Atlantia are blessed with health, longevity, and prosperity, while those who live Above have short lives of sickness and labour, a necessary sacrifice to preserve the human race Below that will be rewarded in the afterlife. Despite the pollution, Rio has always dreamed of going Above, hopeful that there she will be able to reveal the secret she has been forced to keep close her entire life in Atlantia. But when her mother, Oceana, the Minister of Atlantia’s temple dies in mysterious circumstances, Rio’s twin sister, Bay, elicits a promise that Rio will not choose the Above on her sixteenth birthday. Then Bay betrays her, and chooses the Above herself, leaving Rio alone with her questions about her mother’s death, and the Divide. The only person she can turn to is her mother’s estranged sister, the siren Maire, reputed by many to be a sea witch.
Ally Condie, author of the popular Matched trilogy, revisits the dystopian genre with Atlantia, an undersea adventure that focuses not on mermaids, but sirens. Rather than the creatures of mythology, Condie’s sirens are human-born miracles, an unexplained result of the migration below the waves. Sirens are born with supernatural voices, and can compel others to do their will. This awesome power is held in check by the Council, which takes sirens from their parents as soon as they are discovered and raises them to be obedient servants of the state. However, the citizens of Atlantia accept their religion’s characterization of sirens as miracles, and seem unperturbed by the fact the Council, largely made up of people immune or at least resistant to the sirens, can use their power to control and subdue the populace.
One of the best features of Atlantia is that it is more about sisterhood than romance, though both Bay and Rio have a love interest. The focus on the relationships between Rio and Bay, and Maire and Oceana is also fortunate, given that the chemistry between Rio and True is relatively flat, and Fen, Bay’s romantic interest, has very little page time. Both sets of sisters have complicated relationships, defined as much by their differences as their similarities. When Bay chooses to go Above without explanation, Rio is forced to question how well she really knew her sister, and question the estrangement between Maire and Oceana. Rio is strong character in her own right, curious and independent, but it is the mysterious Maire, with her ambiguous intentions, who emerges as the most interesting figure in the story. Powerful and feared, where her sister was a beloved figurehead, Maire unapologetically owns her outsider status, and protects her own self-interest while simultaneously fulfilling her siren’s duty as a public servant.
Atlantia is a surprisingly slow-paced story, despite, or perhaps because of, the amount of information packed into its pages. As a rare standalone dystopian in a sea of trilogies, Condie is struggling to cover the same amount of ground in a single volume. She must fit in all of the world-building, and the various plot twists and turns that accompany Rio’s investigation into her mother’s death, and Bay’s decision to go Above. Condie does a lot of imaginative world-building, particularly with the religion invented to justify the Divide, and the revelations pertaining to it are deeply layered, with the final twist coming mere pages before the book concludes. The ending strikes a tough balance, tying up loose threads, while remaining open ended. Condie has emphatically stated that Atlantia is a standalone, but it would be all too easy to tack on a sequel.
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