Category: Dystopian

The Queen of the Tearling

Cover image for The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansenby Erika Johansen

ISBN 978-0-06-229036-6

“Carlin often said that history was everything, for it was in man’s nature to make the same mistakes over and over. She would look hard at Kelsea when she said so, her white eyebrows folding down, preparing to disapprove. Carlin was fair, but she was also hard. If Kelsea completed all of her school work by dinnertime, her reward was to be allowed to pick a book from the library and stay up reading until she had finished. Stories moved Kelsea most, stories of things that never were, stories that transported her beyond the changeless world of the cottage.”

The Tearling was intended to be a socialist utopia, founded after an apocalypse that left humanity with only remnants of the age of science. But in the centuries since, the dream has fallen apart, and this New World is reminiscent mostly of Europe’s feudal Dark Age. The heir to this beleaguered kingdom is Kelsea Raleigh Glynn, who has been raised in hiding since the death of her mother, Queen Elyssa. On Kelsea’s nineteenth birthday, the remaining members of her mother’s Queen’s Guard arrives at her hidden forest home to fulfill their oaths to her mother by escorting Kelsea to New London to assume the throne. There she finds a kingdom in disrepair after years of profligate rule under her Uncle’s Regency, but also the consequences of her mother’s final years on the throne. Stunned by the horrific injustice that has plagued her kingdom for decades, Kelsea’s first brave but impulsive act as Queen sets Tearling on the road to war with the powerful neighbouring nation of Mortmesne and its sinister Red Queen.

Erika Johansen’s fantasy debut is the gripping tale of a young Queen fighting for her throne against impossible odds. The political machinations are not especially sophisticated, but it is fascinating to watch Kelsea slowly win over new allies. Her isolated upbringing has turned her into something of an idealist, but she comes up short in terms of practical knowledge of how to execute her policies, so it is a constant battle to earn the trust and respect of the people she needs to help her retain her throne. Her youth and her gender both make her task more difficult, but so does the fact that her mother and uncle were incompetent rulers. Her insecurity about her plain looks is a little bit grating, but hopefully it will transform into self-confidence as she grows into her crown.

In terms of genre, The Queen of the Tearling is a curious blend of fantasy and dystopian, with the story set in a post-apocalyptic world, which seems to have caused much confusion amongst readers. The Tearling was founded as a utopian, technophobic society that allowed only medical science. However, even much of the medical knowledge was lost in the Crossing, so while the story acknowledges our world, history, and ideas, in practice, the Crossing cut the people of the Tearling off from most advancements, returning them to the medieval society that is a hallmark of fantasy. There is magic in the world of the Tearling, from the Sight to weather magic, to enchanted objects, but it is impossible to know if it is really magic, or merely some form of science that the Tearling have not lost, but no longer understand. Johansen plays her hand close to the vest, and there is much to be revealed in the coming sequels that may leave readers of the initial installment frustrated.


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Of Metal and Wishes

Cover image for Of Metal and Wishes by Sarah Fineby Sarah Fine

ISBN 9781481405379

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“There’s nothing wrong with being scared. It only means something important is at stake.”

After the death of her mother, sixteen year old Wen must move to Gochan One, the huge factory slaughterhouse where her father is the resident doctor. The factory complex is cold and unwelcoming, and apparently haunted by the Ghost, a worker who met his end on the killing floor, and now grants wishes to the factory workers who leave offerings at his altar. In order to meet the demand for meat for the Itanyai’s feasting season, the factory bosses have hired a band of Noor, wild, brutal men from a territory occupied by the Itanyai for almost a thousand years. When one of the Noor humiliates Wen, she makes a wish to the Ghost she does not believe in, with unexpected consequences. Haunted by the results of her wish, Wen tries to protect the Noor from the brutal conditions of the factory, only to find herself alienated from her own people, and drawn to Melik, leader of the Noor.

In this retelling of The Phantom of the Opera, Wen finds herself caught between the Ghost of Gochan One, and Melik, the leader of the Noor. The addition of the class conflict gives Melik greater depth of character than Raoul, the slightly lacklustre love interest from The Phantom of the Opera. Wen is pulled in two directions by her Itanyai heritage, and her unexpected sympathy for the exploited Noor. She is caught in a complex relationship with her father, who tries to save everyone, but cannot protect himself, or his daughter, from the brutal realities of factory life. Sarah Fine layers interracial tension and class politics over a familiar story, and gives it a steampunk twist with her eerie factory setting. Wen also has to struggle with the problematic gender roles of her culture, which emphasizes a woman’s purity, and yet is quick to degrade it. With the exception of Wen’s father, few of the Itanyai characters have much depth, and are mainly characterized by their racism towards the Noor and their sexist attitudes. The atmosphere is tense, but the villains are one dimensional.

The conclusion to Of Metal and Wishes is open-ended, suggesting a sequel will follow. While the confined setting of the factory complex is well developed at the expense of Fine’s dystopian world, a sequel would have much more latitude to explore. The Itanyai culture is obviously Asian-influenced, but the history and traditions are sketched out only in the broadest strokes, Sarah Fine has penned a compelling love story, and added and an interesting twist to a beloved classic, but there is a great deal of room to take this story further.

Canada Reads Along 2014: The Year of the Flood

Cover image for The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwoodby Margaret Atwood

ISBN 978-0-385-52208-2

According to Adam One, the Fall of Man was multidimensional. The ancestral primates fell out of the trees; then they fell from vegetarianism into meat-eating. Then they fell from instinct into reason, and thus into technology; from simple signals into complex grammar, and thus into humanity; from firelessness into fire, and thence into weaponry; and from seasonal mating into an incessant sexual twitching. Then they fell from a joyous life in the moment into the anxious contemplation of the vanished past and the distant future.

Continuing the dystopian world of Oryx and Crake, in Year of the Flood Margaret Atwood leaves behind the secure compounds where Jimmy and Crake grew up, and ventures out in the pleeblands where the rest of the population of this disintegrating society must try to survive. The central characters are Toby and Ren, both members of the God’s Gardeners cult, a pacifistic religion which prioritizes environmentalism and rejects consumerism. Both Toby and Ren are dubious believers; Toby found refuge from an abusive employer amongst the Gardeners, and eventually rose into the group’s leadership despite her doubts. Ren was dragged into the Gardeners by her mother as a child, and then extracted just as abruptly. By chance, both women survive the plague that wiped out most of the population in Oryx and Crake—an event which the Gardeners call the Waterless Flood—but their temporary refuges will only sustain them for so long before they must face their new dystopian world.

Although Year of the Flood is the second book in a trilogy, it’s pacing is very similar to Oryx and Crake. Like many middle books in a trilogy, Year of the Flood does not advance the plot tremendously so much as add to it, and set up the conclusion. Toby and Ren must figure out how to live day-to-day in the present, while recounting their time with the Gardeners, and how they came to survive the apocalypse. The timelines come together at the end of the novel and overlaps with Oryx and Crake, revealing surprising intersections of characters and events. The timeline goes only a little beyond the ending of Oryx and Crake, so in many ways, Year of the Flood is not so much a sequel as the same story told again from a very different perspective. Atwood further reveals her projected corporate dystopia through contrast, by delving into the beliefs of its most extreme opponents, so that the same events can be seen again in a very different light. The world is as much a character in this narrative as the few people who remain to inhabit it.

One of the most compelling aspects of Year of the Flood is the construction of the world view preached by Adam One and the God’s Gardeners. Atwood skillfully appropriates and adapts Christian concepts and imagery to create the ideology of the God’s Gardeners by synthesizing Christianity with environmentalism and resistance of capitalism and consumerism. Although Toby and Ren are ultimately helped by the skills they acquire during their time with the Gardeners, their doubting natures also prove critical to their survival. Through her involvement in the leadership, Toby learns that general membership doesn’t really know what is going on at the higher levels of the group. The eco-terrorist label that seems so ridiculous based solely on the teachings of the Gardeners may not be as unfounded as it initially seems. However, Atwood does go a little but overboard with her construction of this religion; Adam One’s sermons at the beginning of each chapter are little more than over-expository information dumps clearly directed to the reader rather than the Gardeners he is ostensibly speaking to. Atwood skillfully builds a world within the narrative of each chapter, without needing to resort to this kind of blatant exposition.

Although there is much to recommend Year of the Flood, it was the first book voted off of Canada Reads 2014 today, despite the carefully crafted defenses of Stephen Lewis, who argued that climate change and the consequences of capitalism are two of the most pressing issues facing Canada. Canada Reads is an annual event that seeks to identify the one book all Canadians should read, but this year there is a special focus on championing titles with the power to inspire social change.  Although the panelists cited their inability to relate to the characters as their primary reason for eliminating the book, I think that Year of the Flood suffered for being the only speculative fiction title in contention. While the panelists seemed to feel that Atwood’s story was too distant to have a real impact on readers, I felt that it was a strong contender precisely because it so clearly illustrates the potential perils of continuing on the present course. Wab Kinew initially identified Year of the Flood as the best book other than the one he was defending, because of the importance of the issues it addresses, but at the end of the debate he ultimately delivered the decisive vote against it on the reasoning that it was weaker than the other titles. Arguably it was not actually weaker so much as too different; genre fiction is frequently dismissed as being insufficiently serious, and I think that was ultimately the death of Year of the Flood in this year’s debates.  Lewis described it as “brilliant evocation of a collapsing society as a result of environmental destruction,” and I think that the intersection of these two issues would have carried any other title much further into the week, if not to victory.


You can watch the Canada Reads debates on the CBC website.

Oryx and Crake

Cover image for Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwoodby Margaret Atwood

ISBN 9780385721677

“Snowman opens his eyes, shuts them, opens them, keeps them open. He’s had a terrible night. He doesn’t know which is worse, a past he can’t regain, a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there’s the future. Sheer vertigo.”

Jimmy, known as Snowman, may be the last human on earth. He has survived a plague that seems to have spared no one else, save for the genetically modified human-like creations of his best friend, a brilliant but troubled scientist known as Crake. Jimmy and Crake grew up together on the Corporation compounds, the gated communities that protect the ruling class of scientists from the dirt and crime of the pleeblands that surround them. Jimmy is an average student at best, but Crake is a terrifying genius with a brilliant future in the Corps ahead of him. As an adult, Jimmy is a word-man in a world of numbers people, and so is recruited by Crake to do the advertising campaign for a new product called BlyssPluss, which is in turn sold by a mysterious woman named Oryx who seems to believe that Crake is the world’s saviour. Jimmy is troubled by Crake’s work, but he can’t leave without Oryx, who becomes entangled with both men. But all that is a memory for Snowman, who must find a way to survive in the shattered remains of the world, while also trying to guide and protect the Crakers as they leave the compound for the first time. Although the Corporations have been destroyed, the evidence of their depredation remains, their genetically modified animal creations, from Wolvogs to Pigoons, threatening to dominate the vacuum in the ecosystem left behind by the passing of humanity.

Originally published in 2003, Oryx and Crake remains a prime example of the literary dystopian novel, and a staple of Canadian literature. Margaret Atwood’s post-apocalyptic world is clearly realized through the hyper-exaggeration of modern advances in technology and science. These inventions stand out even more starkly in contrast to Snowman’s post-apocalyptic life, where he cannot even figure out how to explain toast the Children of Crake, because the world has changed so much that they have never seen bread. Although the story’s frame narrative describes Snowman’s post-apocalyptic life, this turn of events is only important when seen alongside the parallel narrative, told by Snowman through memories; it is the story of why the world ended, and how Snowman managed to survive.

Jimmy’s troubled adolescence and early adulthood stand in contrast to the simple innocence of the Crakers, who are trusting and inquisitive. Yet compared to Jimmy, the Crakers are unsatisfying characters, lacking in complexity, and not particularly relatable. Jimmy, for all his flaws and shortcomings, is human, with all the history and memories that entails. The alienness of the Crakers, however, is understandable, a deliberate contrast to the humans who came before them.  Crake, and Oryx, while human, are equally remote, and almost completely inscrutable. I longed to get inside Crake’s head and understand his motivation for creating BlyssPluss and the Paradice project. Oryx deliberately remains aloof, never fully opening herself up to either Jimmy or Crake, so the reader cannot know her either. The lack of insight into these crucial characters is frustrating, because we know they are not the gods Snowman has turned them into in the eyes of the Crakers.

Despite the existence of the Children of Crake, this is in many ways a last man narrative, in which Snowman must confront the fact that he may well be the final unaltered human, about to be superseded by a race of beings genetically engineered for superior adaptation to the new environment. Read alone, Oryx and Crake hangs open-ended, posing more questions than it answers. Only at the very end of the story do other humans appear, leaving the world open for Atwood to continue the narrative from another perspective in Year of the Flood (2006) and Madd Addam (2013). For those craving more answers than Oryx and Crake provides, these sequels will undoubtedly be crucial to their satisfaction with the story.


More Dystopian Fiction:

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

On Such a Full Sea

Cover image for On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Leeby Chang-rae Lee

ISBN 978-1-59448-610-4

The more we follow her journey, the more realize she is not quite the champion we would normally sing; she is not the heroine who wields the great sword; she is not the bearer of wisdom and light; she does not head the growing column, leading a new march. She is one of the ranks, this perfectly ordinary, exquisitely tiny person in whom we will reside via both living and dreaming.

Fan lives in the grow facility of B-Mor, a closed community built several generations ago for the purpose of supplying farmed fish and produce for the Charter towns and villages where the wealthiest and most privileged members of society live. Fan is only sixteen, but she has already worked for several years as a diver in the tanks of fish, and she is very good at her job. Her boyfriend, Reg, also works in the facility, tending to the plants that grow above the tanks. Then one day, Reg disappears from B-Mor without a trace, and though Fan tries to find out where he has gone, no one seems to want to acknowledge his absence. So Fan makes the decision to leave B-Mor, perhaps to find Reg, perhaps to understand the world and the system she lives in, newly made aware of their deficiencies by Reg’s disappearance. With only a vague plan as to how she will proceed, Fan leaves B-Mor behind, thinking perhaps to seek help from Bo Liwei, the older brother she has never met because he tested out of B-Mor before she was born, earning the opportunity to be adopted into a Charter family and become a Charter citizen himself. Both the free counties outside B-Mor and the Charter communities scattered throughout are hostile, unfamiliar territories in their own way, and Fan will meet friends and enemies in equal numbers as she tries to find out what has happened to Reg.

Described a certain way, Chang-rae Lee’s novel would sound like a typical YA dystopian, about a young girl who challenges a system that she didn’t realize was broken until it impacted her life personally. Certainly the description of Fan herself will be familiar to YA readers; she was “not beautiful but rather distinctive in her presence.” Like many of dystopian YA’s heroines, Fan “was perhaps brighter than most, certainly less talkative, but otherwise, in terms of character, not terribly distinctive. Nor would anyone have thought she could do the thing she did.”  Complete with a love interest and a journey, On Such a Full Sea simply goes to show that familiar elements can be used to make a very different kind of story. While the dystopian trend in YA heavily favours first person narrative, Lee opts for the distinctive “we” in his adult novel, telling Fan’s story in the collective voice of those she left behind in B-Mor. It takes a while for the reader to settle into this unusual voice, which sometimes uses long, lyrical sentences, and other times is broken up into a staccato of shorter, oddly punctuated fragments. Combined with slow pacing punctuated only by occasional bursts of action, On Such a Full Sea makes for a slow, ponderous read.

As Lee himself writes “the funny thing about the tale of Fan is that much of what happened to her happened to her.” Indeed, as a protagonist, Fan is frustratingly passive at times, and brutally decisive at others. Whether she acts or waits, things seem to eventually come out her way in the end, but is often difficult to give her credit for the results. Without the singular first person narrative so common to dystopian fiction, we aren’t in Fan’s head to really understand her motivations, and the “we” of B-Mor cannot really be trusted, engaged as they in are mythologizing her story, even while denying they are doing any such thing by frequently emphasizing that Fan is not a heroine, or a champion, or even a leader. Ultimately her inaccessibility is a reminder that she is not really a person so much as the legend of a person, and much of her story may be pure speculation on the part of our narrators. Perhaps more important than the tale of Fan are the interspersed chapters recounting the small but disturbing ripples of disruption of life in B-Mor caused by her departure. The novel’s quiet pacing is eerie, like a horror movie spent waiting for something to jump out of the dark, only that something never materializes. On Such a Full Sea is at once haunting and unsatisfying; I cannot claim to have enjoyed it, but it will be with me for a long time.


More Dystopian fiction:

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner

Son by Lois Lowry

Page to Screen: Catching Fire

catching-fire-movie-tie-inNovel by Suzanne Collins

Directed by Francis Lawrence

ISBN  9780545603683

“We star-crossed lovers of District 12, who suffered so much and enjoyed so little the rewards of our victory, do not seek our fans’ favor, grace them with our smiles, or catch their kisses. We are unforgiving. And I love it. Getting to be myself at last.” 

In the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Melark from District 12 pulled off a historic stunt; by playing up a star-crossed lovers romance in front of the cameras, for the first time ever, two victors were allowed to win the Games. But this victory has not come without a heavy price. Katniss’ suggestion of a double suicide was interpreted as an act of love in the Capitol, but in the Districts, it was recognized as an act of defiance. Now, as they embark on the Victory Tour through the Districts, meeting the families of the Tributes they killed, Katniss must try to convince the Districts, and President Snow himself, that she is truly in love with Peeta, and quell the unrest in the Districts with her act. But the things she sees in the other Districts cause her to seriously question whether rebellion would be such a bad thing after all. The already impossible task of placating the Districts is made more difficult by the fact that Katniss and Peeta have barely spoken to one another since he realized that she wasn’t really in love with him. And for all that the romance with Peeta was an act for the cameras in the arena, it has irrevocably altered Katniss’ relationship with Gale as well. Katniss’ only thought is to keep herself and her family safe, but she must also contend with the fallout of her choices in the Games, and her own confused feelings.

booktomovieIf, like my husband, you were expecting the rebellion to really get underway in Catching Fire, you may find yourself a bit disappointed; this middle movie is about stirring the pot, and bringing Panem to a boil. Desperate to eliminate Katniss as a symbol of defiance for the Districts, President Snow announces an extra-special 75th Hunger Games—a Quarter Quell, which reaps the Tributes from the existing pool of Victors. As the only female Victor from District 12, Katniss is inevitably going back into the arena, and the only question is whether Peeta or Haymitch will go in with her. Despite being a set up for the grand finale in Mockingjay, and revisiting the premise of The Hunger Games, Catching Fire is engaging and gripping. It is only regrettable that they weren’t able to find the screen time to give District 13 the bit of set up it receives in the book. Undoubtedly there will be plenty of time to lay it out in the two-part Mockingjay, but for those who haven’t read the books, District 13 might seem to have come out of nowhere.

Given that the The Hunger Games series is narrated in the first person from Katniss’ POV, the movies have a lot of work to do to convey the nuances of the story that were explained in her internal monologue. Jennifer Lawrence has to do a lot of wordless emoting, which fortunately is something she is very good at. From the serious scenes, such as staring her defiance at Snow from the chariot, to the more humourous, like making faces behind Johanna’s back as she strips off in the elevator, Lawrence is able to give us a lot of Katniss’ thoughts through her body language. Whereas the abrupt ending of the book concludes with a line of dialogue from Gale, and no reaction from Katniss, the film ends on Lawrence’s face as she processes the news he delivers. Lawrence had a lot to do in this movie, from moving the audience to tears in District 11, to giving wooden, unbelievable speeches in the other districts, to conveying her fear at being forced to revisit the arena, but she pulls it all off, carrying the movie with her.

Catching Fire also gives the secondary characters more room to shine. Elizabeth Banks has much more to work with in her role as Effie Trinket when the horror of the 75th Hunger Games begins to crack her Capitol facade. In The Hunger Games, Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane wasn’t much of a presence. He is felt much more in Catching Fire, after his demise, as Katniss uses him as a subversive symbol of the ill-effects the Games can have even on residents of the Capitol. But his death paves the way for new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee, who has a much more fleshed out presence in the film than he receives in the book. It would have been a shame to waste Philip Seymour Hoffman on the role as it was written in the book, but by showing Heavenbee and Snow plotting the political messaging and spin of the Games, his character becomes much more interesting. The new secondary characters, particularly Johanna and Finnick were well-cast—in fact, Jenna Malone occasionally steals the scene. Unfortunately, the character development and back story we get for Haymitch in the book—his victory in the second Quarter Quell with its double-sized Reaping of Tributes—didn’t make the cut.

Catching Fire stuck closely to the book, and reaped the benefits, lifting many pieces of dialogue line-for-line. While some of the back story was removed for run-time, the movie didn’t suffer too much for it. The groundwork for Mockingjay is solidly in place.


More Page to Screen reviews:

The Book Thief

City of Bones

The Great Gatsby 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Host 


Maggot Moon

Cover image for Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner by Sally Gardner

ISBN 978-0-7636-6553-1

At one end of our road were the grand, rooster-breasted houses where the good Families for Purity lived. They looked smart enough, but they were only stuck together with the glue of dead men’s bones.”

Before you read any further, you should probably know that Maggot Moon is one of those rare novels that you are better off knowing nothing about before you start. If you already think you want to read it, spare yourself any spoiling, and go get it now. If you still need some convincing, carry on.

Fifteen year old Standish Treadwell ekes out a quiet existence at the bottom of his class. He can’t read or write, but he manages to go largely unnoticed, despite the fact that he lives in a society where those who are deemed faulty or impure simply seem to disappear. Standish keeps his mismatched eyes downcast, and tries to be invisible. But his best friend and protector, Hector, has disappeared, and with his parents gone, Standish has only his grandfather to watch out for him. The Motherland is a dangerous place to be unusual, and Standish and his family have unknowingly been treading perilously close to state secrets. His learning has been stunted, and his vocabulary is idiosyncratic, but after spending so long trying not to be noticed, events force Standish to consider whether he can continue to allow his voice to be silenced.

Dyslexic herself, Sally Gardner has created a wonderfully relatable dyslexic protagonist. Perhaps the best known dyslexic protagonist is Percy Jackson, but Percy’s dyslexia is actually a sign that he is a demi-god, and his brain is meant to read Greek. Standish is truly dyslexic, and this fact doesn’t hide a secret gift, but is a talent in and of itself. This shows up in his colourfully idiosyncratic narration and wild imagination. It also informs his character; because he can’t read or write, he watches and listens carefully, and these qualities are essential to the decisions he makes about how to survive under the boot of the Motherland. This novel clearly answers the call for diversity in YA.

With short chapters and accompanying illustrations, Maggot Moon impels the reader inevitably forward, despite the grim horror of Gardner’s world. Standish lives in the 1950s, but exactly where, and under exactly what regime is left deliberately vague. Beginning in the middle before going back to the beginning, Standish reveals the slow accumulation of daily atrocities that eventually bring him to the breaking point. Rats, poison, maggots, and flies permeate the accompanying images, underscoring the darkness of this tale. Maggot Moon is an eerie classic dystopian novel much more in the style of Nineteen Eighty Four than more contemporary offerings such as The Hunger Games. 


If you liked Maggot Moon, you might also enjoy The Wall by William Sutcliffe. 

Guest Post: Unwind

Cover for Unwind, by Neal ShustermanBy Neal Shusterman

ISBN 978-1416912057

**Shay will be on holidays for the month of July. Guest posts brought to you by Amelia. **

“Change? What do you mean by ‘change’? Dying is a little bit more than a ‘change.’ “

“Please, Miss Ward. It’s not dying, and I’m sure everyone here would more comfortable if you didn’t suggest something so blatantly inflammatory. The fact is, 100 percent of you will be alive, just in a divided state.”

After the United States has ravaged itself in a second civil war, this time over reproductive rights, a new medical procedure is put into place by the government: the Unwinding, where parents and guardians can send in their teenagers to be Unwound, their parts redistributed to those in need. Risa Ward, Connor Lassiter, and Levi Calder are all Unwinds being sent to the state facilities for their procedures when they go AWOL and ignite a massive manhunt across America. The story starts as the familiar narrative of teenage rebellion in a dystopian world that now seems to be sweeping bookstores. What is unexpected, however, is the grace with which Unwind dovetails these narratives of resistance with the perpetual vulnerability inherent to every single one of its adolescent characters. Faced with the real and fatal threat of lost bodily autonomy the moment they are caught stepping out of line, the characters are constantly struggling with rebellion and survival on a very personal level even while the book itself remains mindful of the systemic flaws of the larger governmental system they live in.

The timely commentary that Unwind makes about the very real consequences of enforcing self-serving agendas through political reform manages to be unforgettable without having to resort to a firm beating of the book’s morals over the reader’s head. This subtlety is what makes the Unwind‘s climax and end both satisfying and inspirational despite a pointed lack of the grandiosity often associated with novels demanding more palpable social change. For while the commentary is directed at the world structure, and the type of society that would allow something like the Unwinding to both exist and thrive, Shusterman focuses on the individual as a vehicle for its change. More often than not, the characters were narratively rewarded for their acts of humanity and selflessness in the face of suffering, and frequently punished for ambitious and violent acts done with little consideration or follow-through. Through all of this, we as readers are lead to the same realization that the characters must come to terms with: it is the loss of humanity that creates such systemic brutality – not only in the dehumanizing of those it disregards and kills, but also in the inhumane behaviour of selfishness and self-centred ideology.

This novel offers much more than just gritty characters and sharp social commentary, however. The most charming aspect of Unwind is the variety of viewpoints the reader is treated to, from the AWOL Unwinds to those who harbour them to the police and doctors who want to capture them and take them apart. Rather than being overwhelming and confusing, it instead fleshes out an already-compelling world through an unflinching empathizing with all of its inhabitants, not just the sympathetic protagonists. The constant shifting of narrative perspectives also allows Shusterman the refreshing liberty to deny his readers the guarantee of success – or even safety – for any character he uses to populate this easy-to-imagine new America. Clearly demonstrated by an absolutely chilling scene experienced through the eyes of a major character while he is being Unwound, the move keeps readers tense and engaged through its final pages. A very well-written example of a dystopian world done right, Unwind is a compelling and eye-opening read, and one of my favourite books that I’ve picked up this year.