This book was like id-fic for me. So many elements from my dreams– and nightmares.
It’s an Omelas-type dystopia- a world where the good of the many depends on the suffering of the few. In this case, the few are the children of 25th century world leaders, who are kept hostage throughout their childhood (or as long as their parents are in power) to ensure that their parents don’t start wars. If their parents do, the children are killed. Greta Gustafsen Stuart, our narrator, believes in the system even though it keeps her as a hostage at risk of death. She has a strong sense of dignity, both as a person and in terms of her position as a “Child of Peace”.
Elian, a new arrival at the monastery-like residence of the hostages, has an entirely different idea of dignity. He’s defiant in the face of what he sees as an unjust system, comparing himself to Spartacus, and while the children’s robotic minders go to extreme lengths– even torture– to get him to comply, he continues to rebel until it becomes clear that he’s not the only one who’ll suffer if he keeps it up. In another author’s hands, Elian would be the love interest, but while they kiss a few times and grow close over the course of the novel, Greta’s major romantic relationship is with her (female) roommate, Xie.
Greta is slow to question the system, but she eventually sees the wrongness of her captors’ treatment of Elian– and then they turn on her, too. Ironically, it’s while she’s being tortured with the induced nightmares of “Dreamlock” that the residence is invaded by Elian’s people, who have figured out a way to declare war without sacrificing their hostage. The country they’ve declared war on is Greta’s, and they will stop at nothing to use her against her family.
Oh, did I mention that this whole hostage system is run by an AI?
Talis, the AI, is not happy with the hostage-taking of the hostages. He arrives to sort things out. The trouble is that his idea of sorting things out often involves killing people and destroying entire cities.
I don’t want to summarize the entire plot, but hopefully that gives you an idea of how much you’d like this book. One of its great strengths (it’s written by an ex-physicist) is how well-thought out the AI’s and the technology are– and they become increasingly important as the plot goes on. I normally loathe stories where a person “uploads their mind,” because they fail to take into account that the lack of continuity between the consciousness in the body and the consciousness in the copy, but a few books do it well (Peter Dickinson’s Eva springs to mind). This book doesn’t address all my concerns, but it explores the concept in more interesting ways than most do.
I wish the geopolitics had that same depth– while the cast is diverse (Xie is Asian and Elian is Jewish and “racially indeterminate, like many Americans”), I didn’t feel that the future countries from which the hostages besides Greta and Elian, who are both North American, come were that plausible or textured.
Another weakness is that sometimes concepts are introduced out of nowhere when they become necessary, like “dreamlock,” which was introduced so abruptly that it didn’t feel like an organic part of the world.
However, the strengths more than outweigh the weaknesses. I stayed up till two to see what happened next in this tension-filled story. Erin Bow isn’t afraid to go dark, hard places (and I’m not talking about the violence, but about Greta’s choice at the end and its fallout). Furthermore, characters on all sides of the conflicts have depth and pride, have standards below which they will not sink, even if those standards are very different from person to person.
Greta is a great heroine. I love people who can see past their own self-interest, and while she’s not exactly right when she believes in the hostage system, she’s also noble. I loved her, and I hope she narrates the companion novel, due out next year, as well.
A nonspoilery standout moment in terms of emotion was Greta’s mother’s insistence that Greta not be painted in her monastic Child-of-Peace outfit, because she wants one picture of her not dressed as “Joan of bloody Arc!” And you know it’s because Greta might well die in her role as a Child of Peace, and her mother wants some reminder that’s not connected to the hostage system.
I am waiting on tenterhooks for the sequel. Next year can’t come fast enough.