Sunday, 23 December 2012

Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken

Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken is an unusual YA dystopian novel. It's unusually long for YA (almost 500 pages) and the world Bracken has built is not how I would have envisaged her initial premise playing out.

One day, children in America aged between 10 and 14 start dying suddenly and unpredictably. It starts just before Ruby's tenth birthday. She survives but, it turns out, she and the other few survivors aren't normal or lucky. They have powers which make the adults terrified of them. So terrified that they're sent away to faux-rehabilitation camps. Ruby spends six years in such a camp, pretending to have the most benevolent set of powers although she actually has one of the most dangerous sets, before she's broken out by a vigilante group. And so the main adventures of being on the run begin.

I had a big problem with the underlying premise of this novel. There are several sets of "psi" powers (as in the Greek letter Ψ, presumably because it sounds like psychic), coded by colours in the book: greens are basically savants, blues can move things around with their minds, yellows can influence electricity, oranges can influence other people's minds, and reds... I'm not sure but they sounded dangerous, possibly they can manipulate fire. I can understand people being afraid of oranges, but what I really really don't understand is why the kids were all locked up instead of being militarised or at least used for the benefit of the country. Bloody hell, the US was the only country to be afflicted and they didn't use it as an opportunity to get an upper hand on the rest of the world. No, instead their economy crashed and all the other countries stopped talking to them. And how did no one fully consider (and do something about!) the long-term implications of children either dying or having psi powers? If you lock up all the surviving children, what's going to happen to the country when you're old and there is no younger generation to keep things going? What. The. Frack. I understand the reasoning behind society falling apart, but even I have slightly more confidence in the US government to make use of the situation. It's not as though they were disorganised; they did manage to lock almost all the kids up in camps. And then left them there, or got rid of the most dangerous ones. About the only sensible thing they managed to do was to experiment on some of them (which is horrible for the children, of course, but a logical thing for a government to do in the circumstances), but that doesn't seem to have gotten them anywhere.

Rant over. On to the other aspects of the book.

Unlike some YA books which codify special powers up front, Darkest Minds refers to them indirectly, leaving the reader to work them out gradually. I enjoyed this type of presentation, although not knowing exactly what other kids were capable of was a bit frustrating, especially when it was clear that Ruby did have some idea.

I liked the other characters sixteen-year-old Ruby spends most of the book with: two blues, one, Liam, an idealistic hero wannabe who orchestrated a breakout at his camp, and Chubs, a geek who is the one to usually point out their stupid ideas. There's also Zu, a ten-year-old yellow who the others look after and who saves the day a few times. The budding romance between Ruby and Liam was slow and believable. There was no ridiculous instant attraction (which would have been all the more ridiculous in the setting since Ruby had spent most of her six years in the camp segregated from the boys), and no making (overly) stupid decisions because of their love.

For someone whose education stopped at grade four and who was not exposed to any TV, books, movies or other pop-culture for the past six years, Ruby knew way too much. Aside from a few pop-culture references (which I didn't object to coming from the other characters who'd spent much more time on the outside than she did), she knew far too much about rock music. What ten year old has enough of an appreciation of Led Zeppelin, the Doors and the Who to still remember what they are six years later? There were some appropriate gaps in her knowledge (she didn't know how to drive, couldn't read maps) but generally I felt that she knew too much for her circumstances.

The story moved too slowly for my liking, however. The writing was technically fine and the prose was mostly above average so that I didn't feel the urge to skip paragraphs. However, the story dragged. At almost 500 pages it was unnecessarily long. There were a few definite sections of not much happening that could definitely have been compressed, especially one part where it was inevitable that things were going to end badly, but they took rather a long time doing so (perhaps to lure the reader into a false sense of security? It didn't work). It was the prose and the emotional ending which pushed this book up an extra half-star for me.

Ultimately, Darkest Minds wasn't a terrible book. I know I've criticised it a lot, but that's because it was the sort of book where I could clearly pinpoint what didn't work for me. Being the first of a trilogy (according to wiki), it doesn't quite stand alone. The story is not complete, there are questions left unanswered (like, why wasn't the rest of the world affected?) and characters whose fates are unknown. However, for the first of a YA trilogy, it stands alone better than some. The main arc of the story is complete and we are not left with a cliffhanger. I recommend it to anyone looking for a meatier/longer YA book than average. Or perhaps to someone sick of ultra-high-stakes dystopias (although I don't promise that the stakes won't be raised in the sequels). It's definitely not a quick read fluff book.

4 / 5 stars

Published: January 2013 (should already be in Aussie shops), HarperCollins AU
Series: Darkest Minds, book 1 of 3
Format read: eARC
Source: Courtesy of the publisher, via NetGalley

2 comments:

  1. Interesting that the cover rave is by the author of a very different series of books, the magical folklore-centred Wicked Lovely, and not a dystopian writer. Goodness knows there are plenty of YA dystopians around. Sounds like this book needed more editing than it got - or better, anyway. Maybe it had too much editing! :-)

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    1. High-level editing I think. Large swathes could have been cut out without changing the story. I was impressed with some of the existential moments, though. Aside from the illogical government response (especially to the geniuses!) it had potential. Not sure that's I'd bother with the sequel unless the blurb was REALLY compelling.

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