Thursday, 10 October 2013

Viral Nation by Shaunta Grimes

Viral Nation by Shaunta Grimes is a post-apocalyptic YA novel about an autistic girl and her brother (and her service dog). I have mentioned in the past that I tend not to read blurbs between deciding to read a book (in this case because it was mentioned on the Diversity in YA blog) and actually reading it. In this case, that meant what I was expecting was a post-apocalyptic story with an autistic girl. What I got was also dystopian and had time travel, which threw me a little at first (because obviously I didn't look closely enough at the cover when I started reading either).
After a virus claimed nearly the entire global population, the world changed. The United States splintered into fifty walled cities where the surviving citizens clustered to start over. The Company, which ended the plague by bringing a life-saving vaccine back from the future, controls everything. They ration the scant food and supplies through a lottery system, mandate daily doses of virus suppressant, and even monitor future timelines to stop crimes before they can be committed.

Brilliant but autistic, sixteen-year-old Clover Donovan has always dreamed of studying at the Waverly-Stead Academy. Her brother and caretaker, West, has done everything in his power to make her dream a reality. But Clover’s refusal to part with her beloved service dog denies her entry into the school. Instead, she is drafted into the Time Mariners, a team of Company operatives who travel through time to gather news about the future.

When one of Clover’s missions reveals that West’s life is in danger, the Donovans are shattered. To change West’s fate, they’ll have to take on the mysterious Company. But as its secrets are revealed, they realize that the Company’s rule may not be as benevolent as it seems. In saving her brother, Clover will face a more powerful force than she ever imagined… and will team up with a band of fellow misfits and outsiders to incite a revolution that will change their destinies forever.
Despite the shift between my expectations and what I got, I loved this book. At first I thought the time travel aspect was rather strange — and honestly I still do, but not in a bad way — but it contributed to a complex and full world. One of my pet peeves with a lot of dystopian YA is poorly thought-through (or lazy) world-building, but Viral Nation certainly doesn't contain that flaw. Although the world is revealed slowly as the characters learn more about it, so I admit I was a little sceptical at first. (Side note: I think the blurb is slightly wrong because I remember the text mentioning 48 cities, not 50, which makes more sense since who knows what happened to distant Alaska and Hawaii after civilisation collapsed?) But as the conspiracy is revealed, it becomes increasingly interesting, especially since by the end we still don't know everything, partly thanks to the time travel aspect, but mostly because the author hasn't revealed it yet.

That aside, Viral Nation hooked me in from the very beginning. From the prologue, in which we glimpse the pandemic that wreaked havoc across the US (little word from the rest of the world, but less obnoxiously than most), to the teenage protagonists in chapter one, I was sucked in. Clover is completely a sympathetic character and I found myself cheering her on almost immediately, and cringing when social situations went badly for her. I also grew rather fond of her dog, despite being more of a cat person. ;-)

West, Clover's older brother, is also a point of view character. Again, I was a little sceptical at first when his point of view popped up before Clover's, but I'm pleased to report he was not there to steal Clover's limelight. He was an important character in his own right, but not at the expense of Clover's character, which made me happy. I picked up Viral Nation because I was keen to read about a non-typical protagonist — an autistic one in this case — coping in a post-apocalyptic world. I'm glad I did and I was pleased that there wasn't anything poorly done (as far as I could determine, but I am by no means an expert on autism). It added an extra dimension to the book (although for a YA book of this nature it already had rather a lot of dimensions to be getting on with) and although Clover's autism ended up being integral to the plot, I didn't find that was done objectionably. Also, it was nice to see an autistic girl for a change.

The only disappointment with Viral Nation is that it's the first in the series. It's not that I don't want to keep reading about Clover and friends — I do — it's that I can't keep reading now and I want to know what happens. The second book doesn't come out until next Northern summer. Sigh. On the one hand, if it was a standalone, I'd already know how everything turned out but there's no way Grimes could have fit as much worldbuilding depth into a single volume (y'know, unless it was a very loooong single volume).

I highly recommend Viral Nation to fans of YA post-apocalyptic dystopias. Adult fans will also enjoy it, as I did, although like me they may find themselves sceptical of it at first. Fans of intelligent characters who do not make incredibly stupid decisions to further a weak plot, should also find something to like here. Readers looking for a minority main character, especially an autistic one, will hopefully be very pleased with Viral Nation. Possibly also dog lovers.

5 / 5 stars

First published: July 2013, The Berkley Publishing Group / Penguin US
Series: Viral Nation book 1 of ? (my guess is trilogy)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

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