Author: S. E. Diemer
Genres: Young Adult, Dystopian, LGBTQ+, (Romance)
Trigger Warnings: Child deaths and torture
Rating: 8 / 10
Summary: Set sometime far(ish) in the future in America, the country is now known as Liberty and under the dictatorship of a madman called Voice Wright, who believes he speaks to and for God, also known as the One. Under his rule, people are required to listen to his daily addresses and are watched closely for any sign of rebellion or breaking of his laws. If anyone is ever caught breaking his laws, such as theft, underage pregnancy or being gay, they’ll be sent to a Borstal, prisons where deviant children known as Recreants undergo brutal treatments to cure them of their sins. If they fail their treatments or otherwise incur significant strikes, they’re sent to the Void. If one is caught breaking the law and they’re over 18, they don’t even get the ‘mercy’ of a Borstal treatment, but are sent directly to the Void. Against this setting with follow Piper and her brother Easton, who are caught in a raid while at a queer party and taken to the Borstal. They endure the torture there, until Easton is framed for a major strike and sent to the Void. Piper manages to escape, and from there is driven with the one goal of saving her brother from the transportation train before it reaches its destination.
Review: I’ve been looking forward to release of this book since I heard about it – along with another book this author and her wife are working on which I’m not sure when it’s coming out… – and snapped it up as soon as it came out on Kindle. At the moment there is no printed copy of it available, unfortunately, but I might pick that up if it ever comes about.
In this book we follow Piper as she and her brother and an entire party of teens are taken prisoner for ‘sins against Liberty,’ and sent to a Borstal for reprogramming. The reprogramming is pretty much the worst case scenario you would think up when trying to imagine what a reprogramming treatment center for kids 17 and younger would look like. When I first picked up the book I was under the impression that the only thing kids got sent to the Borstal for was for being some shade of queer, but what can land you there is pretty much anything that Liberty and Voice Wright says is against the bright and shiny goodness of Liberty. This includes being queer, ‘promiscuous,’ thieving, rebellion, or really anything that can be seen as not toeing the line drawn out for everyone. As the book progresses it becomes clearer just how restrictive this is, as women are all wearing skirts and there’s background chatter about the length of them being lowered. Religion also seems to be mandated by Liberty, and it’s required that everyone listen to Voice Wright whenever he’s on the television.
It’s pretty bleak and oppressive, and since the book starts with Piper and Easton in the Borstal, there’s no chance to look around and get used to any sort of illusion of freedom before being tossed in there. Any idea we get of Liberty not being an utter hellhole comes from the regular flashbacks of Piper’s younger years, and even then there’s a definite feeling of oppression as she and her brother have to be so careful in hiding what they are. Once in the Borstal, however, the nightmare really starts.
Piper, Easton and all the rest are prisoners of a broken system which is slowly falling apart as funding has been taken away. They’re isolated in rusting rooms, showered in practically boiling water, fed disgusting food, taken to their reprogramming lessons where they are more or less talked at in attempts at brainwashing, quizzed on their lives where they are given electric shocks for untruthful answers or ‘bad’ answers or for not answering at all, and are encouraged to squeal on any inappropriate carried out by other children. If they break rules or irritate their jailors too much they get strikes, three strike you’re out, or anything that’s serious enough just gets one giant strike and you’re out. If you’re out, then you’re sent off to the Void. As might be guessed, the Void is an unpleasant euphemism for execution. It’s incredibly unpleasant, especially with the niggling knowledge that there are places in the world where this isn’t too far off of reality.
Piper’s character gets set for us pretty quickly in the Borstal. She’s a fighter who, unfortunately for her immediate situation, has a hard time in keeping her head down and just getting through things. This helps her out later on, but it does tend to make life inside the Borstal even harder for her.
Once out and fleeing for her life, and then running to catch up with the train that’s taking Easton off to the Void, those characteristics and her love for Easton are about the only things keeping her on her feet. She manages to gather two allies along the way, a friend of hers and Easton’s named Zach and a turncoat prison guard called Lake. Lake herself turns out to be gay – it’s not a huge spoiler, it was pretty obvious – and know of people who call themselves Lanterns who act as a rescue system for escaped Recreants, who they call Moths.
It seems like throughout the whole book, everyone is telling Piper to give up on the idea of saving Easton. This is somewhat understandable considering just what they’re up against to get to him, but it gets grating after a while. It’s a bit of a wash, rinse, repeat thing going on. Piper says she’s going to save Easton or die trying, someone else says it’s hopeless and she should save herself and Easton would want that anyway, she tells them to take a flying leap and she’ll save him herself if she needs to, and the secondary characters groan and fall back into line with her. It’s not horrible, but it does feel a bit overdone by the end.
We end not quite on a cliffhanger, but the story is quite clearly meant to continue. If you watch a lot of serialized television you can almost hear the dramatic music blending into the end-of-season credits. The second book is meant to come out sometime in 2017, and I’ll be picking that one up as soon as it comes out, too.
Conclusions: Overall I liked this book. I liked it well enough to read it from beginning to end within two days, which is pretty good for me and my overloaded schedule, but at the same time it also felt a little bit underdone. The future setting isn’t meant to feel like science fiction, but rather like a country moldering and falling apart as it slowly eats itself and all the countries around it slowly back away. In this sense it does a really good job, but it also feels a little bit like we’re walking through a world constructed out of cardboard. Save for Piper’s flashbacks and what we’re told about the Borstals and the Lanterns, the world isn’t really fleshed out for us and we don’t see much of it. We see glimpses of people wearing worn clothing and everything looking dusty and used, we meet a farmer, and other than that we only interact with Enforcers and Lanterns.
There was one mention of this universe discovering the genetic marker that could point to a person being queer, and that particular science is denounced by Voice Wright because it suggests genetics trump choice, and then it’s never mentioned again. This little glimpse of science in this future ties up a loose plot point, but it also hints at how this world works and suggests other advancements… and is then dropped.
I would have liked to see more of how this version of America came about, how Voice Wright came into power and if there was anything like resistance to his extremist dictatorship, or if there was a slow build that was topped off with Voice Wright.
Good, but I hope to see more development in the next book.