Dystopian fiction for middle-grades isn’t new: Lois Lowry’s The Giver is a classic of the genre. The success of The Hunger Games means similar titles for younger ages would be showing up soon. These two are good examples, even though each comes with a little twist–the first stirs in a generous measure of magic, and the second leans toward science fiction.
The Unwanteds, by Lisa McMann. Aladdin, 2011, 390 pages. Age/interest level: 8-12
Above World, by Jenn Reese. Candlewick, 2012, 386 pages. Age/interest level: 10-14
The world of The Unwanteds thrives on repression: “Quill prevails when the strong survive!” Quill is the country, or city, or dominion (we’re never sure which) ruled by High Priestess Justine, and whether she’s carrying on a tradition or a vendetta is also unclear. Society is controlled by an annual purge, in which all 13-year-olds are sorted according to their use. Wanteds display the character qualities desired in leadership, Necessaries will perform the drudge work, and Unwanteds have shown, by some quirk of personality or aptitude, that they’ll disrupt the smooth mechanical workings of the system. Even though the system has produced a gray, cheerless world where not even parents protest when their Unwanted progeny are marked for destruction.
Alex Stowe receives the “Unwanted” label, in stark contrast to his “Wanted” twin brother Aaron. On the bus headed to the Death Farm (they actually call it that), he meets fellow undesirables who speculate on their fate—maybe it will be painless, at least. However, instead of a lake of boiling oil, they are greeted by a Simber, a stone panther, and a former Quillian named Marcus Today, who welcomes them to the secret colony of Artime. They were labeled “Unwanted” because of their creativity: the secret weapon that threatens Justine’s power. In Artime they will first develop their artistic gifts, then receive “magical warrior training” in preparation for the conflict with Quill that’s sure to come. Sure beats the alternative, but Alex soon begins to wonder why his friends and rivals are moving up to warrior training before him. Isn’t he good enough? He’s more than good enough; the hitch is a mystical connection to his brother Aaron back in Quill, who is feeling some unwelcome artistic impulses.
Though imaginative and clever, the result feels a little underdeveloped. More could have been made of the brothers’ conflict, and the narrative lags through the middle section. But readers will enjoy the weapons of Artime: “fireball dragons, stinging soliloquies, splatterpaint, fire steps, itch glue, slam poetry scatterclips, slash singing, and the dreaded Shakespeare theater curse . . .” And the story raises interesting questions, such as
- The enmity between Quill and Artime seems to be a conflict between art and science. Are the two opposed? Can science be creative?
- On page 239, Simber says (leaving out some of his extra r’s), “[W]e don’t punish bad ideas, or thoughts, or intentions. Because the moment we do, that’s the moment our world takes its first step toward becoming like Quill.” Does this seem right to you? Do we try to punish ideas, thoughts, or intentions in our society?
- Worldview/moral value: 3.5 out of 5
- Literary value: 4 out of 5
If The Unwanteds is “The Hunger Games meets Harry Potter” (according to the NY Times review), Above World might best be described as The Little Mermaid meets The Terminator—and also a good example of The Hero’s Journey. In a world untold years into the future, humans have relieved their overcrowded planet by splintering into species capable of living under water (Kampii), in the air (Aviars), and on the desert (Equians). It didn’t seem to help because Above World is a wasteland, plagued by biotech humans who haven’t learned anything and are still trashing the planet and grabbing all they can for their greedy little selves. Not that Aluna, a 13-year-old Kampi, knows this at the beginning. She is consumed with curiosity about Above World but she’s just about to get her tail, which would make land adventures impractical. Then she and her timid, nerdy friend Hoku discover another Kampii dead for no reason in a kelp forest. It’s too much: Kampii have been dropping like guppies and none of the elders want to acknowledge it. Somebody needs to find the legendary HydroTeck (whoever or whatever) and wrest the secret from it. After an altercation with her father, Aluna sets out to do it herself, with Hoku trailing along. They’ll pick up three allies of various species and encounter many life-or-death dilemmas, and at the end, even though one villain is down, we have plenty more to go. The important thing is to keep fighting: “The Above World felt vast and cruel and hopeless, but maybe their actions could change the tenor of the world’s song. Maybe they were those little notes of hope.”
For dystopia/scifi/fantasy, this is good clean fun. Even sweet, when Hoku has his first brush with romance: “He was now a person who had kissed another person, and been kissed by them in return. He would never be the same as he was before. Kissing changed everything.” The protagonist was a little hard for me to get a grip on, though. Aluna is of the very typical, barely believable woman-warrior stock that’s seldom encountered in real life: fierce in battle but capable of improbable acts of generosity toward total strangers. (But then, we seldom encounter apprentice mermaids in real life either.) A question or two:
- On p. 121, President Iolanthe of the Aviars says, “History is not a fixed truth. It changes with the speaker, just as no two feathers will ever find the same path in the wind.” What do you think she means? Do you agree?
- What do you like and dislike about Aluna?
- Worldview/moral value: 3 out of 5
- Literary value: 4 out of 5
If you haven’t burned out on dystopia yet, check out our download on the subject and read along with That Hideous Strength. If your taste is more for Christian fantasy, see our reviews of The Dragon’s Tooth and The Wingfeather Saga. For grim societies, you can always return to Lord of the Flies. Or Emily’s thoughts on A Clockwork Orange. Or our most popular post of all time, our review of The Hunger Games.