Category Archives: Young Adult

The Ask and the Answer

Young adult science fiction novel about fascism, colonialism and sexism

Content warning: fascism, colonialism, slavery and sexism

This author is one of my favourite young adult authors, and I was thrilled to meet him some time ago at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. After the event, he signed a copy of my book and was quite excited to see my name. He told me that he had a talking horse with this name in his series “Chaos Walking”, which at the time I hadn’t read yet but was thrilled to hear. Angharad isn’t exactly a common name in books. Since then I read the first book, but had yet to meet Angharrad the talking horse who it turns out is introduced in the second. If you haven’t read the first book yet, I recommend you read my review of “The Knife of Never Letting Go” instead. Like the previous book, this 10 year anniversary edition has striking black tinted edges and very subtle embossing of slightly shiny black text on the matte cover. It has been sitting on my shelf for far too long.

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“The Ask and the Answer” by Patrick Ness is the second book in the young adult science fiction series “Chaos Walking”. After discovering the truth about what happened to the women of Prentisstown, and meeting Viola, the girl who came from offworld, Todd and Viola arrive in Haven to find that it has been surrendered Mayor Prentiss, who now refers to himself as President of New Prentisstown. Todd and Viola are quickly separated, and Viola is placed in a healing clinic with women healers while Todd is locked up with the former Mayor of Haven. While recovering from her gunshot wound, Viola discovers that there is an underground resistance movement. Meanwhile, Todd is put to work supervising enslaved individuals of the planet’s native species, the Spackle. Unable to contact one another, Viola and Todd start to question their trust in one another.

This is an incredibly hard-hitting novel that picks up immediately where the previous one left off. Ness had already begun to explore the inequality between men and women caused by men developing Noise – the unchecked ability to project their thoughts to everyone around them – as a consequence of colonising the planet in the previous book. However, in this book he explores this issue far deeper and makes vivid connections between the way the Spackle are enslaved and controlled, and the way the women of New Prentisstown are enslaved and controlled. Towards the end of the book, Todd asks men who have been complicit in detaining, assaulting and marking women who they believe is going to be next.

Ness does an excellent job of character development in this book, really exploring what it means to be a man in Todd’s world. Juxtaposing Todd against Davey, Mayor Prentiss’ son, he examines how the two boys react to being made to brand Spackle and direct them to engage in slave labour. He also explores how Mayor Prentiss introduces Todd to control and violence so gradually in a way that is reminiscent of the progression of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, and little by little Todd becomes complicit himself in the very things he condemned. I also found Mayor Prentiss’ use of information as a means of control equally chilling, and Ness draws all these themes together, driving the story towards an explosive conclusion.

One thing that always stands out to me about Ness’ writing is its sophistication, and his ability to reckon with complex themes in a way that doesn’t speak down to young adults but converses with them. A frequent complaint I have of second books in trilogies is that they are often a bit of a sagging bridge between the first book and the last. However, similar to “The Secret Commonwealth“, I actually thought this book was stronger than the first.

A compelling and insightful book that weaves in themes of politics and history while still being a fast-paced and exciting story. I would highly recommend this, and all of Ness’ books, to young adults.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling

Young adult novel about family, culture and mental health

Content warning: mental illness

I mentioned in an earlier post that I went a little overboard in the #AuthorsforFireys Twitter auctions, but there was absolutely no way I was going to let this one pass me by. The author was offering a copy of her book to the top 30 bidders, and each book would have the pages HAND PAINTED. Obviously I had to bid. In fact, I took the bidding so seriously that I kept a list of how many bids there were and for what amount so I could make sure that I didn’t miss out.

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I had planned on hand-making dumplings for the phone, but I just couldn’t face it

“The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling” by Wai Chim is a young adult novel about Anna, an ordinary teenager trying to study, keep on top of her chores and try not to get on the wrong side of the popular girls at school. Except Anna’s family isn’t quite as ordinary. Anna’s mum spends all day in bed, and her dad never comes home from work at his Chinese restaurant an hour north of Sydney. She has to look after her younger siblings Lily and Michael, interpret for her parents who moved to Australia from Hong Kong, and try to convince her school’s careers counsellor that she’s taking her future seriously. Up until this point, Anna had been able to keep everything afloat. However, when her mum suddenly becomes much more unwell, it becomes clear that things can’t continue the way they have been. Plus, there’s a boy.

This is an extremely refreshing take on the young adult genre. Chim has a great sense of place, and I loved the mood of Anna travelling between her home in Ashfield and her father’s restaurant in Gosford – sometimes by train, sometimes by car. I also loved the scenes in the restaurant itself, and watching Anna develop confidence and friendships while working in the kitchen in a way that she struggle to at school. Also it’s very hard not to read this book without being hungry the entire time, and I would highly recommend having something delicious to snack on while reading to complete the experience.

Chim covers a lot of topics in this book: friendship, transitioning to adulthood, young romance, culture, family dynamics and in particular mental health. While I’ve read quite a lot of Chinese literature over the past few years, but I don’t think I’ve read any books that use Cantonese before, in particular the Jyutping romanisation system, which I was really interested to learn about. I thought that the way Chim handled Anna’s mother’s illness was very sensitively done, and found a good balance between impact mental illness can have on families and the distress it can cause the individual who is unwell. Rory was a great romantic lead who was able to provide support and advice to Anna based on his own lived experience. He was also just an absolute sweetheart.

I felt that Chim did a really good job of accurately portraying mental illness, especially around inpatient care, the chronic nature of many mental health conditions and the fact that there often isn’t an instant, magical cure. However, I did feel that the chapters towards the end of the book that explore what a new normal looks like for the Chiu family, while very important and emotionally charged, didn’t have the same pacing and tension as earlier in the book.

Nevertheless, I think this is a great example of modern Australian YA. I think that it’s incredibly relevant and tackles issues that a lot of teens, regardless of their background, will get something out of.

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And the Ocean Was Our Sky

Surreal illustrated retelling of “Moby Dick”

I forgot to mention in my previous review that another major reason for me finally reading “Moby Dick” is that a friend of mine had lent me a copy of this book. I’ve read several of Patrick Ness‘ books before and I was very much looking forward to this one, but it didn’t seem right to try to read it before reading the story it is inspired by. Luckily for me, this one is much shorter.

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“And the Ocean Was Our Sky” by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Rovina Cai is an illustrated young adult novel that reimagines the classic novel “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville as told from the perspective of a whale. Narrated by a whale who styles herself as Bathsheba, the reader is set adrift in an alternative underwater world where whales have developed technology, have reclaimed the depths of the sea and have themselves become hunters. Third Apprentice in a female-only pod under the command of Captain Alexandra, Bathsheba joins the hunt for the terrifying and monstrous Toby Wick. However, when they find a human man abandoned by his crew and Bathsheba is charged with torturing him for information, her perspective on humans and the ethics of the hunt is forever changed.

This book has haunted me since I read it late last year. Ness is a beautiful writer, and he has created a strange and unsettling world for his whales to live in that are realised with Cai’s sublime illustrations. The whales live in exile, only breaching on the rarest occasions and instead relying on breather bubbles that allow them to swim almost forever underwater. Except, to the whales, they are no longer ‘under’. To them, the ocean is their sky and the air below where the men and their ships live is the Abyss. However, the whales’ world is not an easy one to live in. The pods drag around sunken ships, and their cities are built on precipices. They see themselves as hunters but really they are banished, calling themselves hunters but in reality they are just as hunted.

Toby Wick was probably the element that disturbed me the most. Ness never quite gives enough information to the reader about what exactly Toby Wick is. Going much further than Melville’s white whale, the horror of Toby Wick is in the unknown. Is he a monstrous man, is he a machine, is he some awful hybrid of both? We are never truly certain. Throughout the book, hands are a prominent motif representing the ingenuity and dexterity of, and the terror inspired by, humans.

This is a dark and at times unnerving book that does not provide the reader with many answers, but leaves them instead with a lot of questions. A very original take on a classic story.

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The Devil’s Apprentice

Young adult novel about a good boy accidentally going to hell

Content warning: religion, suicide

Note: I have made some edits to this review following a conversation with the author

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. As it turned out, the author is Danish and I managed to read this while I was travelling in Denmark.

“The Devil’s Apprentice” by Kenneth B. Andersen and translated by K. E. Semmel is a young adult novel about a young teen called Philip who is bullied relentlessly by a classmate. Despite being thoughtful and kind, after a terrible accident, Philip finds himself in hell by mistake. It quickly appears that the Devil is ailing, and while trying to secure the perfect heir for the future of Hell, he ends up with the angelic Philip instead. However, despite Philip’s naivete and strong moral compass, he finds Hell is beginning to grow on him.

This is a book with an interesting question: can innately good kid can learn to be bad? Andersen creates a hell with two castes: demons who live and work there, and human souls who are there to be punished. Philip primarily engages with the demons of Hell, befriending them while they encourage him in his studies to become evil. I like that although Philip seemed to struggle socially on Earth, he managed to befriend a lot of people in Hell. Andersen spends a lot of time exploring friendship, and exploring what it means to be good and evil.

Now, compared to a similar book I read previously where Hell is a hotter, more crowded and more bureaucratic version of Earth where you still have to go to work and pay bills, this book’s version of Hell is more inspired by traditional Christian beliefs, and Philip regularly passes non-demon residents of Hell, known as the condemned, who are trapped in eternal torment of varying types depending on their particular sins.

One thing that was pretty confronting to me was several references to people who had committed suicide being subjected to eternal torment for “taking the easy way out”. Since discussing this issue with the author, he has clarified to me that the intention was only meant to refer to people seeking to escape the ramifications of crimes against humanity on earth. However, this is not entirely clear in the English translation, so I would recommend bearing that in mind while reading.

An interesting exploration of good and evil with universal messages about friendship, bullying, acceptance and agency.

If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, are feeling overwhelmed or have lost someone to suicide, please contact Lifeline (13 11 14) if you are in Australia, or your local crisis service if you are in another country. 

If you wish to learn about suicide intervention, I would strongly recommend the LivingWorks ASIST course (https://www.lifeline.org.au/get-help/topics/preventing-suicide) and Mental Health First Aid training.  

 

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Children of Blood and Bone

West African-inspired young adult fantasy

Our feminist fantasy book club has been cranking through the books this year. We picked our list by nominating two books each and drawing them from a hat, and this was my first book of the year. I’m always on the lookout for diverse books to read, and fantasy is a notoriously homogeneous genre. I had come across this book in a list, and it has since caused a bit of a stir winning a Hugo and being turned into a film, so I decided to nominate it.

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“Children of Blood and Bone” by Tomi Adeyemi is a young adult fantasy novel about a land called Orïsha where people are either born as maji or kosidán. Once, all maji wielded magic, but since the kosidán king Saran took the magic away and killed all the maji, the powerless maji children, distinguishable by their white hair and known as diviners, have been subjugated by the kosidán. Zélie, a diviner who lost her mother in the raids, tries to keep her head down and help her father and brother eke out a living. However, when her path crosses with kosidán princess Amari on the run, Zélie’s humble life is lost forever.

My attempt at some West African inspired cooking for our book club

This is a spirited novel that takes the hallmarks of the young adult fantasy genre and recasts them against a backdrop of West African culture. This is a very readable book, and Adeyemi writes from the heart and her strength (and focus) is emotions and relationships. There are three point of view characters, but by far the most compelling are Zélie and Inan, Amari’s older brother and the crown prince. Without giving too much away, there was an element of magic that I really enjoyed – the ability to conjure a dreamscape and people you know inside (although there were some elements of magic that I found really disturbing). I was also really on board with everyone riding giant lions, tigers, panthers and cheetahs everywhere.

As readable as this book is, it definitely had plenty of fantasy and young adult tropes. Lost parents, hidden powers, runaways, royalty. These themes are common throughout lots of fantasy novels, and aren’t fatal to a good story. I absolutely believe that fantasy and science fiction needs more authors of colour, and I understand the statement the author was making about the subjugation of a class of people (with darker skin colour) by another. However, I think that for a novel to use tropes and still be good, it needs to have something extra and I’m just not quite sure this book has that extra factor. I’m also not quite sure that there was the correct number of point of view characters. I think that maybe it should have been two or four, because three just seems a little off-kilter.

An easy read with some ambitious world-building and some interesting magic, I’ll be curious to see how it is adapted on screen.

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The Knife of Never Letting Go

Dystopian young adult science fiction with a gender twist

I have been reading this author for a while, and I was so excited to meet him in person at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last year. I think that he really is the cutting edge of young adult fiction right now, and when he told me last year that he had a character in one of his series with the same name as me, I knew I was going to have to give it a go. To celebrate 10 years of publication, the series was recently released in these very striking editions with black-edged pages and I absolutely had to have them. It has been a while since I’ve reviewed a book with tinted edges, and there is also a film adaptation currently in production, so I thought I’d better get moving.

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“The Knife of Never Letting Go” by Patrick Ness is a dystopian young adult science fiction novel about a boy called Todd Hewitt who lives in a place called Prentisstown. In a town inhabited solely by men, where everyone can hear everyone else’s unfiltered thoughts at all times, Todd is the youngest. Spending most of his time alone with his dog Manchee, Todd is waiting for his 13th birthday, the day he will become a man, which is just a month away. However, when Todd stumbles across an impossible silence, everything he thought he knew about his town is thrown upside down.

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Sorry, my dog was just being too cute not to include this one

When I picked up this book, what I was expecting the satire of “The Rest of Us Just Live Here” or the poignancy of “Release“. However, this is a very different story. One thing I love about Ness’ writing is that he is not afraid to commit completely to exploring a difficult, nuanced issue. In this story, Ness creates a world where there truly is a difference between men and women. He uses what he knows about gender in society and throughout history to take this difference to its horrifying extreme. When I read “The Power“, this was the book I was hoping for and finally I got it. I also really liked that Ness constantly placed Todd in difficult moral situations and did not always let him choose the right way. Todd struggles with feelings of guilt and conflicting interests, and is by no means the perfect protagonist. Ness is also an incredibly versatile writer and there are a lot of subtleties in the language he uses in this book.

As much as I was hooked by this story, I can’t give it a perfect review. There were some things that happened in the narrative that I wasn’t quite sure about. Also, because we learn about the world as Todd learns about the world, there are some big knowledge gaps that we as the readers can identify but where Todd (somewhat maddeningly) doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. I do appreciate that this is a trilogy, so there is still a lot yet to happen, but it is a very ambitious story and I wasn’t always completely on board with the way the story was unfolding.

Nevertheless, Ness is an excellent and relevant storyteller and if I had teenagers, I would be giving them his books.

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The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking Book 1)

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The Graveyard Book

Dark urban young adult fantasy

I have been reading this author for a long time, and he has an impressive bibliography of novels that straddle the blurry line between fantasy and realism. This book has been sitting on my shelf for quite a while after my partner bought it for me, and I have to admit, the cover had not really attracted me. I know the artist is incredibly well-known, and while I agree the style is probably in line with the themes of the book, it is a bit skeletal and knobbly for my tastes. It sat there gathering dust for some time until I thought, I just need two more books to finish my 2018 Goodreads Reading Challenge, this one looks relatively short and it has been a while since I’ve read this author.

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“The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman is a young adult fantasy novel about a little boy called Nobody Owens who lives in a graveyard. Narrowly escaping murder like the rest of his family by the man Jack, Bod, as he is affectionately known, is granted refuge among the ghosts and creatures who live in the graveyard. Although adopted by Mr and Mrs Owens, and watched over by his mysterious guardian Silas, Bod is given a large amount of freedom within the confines of the graveyard. However, the protection cannot last forever, and sooner or later Bod must return to the real world and live his life.

This, at heart, is a book about growing up. Gaiman sets the scene by introducing the graveyard, its features and residents and uses them as a yardstick to measure how Bod grows and changes over time. In his usual subtle way, Gaiman explores the differences between good and bad, child and adult, accepting help and self-reliance – all things that young people must navigate as they start to find their own way in the world. This is also a book about boundaries, which ones are flexible, which ones are permeable and which ones must remain steadfast. Gaiman is never condescending in this book, and I think that the way that he writes about the challenges Bod faces leaves a lot of room for young readers to make up their own minds about the way things turn out. I really enjoyed how Bod aged over time, and I think it’s quite rare for a children’s book to really examine how children’s personalities develop.

I think the problem I had with this book is that while it is undeniably rich, at times it felt a bit constraining while reading it. I completely understand that Gaiman explores different kinds of freedoms and deliberately uses the border of the graveyard as both a physical and metaphorical barrier. However, because the majority of the story is set within the graveyard, and a lot of the story is Bod revisiting places and people within that graveyard, there were times where the book feels a bit repetitive.

Nevertheless, a complex and sophisticated young adult novel in Gaiman’s trademark style that I think many kids would enjoy.


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The Graveyard Book

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Mallee Boys

Young adult fiction set in rural Australia

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

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“Malley Boys” by Charlie Archbold is a young adult novel set in the Mallee. The story is told from the alternating perspective of two brothers, dreamy intellectual Sandy who is 15 years old and rambunctious 18 year old Red. Both brothers are reeling from their mother’s recent death, and their dad has his hands full with the farm. As both boys face their first year without their mum, they also face some big decisions about their futures.

This is an engaging and well-written book that I think will definitely appeal to country teenagers. Archbold has an engaging style of writing and captures the inner voice of two very different young men. In a time where people are talking a lot about things like toxic masculinity, the interplay between Sandy, Red and their dad is a really interesting way to explore different kinds of masculinity – even within a single family. Sandy is one of those quintessential non-blokey characters who is a little bit older than Charlie from “Jasper Jones”, and who I think I liked a bit better. Sandy has a quiet, gentle confidence about him that I think a lot of teens would relate to. I also think that this book handles the issue of grief and the diverse ways that people experience grief really well.

However, diversity generally was something that I would have liked to have seen a little more of in this story. Rural kids are not homogeneous kids, and I think that Archbold missed the opportunity to include some ethnically-diverse characters, including Aboriginal characters, as well as some LGBTIQ characters. The book is set more or less in present time, the kids all have phones, and it would have been good to see a bit more of a modern Australian demographic reflected in the story. I think this would make the story even more appealing to a broader audience. As someone who went to school in a rural town 20 years ago, it was definitely filled with more than just blonde kids.

Nevertheless, this is a very readable story that tackles some tricky themes. I think that if the aim is to both challenge ideas of masculinity and get young men to read, this book definitely achieves that.

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The Blood Within The Stone

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

“The Blood Within The Stone” by T. R. Thompson is a fantasy young adult novel, the first in the “Wraith Cycle” series. The story is about two young boys, Wilt and Higgs, who live on the streets of a grim town called Greystone. Will’s ability to seemingly guess what people will do next gets him and Higgs an invitation into the Grey Guild, the prestigious guild of thieves. However, Wilt’s plans to eke a living that way are thrown by the wayside when he and Higgs are taken against their will by a Prefect from a Redmonis, a revered institute of education. When they arrive, the situation is even more grim than the town they left behind. All the students appear to be under some kind of spell and the mysterious Nine Sisters of Redmonis seem to be behind it.

Thompson conjures a bleak world, where the only way to survive is at the expense of someone else. He keeps that tone consistently throughout the book and it definitely felt much darker than most YA I read. I think there were two particular highlights for me in this book: the magic and Higgs. Thompson’s magic system is very sophisticated and throughout the book Wilt discovers and learns to control his affinity with welds: the connections that are formed between all living beings and which allow him to perform an increasing number of extraordinary feats. Magic is a difficult thing to get right in fantasy, and Thompson has clearly put in a lot of thought into his system, the things it can be used for and the dangers it poses to those who can wield its power.

I also absolutely adored the character of Higgs. Higgs is an excellent character and I found myself actually rushing through the parts about Wilt so that I could find out more about Higgs and what he was doing. Higgs’ enthusiasm and expertise was a breath of fresh air in a book that is otherwise very serious.

I guess that’s probably also a downside about this book: I liked a lot of the other characters more than I liked Wilt. Despite his incredible power, Wilt didn’t really seem to have much in the way of either personality or agency. Higgs is in the background, doing all the heavy lifting, while Wilt just seems to be along for the ride. Given the ending (which I won’t spoil) I imagine that future books will be a bit different but for this book, Wilt wasn’t as interesting as I would have liked him to be. I would read a thousand books about Higgs’ crackling personality and sharp wits, but Wilt was kind of more brawn than brains and just wasn’t as engaging.

Another issue I had with this book was a bit less about character and plot, and a bit more to do with an overall approach to conflict resolution. As I said earlier, this is a dark book and it is quite violent with characters frequently asserting their dominance through physical assaults. My problem wasn’t with this per se, but more with Wilt as his character develops over time. Quite a few people underestimate Wilt at the beginning, but as his control over his powers develops, he uses those powers to force people into respecting him. I think this was particularly apparent when he meets soldier Daemi, and learns to use his power to make her respect him. I think it is around Daemi that we really see an uglier side to Will and again, I wonder what the author will do with his character development in later books. On balance though, I would have liked to have seen more problems solved with communication, kindness and intelligence rather than with brute strength – magical or otherwise.

This was nevertheless a compelling story with a unique approach to the genre that hints at a much more epic story to be told in future books. If we get to see more of Higgs, I will definitely be there.

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Cassandra

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Cassandra” by Kathryn Gossow is a young adult fantasy novel about a teenager called Cassie who lives on a rural property in Queensland in the 1980s. She often has visions of the future, but they are so fragmented and unpredictable that nobody believes her. Nobody, until she makes friends with her new neighbour Athena. Isolated at school and frustrated with her family, especially her younger brother Alex whose weather predictions have led their family to prosperity, Cassie is thrilled to have a friend like Athena. Even if Athena asks her to keep their friendship a secret. However, Cassie’s visions keep telling her that things are going to go wrong and as she grows more and more disturbed by them, everything eventually does.

This is a compelling story that fuses the familiar story of an outcast teenager with the story of Cassandra, a figure in Greek mythology. While they might seem an unlikely mix, the issues that Cassie deals with like fickle friendships, first crushes, experimentation, mental illness, aging family members and tense relationships with her parents and brother are cast in relief by her inability to properly control her visions of the future. I really liked the way that Cassie’s visions are so neatly woven into the remainder of the story. I also really liked how the book darkened into a real Australian gothic story. I don’t usually like books that are quite so bleak, but I appreciated Gossow’s sense of realism, especially in the scenes where Cassie attends a party with other teenagers.

I think the part of this book that I had the most trouble with was the character of Athena. Without giving away too much of the story, I felt like I would have liked Athena to either be a little more true to her namesake when it came to her friendship with Cassie or to have simply not been named Athena at all. I felt like out of all the hardships and heartbreak that Cassie went through in this story, Athena’s gradual then ultimate betrayal was the only one I couldn’t connect with. Athena was a bit of an enigma. Highly intellectual, Cassie feels a blend of admiration and envy for her, and she is presented for the most part as being perfect. However, I couldn’t quite understand how dispassionately she treats Cassie both as a friend and as an experiment.

This is a very thought-provoking book that explores a range of issues including adolescence, agrarianism and even immigration. After I finished it, I felt almost as haunted as Cassie.

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