Finding the ways to fill the time
Warning: Some Spoilers
I read this Young Adult novel when I was the target audience, about 13, and again recently at 26. The sci-fi story that impressed me so much as a teenager has not lost its impact as I’ve matured.
Nix treats the reader as an adult, not shying away from language, hormones or brutality, but as good YA fiction should, exposes the reader to the concepts without Game of Thrones levels of explicitness.
It is an evocative story, dark but not bleak, with the ageless theme of a fight against evil, both the obvious Darth Vader-meets-Nazis kind as well as the sometimes unnoticed, or at least unacknowledged, corruption that is within all of us.
The world has become the battleground for a group of Overlords from a different dimension. They caused every human over the age of 14 to vanish and enslaved the remaining children, raising them in Dormitories to eventually be chopped up in Meat Factories, brains, muscles and organs used to make a variety of creatures used in the war games.
About 15 years have passed since the invasion of the Overlords and the main character of the story, a 15 year old boy called Gold-Eye (guess why) is on the run having escaped from the Dormitory before his ‘Sad Birthday’ at 14 when he would have gone to the Meat Factory.
Gold-Eye has been affected by ‘the Change’, the force that brought about the appearance of the Overlords. It’s what has made his eyes golden, and given him an unreliable precognitive power which, nonetheless, gives him a slight edge as he is being hunted by the various creatures, like huge battle monster Myrmidons, or long nosed Trackers.
Even so, as the story opens, he is almost caught, rescued at the last moment by a team of children who are organised and trained by a personality-encoded robot called Shade.
After years alone, Gold-Eye is a bundle of nerves, bad English and innocence. He is assigned to the group that rescued him and the three members of the team, along with Shade, become the other main characters.
Ella is a tough, practical, battle-hardened warrior, the oldest and probably closer to woman than child. She is particularly grateful and loyal to Shade for organising and training the children into a force against the Overlords.
Drum is Ella’s second, someone she trusts and relies on. They have a quietly interesting, slightly complicated relationship. He was raised to become one of the Myrmidon battle creatures and is huge and powerful, but also a chemically castrated Eunuch. He is suspicious of Shade’s motives, and often questions them.
Ninde is a, very, confident girl about the same age as Gold-Eye. She has watched a lot of 90s movies which are too old for her and have altered her idea of what is normal behaviour between young men and women. She is a bit thoughtless with her actions and words, but is brave and has a very useful Change talent of mind-reading.
Shade was a human professor working on artificial intelligence before the Change now working to combat the Overlords. His personality resides in a variety of robots, the main one living in the submarine they have made a sanctuary, with a host of mobile rat and spider bots crawling around the city, keeping a close eye on everything. His methods have become increasingly ruthless resulting in an ever growing body count of sacrificed children.
The story paces the revelation of background information at the beginning of each chapter, describing what changes have occurred since the Overlords appeared as well as life within the submarine guerrilla headquarters, documented in statistics, logs, video transcripts and interviews Shade conducts with various children, both current and past (missing, assumed Meat-Factoried).
The character development is similarly gradual, believable and enjoyable to read. The story is multi-POV’d – shared between Gold-Eye, Ella and Shade. Gold-Eye is the perfect tool for exposition, new to the group, to fighting back against the Overlords, to a lot of the modern ideas Ninde is already well aware of… while in ‘Saint’ Ella we see the harder decisions of leadership played out, exploring or the loss of someone we love, how it will test our loyalties and our willingness to sacrifice even our own lives.
Shade however is a dubious protector – a micromanaging dictator, with a mercurial temper who organises everything – from enforcing tutorial lessons on the children, to setting up a lottery system for sexual interaction. Even though he is a artificial consciousness, his own human self presumably dead with the other adults, he is determined to live, and that desire risks everything they fight for. The clash between his conscious and conscience brings on the crisis everything in the story hinges on.
The book is quite slim, (or was, I read it on my Kindle this time) as Nix doesn’t waste a lot of time on long description or exposition. There is a strong sense of the world however, and many images stayed with me from the first reading a decade ago. The action is fast (there is even a car chase) and the ending gives the required emotional punch, provoking a few tears, and underlining in the subconscious the need to return to Shade’s Children in another decade or so.
A great story, definitely in need of much more love from a wider audience.