It took me a while to figure out why I was finding this such an unpleasant read. It wasn’t so much the violence, the bad language, or the dark dystopian future. It was that I really didn’t like the viewpoint character. When I thought about it, I realised that given that James is a boy with “bad genes”, suffering from PTSD after being nearly killed in a fire, and then used as an unsuspecting test subject for experimental drugs, he can be either a credible character or a likeable character, but not both. Other characters, such as his artistic roommate Owen, are easier on the nerves, although I failed to understand his sudden violent outbursts. As for Bethany, she’s portrayed as an intelligent girl with an interesting backstory; and what she sees in James is beyond my comprehension.
There are disagreeable underlying messages here, as well. The villain of the piece is a scientist, experimenting on the boys, and not in any fashion liable to help them – it’s the whole “science is bad” syndrome again. Furthermore, the basic premise that society might attempt to “cure” young males with a genetic disposition to violence by subjecting them to strict discipline in a “Goodhouse” seems unlikely. The jury is still out on the whole issue of genetics and violent behaviour, and I suspect that by the time any connection is proven, more effective ways to deal with “bad” genes will be available. (Whether or not they should be used is a whole other issue). So, the book is not much use as science fiction either – and let’s not go into Marshall’s lack of thought in his world-building. Essentially, Marshall isn’t writing an SF novel, or a YA adventure, he’s writing a polemic against reform schools.
I can’t really recommend this book… it left me with such a nasty taste. But I have no doubt that it will be highly praised in certain circles, and unsuspecting teenagers will be required to study it.
Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand
Reviewed by Jacqui