So university fees have gone up, job centre queues are round the block, you’re told that if you start work now, you’ll probably have to keep going until they install a ramp for you to get into the building and worst of all, you’ve realised vampires aren’t real. It’s no wonder young adults are turning in their droves to the bleak world of dystopian fiction. Unless you’ve been in isolation for the past year, you’ve probably heard of The Hunger Games by now, but what more is there to be found in this genre for young adults (or, more popularly, YA) and indeed adults alike? Wonder no more, here’s a little taster of what Dystopian fiction has to offer. As usual, click on the cover artwork or title to see the book on waterstones.com
The Hunger Games is by no means the first in this genre to delight YA readers. Let’s hark back to 2006 for moment: Bird Flu was sweeping the planet, Justin Timberlake was bringing Sexy Back, and Scott Westerfeld released the first in his brilliant Uglies Trilogy. Here, dystopia brings with it physical conformity. At the age of 16, every teenager undergoes surgery to eliminate any physical nasties and everyone becomes universally beautiful. Hurray! Of course, with the nasties go all sense of individuality- amongst other things!- and once our hero Tally discovers the real reason behind this transformation, she turns her back on her lifelong desire to be pretty and joins the rebels: The Uglies.
Playing cleverly with the notions of physical insecurity that plague everyone from one time to another and beauty-driven cultures – some things never change – Westerfeld’s novel remains gripping throughout as you genuinely have no idea how it will pan out, Tally commitment to either cause is never absolute and, well, it doesn’t necessarily end how you’d expect it to! Never mind though, there are sequels.
Michael Grant’s first instalment in his dystopian Lord of the Flies type series emerged at the same time as The Hunger Games, and has been a constant figure in teen sales since then, constantly battling the tide of vampire romance and, by and large, holding its own! In fact its fighting spirit has extended to the note on the cover of the latest book Fear saying that it’s better than The Hunger Games – take THAT Hunger Games! Essentially we’re presented with a world in which everyone over the age of 15 has disappeared. This means no adults and no society to speak of, pretty much overnight. Partay right? Not so much.
Unsurprisingly, society ruled by feral children who see no life beyond 15 is not a rosy place to be. Grant’s series is a thriller in the best sense of the word, with no societal boundaries or fully matured figures, you can never predict what could happen and the grim thought that your unstable life disappears somewhere and somehow at only 15 grabs your gut throughout. It might make you ill with tension, but it’s completely worth a few days on the liquids.
Shortened life spans also figure in Lauren DeStefano’s Wither. Due to a fairly major scientific malfunction human males have been left with a life expectancy of 25 years, females just 20. It stands to reason that with shortened life spans, comes a greater urgency to mate to keep humanity afloat. Unfortunately with this greater urgency comes a lessening in anyone being bothered if the girl consents or not and it’s rarely one wife to a husband. Note that even in a fantasy dystopian world, the girls are still getting the short end of the stick.
Our kidnapped and enslaved heroine, Rhine, is in a genuinely bad spot and despite not having been left with the worst husband going you can’t help but feel for her and desperately want her to get out of this sinister world, back to her family. Sorry though, it’s dystopia, you might not necessarily get what you want but oops, I’ve already said too much! Beautiful book, captivatingly written and with the second in the series just out, there’s no better time to get on board.
Shortlisted for the Waterstones Book Prize this year, Divergent has similar traits to Uglies in that it deals with certain societal issues affecting young adults – in this case, stereotyping and the clique led environment we live in – in a more pronounced way. Enter dystopian future. Instead of having to conform to be beautiful, teens must choose by the age of 16 and via a series of aptitude tests, which faction of society they will fit into essentially for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately for Tris, she ticks the boxes of all five factions, which you might think would be a good thing, but that’s not how this society functions. Anyone who has had a flat line career aptitude test that they hoped would just spike up in one place and take the strain out of choosing, will empathise.
What’s great about this book is that Roth really takes the time to create an amazingly rounded feel of what life is like in this imagined world. She properly gives us a view of each faction’s way of life and the conflicts that lie between them which are at the centre of Tris’ own inner conflict. Dystopia here is a way of life, rather than just simply a handy backdrop for a story. The only downside of this is that the real drama takes a while to kick off, but with Roth’s second hotly anticipated instalment due out this May, all that’s about to change!
Well I could hardly leave out the winner of the Costa Children’s Prize 2011 now could I? Here is a world so vividly portrayed it’s just crying out to be made into a movie. It’s bleak, it’s dusty, it’s littered with danger and errs more on the fantastical side of dystopia than a lot of the others do – note the mysterious riders who kidnap our heroine Saba’s brother and the bizarre new species roaming the planet. The plot centres around Saba’s quest to find and save her brother, taking her and her surprisingly empathetic pet crow through inhospitable terrain, even less hospitable and shiver-inducing cities and meeting some seriously memorable characters along the way.
This is a YA dystopian novel that can easily be appreciated by older readers as you don’t have to relate to any particular age group’s personal dilemmas, and is one of the stories most true to the genre. Saba is a great character, she is slightly reminiscent of Daenerys Targaryen, George R.R. Martin’s child warrior queen, courageous and determined beyond her years. Young’s use of language is extremely clever too as she almost has you mouthing the dialogue along with the characters. It would be surprising if Young wasn’t pressed to do a follow up due to this book’s success but it stands alone perfectly without one too. Essentially, the right book won.
So what next for YA fiction then? In this bookseller’s experience, once a good trend takes hold it doesn’t let go for a while and with several series nowhere near ended we should be seeing a lot more dystopian fiction coming our way. However with Scott Westerfeld having recently released a third book in his new Steampunk series Leviathan and some amazing ghostly offerings from Cliff McNish’s The Hunting Ground, Ruth Warburton’s A Witch in Winter and Maureen Johnson’s The Name of the Star, the next big thing is only a flick of a page away.
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