Genre: YA Dystopian/Science Fiction
Publisher: Berkley Trade
Release Date: July 2 2013
Source: Finished paperback from publisher
In a word: a unique dystopian world, a fierce and loveable main character, a group of Freaks that might change the world, written in simple and lovely prose.
He shook a dozen small white pills from the bottle. She wouldn’t be able to swallow them; her throat hardly let sips of water through. So he crushed the pills into a fine powder with a gray stone mortar and pestle that they’d bought on their honeymoon in Cuernavaca.
It seems like I’ve been waiting forever to read Viral Nation, and now that I’ve finished it, I’m feeling a little sad. Grimes creates a vivid and sharply focused dystopian world that I loved being lost in, if only for a little while. Dystopians are nothing new these days, and some of the elements of Viral Nation are familiar, but the story has an irresistible combination of careful world building, wonderful characters, and a worthy goal for those characters to aim for. All these things together make this story fresh and are the reasons I’m sorry I’ve finished reading this book.
The story begins as a ravaged United States is trying to recover from a deadly flesh-eating virus. It’s been over sixteen years since millions of people died of the virus and a cure was discovered. Now the survivors live in walled cities to keep the virus in check, and are administered daily doses of the vaccine to keep it from coming back. In the city of Reno, Nevada, sixteen-year-old Clover and her older brother West live inside the walls, eking out a hardscrabble existence by living off weekly government-issued rations and going to the Suppressant Bar to get their daily injections. West’s dream is to become a guard for the Company, a job that would give him a higher status and more rations, but he’s sacrificed this dream to stay home and care for Clover, who has autism and isn’t yet old enough to take care of herself.
One day Clover receives an acceptance letter from the Academy, a school that only takes in the best and brightest. Her test scores are off the chart, which makes her a perfect candidate, but when Clover goes for her interview, she is told that she’ll be better off working for the Company as a Messenger, someone who travels to the future through a portal at the bottom of Lake Tahoe in order to bring back news from the future. Clover is confused by this sudden change of plans, but does her best to learn her new job. But when she meets a boy from the future who gives her shocking information about West, Clover’s orderly world is turned upside down, and she must leave her familiar life behind in order to help West, and possibly start a revolution that will free the citizens of Reno from the oppressive Company.
It’s hard to decide which part of this story I loved the most, but I guess I’d have to say the character of Clover is probably my favorite. Clover is autistic, but she has a support system that helps her cope with everyday life, including her brother West and her adorable service dog Mango. Clover is very blunt when she speaks, and often says the wrong thing in certain situations. She is also wary of being touched and tries to keep others at a distance. But somehow these gritty qualities give her a lovable personality, and I was rooting for her from the first page to the last.
Her bulldog Mango is a steady presence in Clover’s life, and he’s been trained to read her mood swings and offer his own brand of doggy comfort whenever Clover is stressed. I loved that the author lets Mango act as a supporting character rather than taking over the story, which could easily have happened. Although I do admit I would have liked to see more interaction between Mango and Clover, and at times I felt that Mango was only a prop in the story, I grew to appreciate the subtlety and beauty of their relationship. They are so attuned to each other that a simple hug or lick on the hand is all they need to show their love.
Grimes brings some new world-building to the table and gives the tried and true dystopian about killer viruses and walled cities some new life by adding time travel to her story. I loved the fact that the portal to the future is at the bottom of Lake Tahoe, and that this portal opens up into a world exactly two years in the future. Using a similar idea to Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report, Messengers travel through the portal to gather information about the future and bring it back to be analyzed, in order to catch future criminals before they can commit any violent crimes. Other ideas like the Bazaar, where people go to gamble for their rations and Foster City, a horrible place where children without parents are sent, were so interesting and added an extra layer to the story for me.
Grimes begins each chapter with a quote from a U.S. President, quotes about freedom that ironically echo the state of affairs that the U.S. has found itself in, and when Clover and her friends discover these quotes on the internet, they uncover a deeper meaning behind them. I loved the themes of questioning authority in order to preserve human freedoms and being brave enough to change things when they aren’t working.
All this is told in the author’s simple yet effective prose that belies the dangers and complexities of life. My only complaint is that some of the time travel elements confused me. I think the concept of time travel is head-scratching to begin with, but I did finish the book with lots of questions about how things worked: What exactly did the Time Mariners and Static Mariners do? Why did going through the portal cause people to lose their memories? And how exactly does talking to someone in the future change the past? I wanted more details about how this portal worked, and hopefully the author will delve into it more in the next book.
Grimes wraps up her story with a nail-biting and emotional ending and sets things up for book two, which can’t come soon enough for me. Once you enter Clover’s world, you won’t want to leave, I promise!
Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Click here to read my review with Shaunta and enter a to win one of FIVE copies of Viral Nation (US/Canada – ends 6/30)!