ARC provided by Curiosity Quills Press through Netgalley
While people on the surface aren't allowed - or have to possess immense power or wealth to be allowed - to have children, in the Basement, the genomes of the world's brightest are collected and used to create improved clones. They start with the omega, and perfect the following copies until they get the perfect child.
The world above isn't aware of what's going on in the Basement, where these children, genetically engineered to lack aggression, sexual needs, and several other "undesired" traits, start working in the fields they were created for as soon as they turn ten.
Cipher, considered a failed experiment, goes through her day-to-day life longing for the world above, but somewhat content in her work in engineering.
That is, until a live feed is broadcast revealing their existence and preceding the detonation of several bombs which destroy the entire Basement, killing everyone in it... except for Cipher.
Now she has to survive the world above, the media's interest in her, and the web of intrigue that surrounds her very existence.
I liked Cipher. She's not whiny, she gets things done. She's upset over the ostracism she faces in the Basement on account of being considered imperfect, a failed first experiment. But she delights in her work and foregoes making an effort to fit in - she knows they'd never accept her anyway, she might as well be herself.
There are some inconsistencies with the world building, especially in the Basement.
- Cipher tells us that:
This seems... counter-productive."That smell of talc and formula always made me feel strange and sad, because I knew that no one would pick up or gentle those babies until they were old enough to sit up on their own."
Babies need human contact to develop properly, if they don't get it they can display failure to thrive, or develop issues later. It makes no sense to genetically engineer perfect children and then not provide them with proper care.
- Her foster-father explains that the Basement's inhabitants "don’t have the hormones that make them want to have children of their own."
...that's dangerous. The endocrine system is complex, androgens, estrogens, and their effects, have other functions besides the ones related to sexuality.
Then, of course, there is Victorious, or Tor, also created in the Basement, but his skills (he was made from the donations of a brilliant military strategist and the fittest soldier) could only be properly tested in the world above, so his mother managed to adopt him.
For someone who's the son of the most brilliant military strategist, it's jarring that he's the only character in this book I could actually label as being tstl. Yes, even with the explanation to some of his more ooc actions.
I also though Tor was 40-something by his description:
"warm eyes, which had smile-lines fanning out from the sides"
"His mouth, I noted for no particular reason, was a little too wide, with deep grooves on either side."
But, as it turns out, he's 18?!
Supposedly to make him closer in age to 16 year old Cipher, but still... what an odd description for an 18 year old...
He's brought in to the hospital in which Cipher is recovering, being the only other person with a similar life experience.
Now, Cipher had preciously told us that there were a "thousand people in the Basement, and [she] knew every one of them". This isn't far-fetched, that's the average number of students at a high school, and one can generally know everyone at least by sight, and that's without even living with them 24/7, since birth.
But she doesn't know Tor at all?
"“You don’t remember me, do you?” His smile faded, just a little."
Cipher seems unconcerned with this... I don't know. I wouldn't be. I found him a bit creepy, to be honest, always calling her "love" (even after she specifically told him not to call her that!) and mentioning he'd been watching her while he was in the Basement, and never forgot her, and worried about her...
However, when he tells her, "You shouldn’t trust me", Cipher refreshingly goes against YA clichés and does just that.
"Tor was a killer, bred, born, and trained. I wouldn’t allow myself to mistake his way of holding himself for gentleness."
She doesn't trust him. She doesn't trust anyone.
She also doesn't just move on from the loss she suffered. Too often we see YA protagonists losing their parents (the missing parent trope at work!) and just moving on because they have this wonderful new ~dreamy~ boy or girl to obsess over. Cipher's losses weigh on her. She may not have been close to most of the people in the Basement other than a few - but they were all the people she'd met in her entire life. It was realistic, and a welcome change to see her grieve for them.
There was a bit too much tell instead of show - Cipher's rants and monologues, for instance. But, on the whole, it was pretty good, solid writing - not so much the pacing: midway through the story it started to lag a bit.
I loved Bowen and Oona - especially Oona!
There were time lapses in the book and I think they did the story a disservice. The slow growth of the relationships portrayed should have been shown instead of just saying "it's been x time and now we're close".
There is a sort of love triangle in this book, I personally didn't even really see it as such, because I never considered any of them to be proper love interests, so I just ignored that bit. If you hate love triangles (and who doesn't?!), don't let that keep you from reading this book.
All in all, it was an entertaining dystopia, even if it lacked a bit of urgency to it.
If you're in the mood for a YA dystopia with clever protagonists and without the romantic clichés, give this book a chance!
S.E. Bennett's blog
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