Do Not “Forsake” Me, Oh My Darling

Think The Hunger Games meets Lord of the Flies, and you will have a general idea of The Forsaken.  Lisa M. Stasse’s debut publication follows in Suzanne Collins’ footsteps as a dystopic novel for young adult readers.  I think fans of sci-fi would most enjoy the book, male and female alike.  With a strong, engaging plot and an interesting vision of the future, this first installment of Stasse’s trilogy shows potential.

Her book is set only 10 to 20 years from our present, thus the author’s dystopia immediately threatens the reader.  The protagonist, orphan Alenna Shawcross grows up in a superpower called the United Northern Alliance, formed by Mexico, Canada, and the Unites States in the face of economic failure.  In Alenna’s present, people are given thought-pills to keep them docile, and forced to wear earpieces at all times that play classical music and pro-dictator propaganda on government demand.

At sixteen, Alenna must now undergo the Government Personality Profile Test, a test that identifies potential murderers, rapists, thieves, and psychopaths.  “Because of this test, crime has virtually been eliminated in the UNA.”  Or so Alenna believes.  If a teenager fails they are deemed an unanchored soul and abandoned on an island, which its inhabitants call “the wheel,” where the average life expectancy is eighteen.  It will come as no surprise to the reader that Alenna goes in to take the test and wakes up on the wheel, in the midst of a civil war between the two factions of surviving teenagers.  This is where Alenna’s story truly begins: she must choose between the two tribes of teenagers, and decide whether to fight to survive on the island or fight to escape it.

Stasse’s prose is straightforward, with no attempt at being fanciful.  The sentence structure and diction are simple, sometimes bordering on cliché.  The prose makes sense for a young girl who has to compartmentalize her feelings growing up in a society that strips its inhabitants of their voice. She cannot allow herself to face the tragedy of when her parents were taken away by the government.  She absorbs and evaluates events around her as they happen, taking in the facts: “I shouldn’t be here.  I’m a normal, decent member of the UNA.  I’m no different from any of the other orphans or kids at my school.  This is insane.  How did I even get here?  There are no tire tracks or roads.  Was I tossed out of a helicopter?  Doubtful.  I don’t have any broken bones.”

So is The Forsaken a success?   Perhaps I read too many books and have become jaded.  One encounters generic tropes too often, and can easily become bored.  Oh look, it’s another dystopic novel, with another damaged female that falls in love for the first time and has to fight for survival.  I was not truly interested until about twenty pages in, when Alenna lands on the island.  Her characterization was not strong, and the world of the UNA seemed like just another cold, controlled environment.  The rules and conventions of the UNA are clear, but the setting lacks mood.  Until I am placed on the island with Alenna.  From then on, I begin to understand her character, and I can easily visualize the lush, hot terrain surrounded by unknown dangers.

The author gives her auxiliary characters complete and believable personalities. The two other primary female characters in the novel, Gadya, the impulsive female warrior and Rika, the strong-willed pacifist are both girls that female readers could look up to.  The males too, have strong characters: Viedman, a charismatic leader and shrewd strategist, or David, the small but cunning rebel.  They treat the girls as equals, valuable to their society, which are great models for future gender relations.  The exception to the strong characterization is Alenna’s love interest.

I had two big problems with the novel: one being Liam (the love interest) and the other being the author’s social issues.  Liam does not jump off the page, as he should.  Alenna is the narrator, so the reader should see him through her eyes and swoon with her.  Besides being attractive and nice, I don’t see any reason why she should be infatuated with him.  Why does she feel this connection to him?  I don’t know.  Liam’s character is not particularly distinguishable from another love interest in another novel, and feels like a YA convention, as though publishers forced the author to create a love interest.

The number of social issues addressed also flaws the novel.  So many different ones are addressed, that I find it difficult to figure out what was the most important point the author is trying to make.  What is the moral of the story?  What is she cautioning the reader against? Is the problem misuse of government control? Power in general? Is it about gender? Women’s rights? Misuse of technology and science?  Then towards the end, the novel was moralizing and the narrator was spelling out Alenna’s issues, and explicating how she had grown from the beginning.  This dumbs down the novel. I do not like to feel like the narrator thinks I am stupid.

Despite these flaws, the book has fantastic pacing and a gripping plot.  From the moment Alenna is deposited on the island, it is nonstop action and adventure.  There are obstacles to overcome and mysteries to solve.  The most interesting characteristic of the novel was the part that machines have to play in Alenna’s world, but I can’t say more, because I don’t want to spoil anything!  Their involvement in the conflict and resolution were genre defying for me.  They added an enticing sci-fi element to the novel.  The climax and its resolution are well worth the wait.  I voraciously read through the last hundred pages, shrieking and cringing in suspense.  It is their inclusion, which separates The Forsaken from The Hunger Games and Lord of the Flies.   My insides turn at Stasse’s vision of the future.  On these factors alone, I would say that the novel is a good start to what could be a fascinating trilogy, and I await the next installment.

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