Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Land, by Alex Campbell

In 2014 the oceans rose and consumed most of the Earth's land. Cons, just a little girl then, set sail with her family with the hope of survival. She, her mother and her uncle were the only ones to make it to Land, after three months afloat and after many burials at sea. Here, along with a handful of other survivors, they built the beginnings of their new world. Deciding that what they needed most was Order, the survivors elected a leader who gave them what they wanted- order. He made the hard decisions that furthered the success of Land, that made their small society more likely to survive and eventually, to thrive.

Two generations later, Land still has Order. Populations, occupations and mobility are strictly monitored, for the greater good. A rigid class system keeps everybody in check- everybody knows their place, and knows that their loyalty lies with Land, their home and their saviour. Christy, though the great-niece of Land's founder, lives an impoverished life with her grandmother Cons. Cons is a Grey, a midwife of the Semi Skilled Worker class. The Browns are manual labourers, Greens students, Whites are slaves and the Blues are elite- thinkers, scientists and Government. Christy makes it clear that her and Cons' life is a struggle; cold tenement blocks, curfews, brutal punishments for non-conformity, ill-made clothing and little food to go around. But they are the rules, and rules are what keep you safe and secure in Land. The rules decide how you will live, how you will serve the state and when you will die.

With rebel activity on the rise and more and more dissent amongst Browns and Greens, civil unrest is bubbling beneath the benevolent smiles of the Land lower classes. The government's retaliations are harsh and fatal. When Christy discovers the reason behind her upbringing, the path that was chosen for her by her Rebel father, she must make hard decisions and make sacrifices. Starting with being unexpectedly Paired to a male citizen, forever. She must choose between the safety of a life of conforming to Land's rules and expectations, or she must choose danger, death and destruction and attempt to bring Land and its dictators down. A naturally sensitive and loving person, Christy needs to learn to close off her heart and follow her head as all around her, a war erupts between the citizens of Land and its elite.

What attracted me to this book initially was its unique set up- I loved the idea of the risen seas and the last ark of humanity attempting to survive on a tiny piece of ground; no animals, no minerals to make building materials, no way of recreating lost technology...It reminded me a bit of The Book of Dave. So I was a little bit disappointed that apart from creating an isolated community held to ransom by its leaders, the sea level idea was just an establishing thing. I was hoping that the unique premise might have had more of a part to play in creating the landscape of Land, like their society might have been shaped more by their circumstances and past and seem strange to readers; perhaps evolving a slightly different dialect, or having bizarre rituals that make Land seem inescapably alien. But anyway, that's my fault for guessing instead of reading. It was still an excellent story, even if it wasn't what I'd been expecting from the premise.

What I liked most about this book was its main character. I thought Christy was a brilliant protagonist, and had all the attributes that a good revolutionary needs; she's brave, stubborn, capable and determined to succeed. She grapples with her conscience, which makes her human (if a slightly bad assassin) and she is conflicted between her hatred for the regime and her love of the people close to her; it starts off as just Cons and Kara, but she eventually comes to care for One, her mentor, Salinger, his assistant and Tobin, her state selected Pair and approved breeding partner. I really liked Kara too, and would have liked to have seen more of her. Also Ellie was a little micro butt-kicker and I want to know what happened to her after the war.

The book sort of put me in mind of quite a few other books that deal with similar themes. After all, girl becomes reluctant symbol of impending revolution is a fairly familiar narrative, particularly in the Post-Hunger-Games dystopia landscape of Young Adult fiction. The physical city itself, with its concentric circles of colour-based class reminded me of the Wind Singer series, which I read years ago and had forgotten about. The sense of surveillance, the culture of informing and the 'agree with our brainwashing or we'll kill you' was a bit 1984, a bit The Handmaid's Tale- I liked how effectively the author generates tension and paranoia. Some parts are genuinely nerve-racking. Land makes the ideology of dictatorship more accessible and understandable, the fear is palpable, and this culture of 'Damn or Be Damned' does feel particularly pertinent when you think of how being accused of 'Quietly Condoning' something looks like it might become akin to terrorist activity soon. I liked too how rebellion against tyranny is seen as the only logical thing to do- I always like messages that suggest action even if it results in failure is better than no action at all. The idea that the oppressed will eventually fight back is always a welcome one and I thought that Land showed the chaos of rebellion well.

Land is a solid, engaging stand-alone novel with a lot of emotional depth. It takes an important and relevant combination of political rebellion flavoured YA themes, makes them understandable and ties them up with a unique initial concept and a brave and complex protagonist. It makes the reader think hard about their own society and how social mobility, wealth and opportunities are distributed amongst the population. There are obvious nods to the Holocaust, the Government echoing the Nazis' methods of identifying, controlling and execution of 'undesirables' but the book doesn't refer to it directly. I think teen readers are going to love it and I'm definitely getting a couple of copies for the library.

If you read Land and liked it, can I also suggest The Wind Singer, by William Nicholson for another colour-based dystopian society (and awesome protagonist in Kestrel Hath), and also Seed, by Lisa Heathfield which has similar ingredients (Nature, small isolated society, overthrowing of dominant ideology, forbidden romance) but puts the elements together in a totally different way.

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