First of all, while it’s in no way relevant to this review, I feel like I should just remind/tell you guys that I turned 21 yesterday. Which is TERRIFYING. There’s no getting away from it now: I’m a proper adult by pretty much any legal standard, and should probably start living up to those expectations.
Yeah, let’s just take a minute to laugh about that possibility. Okay. Moving on. Back to the review, which I wrote when I was twenty and comparatively immature and ignorant, because everyone knows birthdays give you magical knowledge or something.
I was approved for this on NetGalley quite a while ago, but I only just got around to reading it. I’m not sure why I put it off so long — maybe just because it was on the longer side, although it’s not unreasonably so. Once I actually got around to picking it up, I got through it in a few hours, with a pause in between, and enjoyed it quite a lot. I probably should have done that sooner, to be honest.
It’s a well-written and engaging dystopian story that’s not unfamiliar in its use of tropes, but manages to do them differently. One thing I found myself doing while I was reading it was picking out ideas and thinking about how they would have been done if it was a YA novel rather than an adult SF/F book, and how that affected my perception of its genre and plot. It’s kind of an interesting experiment — I’ve never come across a book where it was so easy to do this, but I might try and do it with a few others, just out of curiosity.
For example, everybody is aligned to one element (Fire, Air, Water, Fire). It’s not entirely clear how this process works, but it affects a lot: social status, jobs, behaviour, and even how they experience life and process emotions, so there’s evidently an aspect of brain chemistry in there. If this were YA, we’d probably be faced with a character not yet aligned, or uncertain about their place in that group; instead, we meet a protagonist who is satisfied and settled in her role as a Peacekeeper, an elite job reserved for Fire Elementals.
She’s tasked with infiltrating a rebellion started by Air Elementals, which represents the forbidden and feared concept of Heterodoxy (Unorthodox behaviour is discouraged; Heterodox is destroyed), and this means she has to be realigned to allow her to blend in with Air Elementals. However, the realignment is a little bit too successful and despite the internal conflicts between her lifetime of conditioning as a Fire Elemental and her current brain chemistry as an Air Elemental, the latter ends up influencing her actions a lot more than she anticipated.
Writing this review, barely a day after reading the book, I’m a little pushed to remember all that many specific plot events: what sticks in my head is the way the protagonist, Anaiya, grew and developed, and in particular how her feelings changed as she adapted to her new alignment. As you might expect from this emotional focus, there is a bit of romance in the book, but it manages to remain unobtrusive, providing motivation rather than plot in and of itself, if that makes sense. (Possibly another way in which it differs from its hypothetical YA equivalent…)
My one issue with the book may seem very minor, but it did have a significant impact on my enjoyment of the story, and it’s this: a major male character from Anaiya’s life in the Fire Element is called Niamh. Niamh is a name that I’ve only ever come across as a girls’ name, both in books and real life; while I’m not ruling out the possibility that in some cultures and languages it can be used for men, my personal association with it is as an Irish girls’ name. Thus, every time Niamh appeared in a scene, I got thrown out of the story for a moment as I tried to make sense of pronouns and overcome my confusion about who was actually present / speaking. Although it got easier as the book went on and I adapted to it, it never really went away, and it was a significant distraction every time he appeared on the page.
It sounds like a minor factor, but it stopped me from fully engaging for quite a while at the beginning of the book (where he’s a very prominent character) and distracted me from certain pivotal scenes, so it definitely messed up my immersion in the book. Like I said, it’s possible this wouldn’t be an issue for everyone, but my associations of the name with female friends and characters were just too strong to ignore.
Mostly, though, I don’t know why I delayed reading the book — it was a fast-paced, engaging read that utilised well-used conventions in a way that was just different enough to keep it feeling original.