In this YA dystopian adventure, a village girl with special skills learns she’s an heiress—and betrothed.
In the future, wars and climate change have greatly altered Earth’s geography. City centers, known as Cores, hoard technology, trees, wealth, and genetic prodigies for themselves, protected from the Outlying Lands, where poor villagers labor to supply Core industries. Willow Kent, 16, works in her parents’ village tavern and attends school, dreaming of performing well enough to enlarge her opportunities. All that changes when Cmdr. Reece of the Core shows up. Imperious, rude, and genetically enhanced (for example, he’s “impossibly tall” and stunningly handsome), he learns and reveals several secrets about Willow. Still reeling, Willow is compelled to accompany Reece to the Core, where—as the true heiress to a great family—she must marry the son of a rival house to bring peace. Her tempestuous emotions, already aroused by homesickness and anger, are further stoked by Reece’s flirtations; although she hates his cruelty and arrogance and he shows little patience for her rebelliousness (“Ogre.” “Brat.”), he sets off continual sparks in her. Meanwhile, Willow has much to learn about her gifts and about navigating the dangerous Core. In this debut novel, Denault (a contributor to Fairly Twisted Tales for a Horribly Ever After, 2014) carefully constructs a dystopian future world, giving it fullness, complexity, and consistency. For example, Willow grows up with village modesty and long skirts; her horror at the Core’s revealing swimsuits is believable—and makes an intriguing contrast to the raw power she unleashes when the pool is attacked. At times, Reece and Willow’s love/hate dynamic, with its “volatile mix of violence and tenderness,” gets uncomfortably close to portraying an abusive relationship. But Willow’s unstoppable determination—her inner tiger—keeps her from becoming a victim, and it’s good to see a teenage girl owning her desire as well as her anger. Readers are likely to stick with this long first volume and look forward to sequels.
Complex worldbuilding provides a strong backbone for this well-written start to a planned series with a resolute heroine.