Debut novelist Heng tells a YA tale of personal struggle and political revolution in the fantastic world of Bumi.
A teenage girl named Arla is pushed out of the orphanage where she lives and into danger and adventure in the streets of a city named Paradise. She quickly finds herself pursued by members of a political faction called the Forlorn who run the city government, which has fostered greed and consumerism in the society. She later becomes embroiled in a growing revolutionary effort by the Hibiscus Party, whose members live mostly underground in a forgotten part of Paradise called Kampung. The Hibiscus Party is named after a legendary airship, which most people believe is only a legend from an outlawed children’s book. Arla meets new people and suffers losses, she learns that much of what she was taught in the orphanage is false, and some questions remain unanswered: who really ended the Great War that put the Forlorn in power? Is the Hibiscus Airship real? And are there other worlds beyond Bumi? As the Hibiscus Party prepares to launch a bloodless revolution, Arla learns difficult lessons about abandonment, betrayal, and freedom. The novel has a very promising premise, and many characters are given deep, personal struggles to overcome. However, the prose isn’t up to the task of conveying the grand story that the author wants to tell. Overly flowery passages regularly appear, along with contradictory or confusing descriptions (a man “silently bawled”; an airship flies “with the strength of a thousand men”) that will pull readers out of the story. The worldbuilding is inconsistent, as well; the existence of airships, for example, evokes a lower-tech world, but at one point, Arla mentions running a social media propaganda campaign despite the fact that there’s no other mention of social media in the book. Characters also sometimes seem to act illogically, seemingly only for the sake of adding a twist to the plot.
A novel that could have had quite a tale to tell, but its flaws keep it from taking flight.