A baffling illness threatens a fantasy land.
Ani’s up in a tree picking a vinefruit when wardens capture her. She’s done nothing wrong, but the wardens say that the red stain on her arm from the vinefruit juice is a symptom of the Scourge, a deadly, contagious, always-fatal disease. It’s clearly a pretext: before they found her, Ani heard them mention their assignment to “come get” several people of Ani’s ethnic group. The River People—forbidden from voting or owning property, not bathing “often enough”—are a stereotypical blend of Romany and indigenous peoples. The ruling townsfolk, on the other hand, have no specified ethnicity and seem white. The governor diagnoses Ani and her best friend, Weevil, with the Scourge and sends them to the Colony, a quarantined island from which nobody returns. (Colony wardens, oddly, seem immune to the Scourge.) Ani and Weevil play Colony rabble-rousers, resisting unfair treatment and working to untangle the governor’s statement that “River People are the Scourge.” Nielsen provides two major plot twists, and both are robust and horrifying in content; however, the method and pace of divulging them are meandering and vague, lacking punch. Characters are stock, and the prose sometimes overexplains, even stretching beyond Ani’s first-person voice to reveal other characters’ emotions.
Predictable execution hampers what could have been an intriguing exploration of the mechanics of corruption. (Fantasy. 10-13)