Ohman’s debut novel is set in Meritropolis, a walled city where every person lives at the mercy of the System, an algorithm that assigns each resident a number that determines their worth to society.
Teenage Charley has grown up in Meritropolis under the constant scrutiny of the System, which rules with an iron fist. When a citizen’s number drops below 50—as in the case of Charley’s older brother, who had Down syndrome—he or she is put outside the gates of the city, never to be seen again. The landscape outside is rife with murderous monsters: animal hybrids like the ferocious bion, a bull-lion combination, or rotthogs, Rottweiler-boar hybrids that are hunted for food. Charley, however, has an extremely high score, high enough to make him valuable, and he finds himself in the upper echelons of the System, groomed along with other high-scoring youth for a mysterious purpose. But Charley yearns for revenge—for his brother Alec and other innocents chosen for death by the relentless System—and he seeks to bring the System down from the inside. The novel is a clear attempt to join the wave of dystopia currently dominating the YA best-seller lists, and Ohman’s writing is a cut above: “The cork-gray, near-splintering steps accepted each of Charley’s strides with a ligneous grumble.” Unfortunately, he also seems to be assembling the plot from a list of well-worn clichés, starting with his hero: Charley is simply better than everybody at everything, which leaves him nowhere to grow as a character. From the outset, he’s clearly the chosen one to bring down the System, and the people he meets fall into simple roles: love interest, sidekick, nemesis, femme fatale who uses her sexuality as a weapon, etc. There’s also no sense that he was ever fooled by the System; his epiphanies about its corruption have already happened, and besides the faceless grunts he kills in his liberation quest, it seems everyone he meets has already decided the System is evil, which gives the entire book an odd feeling of anticlimax.
Well-written but can’t break free of its all-too-familiar tropes.