In Little’s YA dystopian sci-fi debut, teenagers who’ve spent most of their lives in virtual reality escape to a real world of nuclear and viral devastation.
In the year 2359, 13-year-old Libby has been connected to virtual technology for a decade and only has vague memories of her parents. She and her “ClassMates” live in the Trinity BioDome; nuclear destruction and a viral pandemic laid waste to the “Outside” long ago. Education for the Students comes in the form of a technology called “GamePlay,” which they use to acquire knowledge and, typically, play avatars of significant historical figures. Libby’s visions of the Hindu deity Vishnu, however, make her question her own existence. Soon, she and fellow ClassMate (and romantic interest) Kem decide to become “untethered.” They desire reality over imprisonment in the Dome, but the strange, unpredictable Outside may be more perilous than they imagine. This impressive first novel feels as if it takes place in an ever expanding universe. It starts small: there are a mere five Students in Libby’s Class, and they spend the bulk of their time inside Game Avatar Programs for their exams. But once Libby and Kem flee the Dome, new characters and surprising revelations flood the pages. The Clann of the Sol, for instance, is a group that often takes in Students who leave the Dome—but only the ones that it deems worthy. Little is clearly aiming this novel at a young-adult audience; the word “feces” is as harsh as the expletives ever get. Likewise, Libby and Kem’s winsome romance progresses but remains appropriate for the barely teenage characters; for example, each is prone to storming off after silly arguments, such as when Kem calls Libby stubborn. Later chapters, though, are decidedly more intense, as they introduce the Skinwalkers—much-feared men who paint their faces in powder made from corpses, which transforms them into shape-shifters. The story’s first part goes on a bit too long, particularly in its lengthy coverage of the Manhattan program; when a Student named Jaize attends Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral as first lady Eleanor, for example, it has little relevance to the main plot. But the novel shines after it goes Outside, and it answers readers’ hovering questions with a number of plot twists near the end. Nevertheless, it leaves some mysteries, such as Vishnu’s purpose, open for a welcome sequel.
An apocalyptic YA adventure with a familiar setup but refreshing young characters and unexpected plot turns.