This post-apocalyptic debut sees a young woman with a past on the trail of a missing person.
The Decline has crippled the world. Rooted in global warming, the phenomenon encompasses humanity’s failure to cope with savage weather, food and water shortages, mosquito plagues, and diseases like the West Nile virus running amok. Samarra is from the barren South—a place requiring mental and physical discipline called Seira—but her new friends in the chaotic North think she’s from nearby Kanlan. Among the Vauns, who protect their own, she’s a drudge who travels around the Barrow, a half-flooded and trash-strewn city, to collect items from her group’s network of contacts. Sam is also friends with Ava, a woman whose daughter, Raina, could be missing or dead. Ava allows the Southerner to stay with her at an abandoned factory and use Raina’s boots and bed. One day, Sam discusses with Jackal, a fellow Vaun, how people often leave their lives behind on the solstice, hoping to start fresh elsewhere. Jackal suggests that Raina bolted with Finlay, her boyfriend. Later, members of the compound—Sam, Jackal, Hakuund, and twins Cassio and Xenia—visit a “party spot” called the Hive, where people enjoy music, gambling, and drinks. After a fire breaks out at the club and they barely escape, Sam’s dreams about her life in the South grow more intense. A sense of loss and failure surrounds a man named Corvus, and Sam begins to realize that finding Raina may mitigate the tragedy that her life has become.
In this dour, atmospheric series opener, Lee explores how both the North and South cope with a ruined planet. In the North, stark environmental devastation haunts lines like “There was a mutation and the beetle’s appetite expanded to include other types of softwoods. Then came a second mutation and the hardwoods began to die.” Yet humanity perseveres, finding solace at card tables and drum circles, where “it was loud and damp and bordering on painful, but it was beautiful, and beauty was rare.” The author alternates chapters of Sam’s search for Raina with the protagonist’s Southern past as a child of the Administration. Militarized training centers keep reading, writing, and arithmetic alive while instilling a harsh code of conduct. Protector Gin, for example, tells cadets excited by guns to “prove that you can be trusted with a blade, and maybe you’ll get a projectile.” While these moments further darken the tale, reminding readers of a United States obsessed with the Second Amendment, the South’s “annual contests” are colorful shoutouts to genre favorites like The Hunger Games. Sam’s mission to locate Raina is slow to develop, though realistic in the way that she wakes to an inner conflict, summarized by the line “You think you can do one good thing one time for somebody else and it’ll erase what you did?” The truth behind Raina’s fate touches on another modern-day dilemma—one that hits women the hardest—and the sequel should anchor much of the worldbuilding done in the South.
A slow-burning, palpably grim dystopian tale.