If you’re looking for an upbeat, happy-go-lucky sort of read, you aren’t going to find it in Elsie Chapman’s Dualed. The cover art alone should make that abundantly clear, but if not, the first few pages will: It’s generally not a good sign when a 15-year-old’s funeral attire is well-worn. Or when she introduces herself by saying, “I’ve buried nearly everyone I love.”
Our heroine, West, lives in the walled city of Kersh. It’s lauded as the last “war-free zone” on the planet, but that’s not entirely true. Every resident has an Alt—a genetically engineered twin—and at some point before each pair turns 20, they are “activated”: From that moment on, it is kill or be killed. Thirty-one days later, if they are both still alive, they’ll both die. All of this is done as a sort-of forced Darwinism—in order to keep control of their stronghold, Kersh’s Board has decreed that it needs to be populated by warriors, and they don’t have resources to expend on the weak.
I give Chapman huge points for writing a dystopian set in a brutal kill-or-be-killed world...and just letting it be. Unlike every other YA dystopian I’ve read, Dualed never turns into a story about Standing Up To The Man or Fighting For Freedom. It’s purely a survival story, and it was a nice change to read about a protagonist who wasn’t a special snowflake* or a focal point for a rebellion. West is just trying to get by, and even when she breaks the rules, regardless of motive, she’s still contributing to the larger vision of the Board. And, at the end of the book—assuming that this is a stand-alone—rather than making any sort of statement or taking any sort of stand against the brutality, she takes her place in society. Which is pretty dang dark.
In that respect, there’s quite a lot to think about. Also, some of the action sequences really work—the Escape From New York-ish countdown is especially effective—there are a couple of scenes with the love interest that are impressively steamy given the complete lack of lip-lock, and there’s some good imagery, like “His head cracked like a dropped pumpkin.” Ewww.
The positives are overshadowed by the book’s more problematic aspects. The major issue lies in the premise itself, which is completely illogical. A walled city with limited resources needs to populate itself with strong soldiers. Okay... so the Powers That Be decide to use said limited resources on genetic engineering to create said strong soldiers...and then kill half of them? Why not just, I dunno, train them? Or create half as many, and train THEM to be BETTER soldiers? Speaking from an entirely pragmatic place—questions of morality aside—raising clones in order to make them fight to the death just seems like A HUGE WASTE.
Also, who in his right mind hires a completely untested 15-year-old as an illegal paid assassin? Not a guy who’s supposedly a big wily crime lord, that’s for sure. Except that’s exactly what happens in Dualed. There is a lot less action than you’d expect because West’s months as an assassin are mostly glossed over: While that makes her easier to relate to (than, for instance, Dexter Morgan), tiptoeing around the whole Killer For Hire thing is bound to disappoint some readers.
Nutshell: Those who want a well-developed world and/or characters should look elsewhere; ditto those looking for an action-packed thrill ride. But! It should be noted that the Kirkus reviewer liked it much more than I did, so I’d suggest clicking over there for a second opinion.