A few weeks ago I went to a book event called the “Fierce Reads” tour. “Viral Nation” and it’s author Shaunta Grimes were not part of this tour, so I won’t spend too much time on the details, but let’s just say it was a tour designed to highlight strong female heroines in Young Adult literature. Anyways, this tour was no different than the other 7 billion I’ve been to. Books were featured. Snacks were served, questions were asked. Old dog, same tricks. But there was a moment (and by moment I mean a conversation) AFTER the event that inadvertently peaked my interest.
Standing in the front of the line (decked out in some pretty serious Russian Larping gear) was a girl (whom I had met only minutes before) named Amanda. Amanda (due in no small part to her wardrobe I’m sure) had cornered author Leigh Bardugo, and decided to pick her brain.
“Why is it…” she asked, “do you think girls get such a bad wrap as heroines?”
Admittedly, this question took both Leigh and myself by surprise. From where WE were standing, characters like Suzanne Collin’s Katniss, and Veronica Roth’s Tris, had done nothing but elevate the status of girls in lead roles. The fact that she didn’t see this struck us both as odd. Noticing our confusion…she changed her question.
“Ok, let me change my question. Why are the female heroines always so perfect?”
THIS was an entirely different ballgame.
Now, I won’t waste your time recounting the entire conversation, I’m sure you all have lives to get back to, but Amanda’s question DID make me stop and think.
To date, in all but one of the books I’ve read (or at least that I can remember) that center around a strong female lead (I am of course referring to a specific genre of lit…dystopian, post apocalyptic etc…) the characters themselves are “relatively” perfect. Yes, nine times out of ten they are an emotional wasteland (that isn’t up for debate) but physically or mentally disabled? Not so much.
Can you image Katniss surviving the games is she were say…blind? What about June from Marie Lu’s novel “Legend?” She’s smart, brilliant in fact, but what if she required the use of a service dog to keep her for being overwhelmed?
These are the answers Amanda was looking for.
“Why can’t the girls we are supposed to draw strength from be like us? Real? Flawed? But still strong…capable…diverse?”
Well, guess what Amanda…Shaunta Grimes answered you call.
For those of you wondering what that one book was I referred to a few paragraphs up, it was Emily McKay’s “The Farm.” And, much like the lead (or one of, I guess I should say) in Emily’s novel, Clover (the protagonist in “Viral Nation”) is autistic.
Unfamiliar with autism? Maybe this will help. It is a: “disorder of neural development characterized by impaired social interaction and verbal and non-verbal communication, and by restricted, repetitive or stereotyped behavior.”
Now imagine for a second the characteristics of Dystopian/Post-Apocalyptic/Science-Fiction literature. They a generally harsh are they not? As is the case in “Viral Nation.”
A virus ravaged a country. A cure was developed. Harsh rules were established. And a fake utopian society was formed.
What makes this novel so different from the 30 before it is NOT the world Clover and her brother West live in (though traveling to the future to help the past did have its own unique qualities.) It’s Clover and West themselves. How they protect, manipulate or indulge each-other. The way in which they move around each-other like magnets. Pushing or pulling to balance Clover’s needs. The way Grimes doesn’t shy away from Clover’s communicative differences, but highlights them with skilled affection.
She (Grimes) took a brilliant girl, gave her a prominent flaw (though I don’t necessarily view autism as a “flaw”) and then demanded she be strong in the face of catastrophic circumstances. Not allowing her character to back down gave Grimes a stunning character to work with. A character that (for the first time) gets to truly experience and understand the effects of hate/disloyalty/love and expectation. The same can be said for West, though in reverse. He has to learn how to give-up control instead of taking it. Let go of certain perceptions, of things he’s loved and grown up understanding.
One narrative voice is about building. The other about tearing things down. And together they wrap around each-other like a warm blanket.
Now, here is where this review gets difficult. Though I found the story to be a very unique blend of Dystopia and Science Fiction, I also found it to be a little holy. (No, not “Praise Jesus” holy…I’m not taking you to church, I’m trying to warn you about pot holes.)
If you are not focused while reading the last 20% of this novel, you will not understand it. I’d like to chalk that up to the amount of time travel speak that is going on, but that’s actually not it. What it really boils down to is execution. While Grimes was spot on with her characters, she lacked follow through (or…focus) on her actual plot. Non-ending aside, there were several things that needed to be explained that weren’t. I’m not asking for a road map to the end of the revolution, but a few crumbs (like those found in the epilogue) would have helped. This story is not a streamlined one, there are several characters going in several directions at once, this usually makes for an engaging story. Instead…it made for a lackluster one (in certain spots.) Not establishing a solid line for the readers to follow causes a slight amount of chaos towards the end.
Does that mean I didn’t enjoy it? Not at all. Despite its flaws I found myself racing to the end. That has to mean something right?
When it’s all said and done, this was NOT a bad start to a new series. At the very least…I can’t wait to see where the characters go from here.
Happy Reading my fellow Kindle-ites and remember: Not everything is how it appears.