*I received an ecopy of this book via NetGalley. This has not influenced my review.*
I feel like the ending of this book short-circuited my brain, and now I don’t know how to word.
This book is kind of a combination of fantasy and sci-fi with a dystopian-ish or post-apocalyptic world in which the US is divided and separated with wastelands of Quarantine Zone between the livable areas. Outbreaks of magic sometimes spread and kill people, only sparing a few each time who survive and develop supernatural abilities.
It was grittier than I expected it to be, and the whole thing was so unpredictable. I was on edge almost the whole time I was reading because, like Noam, I wasn’t sure who to trust or what everyone’s plots and plans were. Nothing was obvious, but it also wasn’t a forced kind of mystery. There did reach a point when I realized certain things, but even then, there was no lack of tension and unpredictability, especially with that intense ending.
The book is also very relevant to our world. The main character, Noam, is the child of refugees and spends the whole book fighting for their rights, and the author themselves has said the story is about “the intersection of intergenerational trauma and personal trauma.” Although I cannot speak to the portrayal of those things, what I can say is that they are very much the backbone of the book. For this reason, there’s a fair amount of world-building and politics. Also for this reason, there are a lot of content/trigger warnings, and the author’s list can be found here. I would call this mature YA because of all the heavy themes and topics it handles.
But for all its politics, this book is also very focused on and driven by the flawed characters. Noam with all his roughness and passion and righteous anger. Dara with his brittleness that he covers up with coldness and alcoholism. Lehrer with his mysterious past and his smooth control in all situations. There’s POC and LGBT+ rep since all three characters are queer and Jewish, Noam is Colombian, and Dara has brown skin. The relationships between characters are well-written too.* And one thing this book does exceptionally well is illustrate the way good people can be pushed into doing bad things. It also makes you question where exactly the line should be drawn if one is doing bad things for a good reason.
The magic adds another interesting element to the story. There are all different ways someone’s powers can manifest, and using magic is largely dependent on understanding the science behind it (though I’m not clear on whether any witching could develop any power if they decided to learn the science). For example, Noam is a technopath because he’s good with computers and programming.
Overall I really enjoyed this book and the grit and heaviness of it. The characters were three-dimensional and flawed, the mystery and tension pulled me in, and I definitely want to know what’s going to happen next!
*A couple *VERY SPOILER-Y* thoughts I wanted to add about the relationships between Noam/Dara and Noam/Lehrer:
Normally with the way it happened, I would’ve thought Dara’s love for Noam didn’t seem believable because we hardly saw the two of them spend time together, and Dara acted so strangely for most of it. But Dara could read Noam’s mind, and I do think you could fall in love with someone if you knew them that intimately.
I also thought the relationship between Noam and Lehrer was very well written. I kind of fell into Lehrer’s trap the way Noam did at first, so I can understand why Noam trusted him, even without persuasion power. Noam was desperate to help the refugees, and Lehrer was offering him the opportunity to do that. Not only that, Noam had already lost his mom, recently lost his dad, and Brennan was pushing him away—he’d lost all the adult guidance he had in his life—and Lehrer took him under his wing, complimented him, treated him with respect and admiration, said Noam reminded him of himself. But at some point I realized how wrong it was that Lehrer was using a 16-year-old to do his dirty work. He was putting Noam into dangerous situations. He was manipulating him. He knew exactly what effect he had on Noam.
Anyone who likes gritty YA, a sci-fi take on magic, and harsh future worlds.