Essence, one of the new offerings from Strange Chemistry, is a Young Adult book (with all the appropriate YA angst) set in a dystopian future.
** WARNING — SPOILERS AHEAD! **
The story: Autumn is a teen, living in a religiously controlled center in San Francisco in our not-too-distant future. After watching her younger brother die because it was against the order’s teaching to artificially save a life, Autumn questions life within the confines of her cloister. Being seventeen and questioning authority makes her a prime target for another group; a group bent on destroying the teachings of Autumn’s leader (those teachings are that every individual contains ‘essence’ and when the essence runs out, the individual pass on). This new group lives (and parties) in Yosemite Valley. Believed by the locals to be uninhabitable because of radiation, it makes for a convenient hideaway while this group’s leader looks for scientific proof to destroy the ‘essence’ theory.
I really loved the gritty dystopic world that author Lisa Ann O’Kane sets up at the beginning, with the Centrists. It felt a lot like Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, in tone, at least. But from the very start of Autumn’s introduction to the Yosemite community group, I felt that she was leaving one cult for another — one which adhered to a strict code of behavior and thought, and one which promised freedom but lived on lies as much, if not more so, than the stricter community.
From the moment of the ‘Community’s’ introduction, I was uneasy. I suspect O’Kane wanted to plant this seed, but it was almost too strong from the start. Instead of being in any way surprised at what happens later in the book, I was waiting for Autumn to proverbially wake-up and get wise.
For me, Autumn and her behavior simply doesn’t work in this book. She is bright and empathetic and daring, three qualities that have her questioning and leaving behind the safe world in which she was raised. But somehow, ‘daring’ takes precedent over common-sense and her other attributes and she makes questionable choices, despite interference and offers of help from friends. From alcohol, to sex, to life-threatening risk-taking, Autumn jumps full-speed into everything.
I get it … sex, alcohol, risk-taking … these are things teens face today, but instead of playing with precaution, we seem to be showing teens that it’s okay to take these things head-on and, like Autumn, you’ll survive. You can walk the literal and metaphoric tightrope in your life, and as long as you trust one (unworthy?) person, you’ll come through the other side. Well … okay, that’s not really what this is saying, but it’s easy to get that.
I also get, though, that this book isn’t targeted to a father of a teen daughter, but to teen girls. And very specific teen girls … those who love to live on the edge and take risks. She falls for, and sticks with, the bad boy; the king of the adrenaline rush junkies. I never bought in to this relationship, especially at the expense of the ‘good’ guy who really wanted to be with and support Autumn. No matter how hard O’Kane tried to tell us and show us that Ryder was a pretty good guy underneath it all, I never once thought that he was the ‘right’ choice, so of course I was disappointed in Autumn.
In classic YA tradition, this book is full of teen angst, full of love, lust, and confusion, and even includes the obligatory death of a loved one that spurs the angst. The writing itself is crisp and clear, and loving Yosemite as I do, I really enjoyed the setting for most of this. I am (fatherly) disappointed in Autumn’s choices.
Looking for a good book? This dystopian YA sci-fi novel sets a number of bad examples for teens, but with perseverance, and help, the teens can overcome. Recommended for lovers of classic YA.
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author: Lisa Ann O’Kane
publisher: Strange Chemistry
paperback, 384 pages