Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Review - The Sowing by K. Makansi
Short review: Remy's family has fled from the food-dystopia of the Okarian Agricultural Consortium, and Vale Orleán is determined to hunt them down. At least he is until he starts to pull aside the curtain on the Sector's dirty secrets.
Remy and Vale are
Both two sides of the same coin
Fighting over food
Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.
Full review: The Sowing, the first book in the Seeds trilogy, is a young adult work of post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction in which agricultural policy is the tool that ruling elite of the Okarian Agricultural Consortium use to impose their will upon their fellow citizens without most of them even knowing it. Against this nefarious ruling elite is pitted a tiny but determined Resistance whose members are desperately trying to solve a secret code that holds the key to topple the oppressive regime. Oddly, both the ruling Okarian elite and the members of the Resistance are drawn from the same social circle, leaving the downtrodden farmers and the shadowy outsiders mostly out of the picture.
The novel shifts between two main viewpoint characters. Remy is a member of the Resistance, living in difficult conditions, separated from her parents while enduring the tough regime of training to be a guerrilla fighter with inadequate food, shelter, or equipment. Not only that, the opening pages of the book detail the pivotal event that caused her family to leave their lives in Okarian society and join the Resistance: The brutal murder of Remy's older sister Tai and the rest of her class as they were in the middle of a lecture on DNA synthesis. Vale, on the other hand, is comfortably ensconced in the elite of Okarian society, and although his position in the Okarian military means that he has to endure rigorous training, he is otherwise comfortable and showered with all of the necessary and unnecessary comforts of life. The contrast between Remy and her circle of young Resistance members and Vale and his crowd of friends and hangers-on is made murky by the fact that prior to her sister's murder, Remy was part of Vale's social circle, and the two were even somewhat linked romantically.
The book is, in large part, carried by this shifting viewpoint which illustrates both the stark contrasts and disturbing similarities between the lives and Remy and Vale live, and where their outlook on the world differs and converges. And the early part of the book needs this, because one minor weakness of the novel is that the dystopian nature of the Okarian Agricultural Consortium is not readily apparent. We are told that the senior members of the Okarian government were behind the attack that killed Tai, and that Remy's parents spend their time educating workers on the Consortium farms of the dangers their government poses to them, but we aren't really told what those dangers are, or what secret someone would arrange to kill a classroom full of college students to protect until well into the book. As a result, it is somewhat difficult to understand the nature of the conflict or what is at stake. Eventually the perfidy is revealed: The Okarian elite have implemented a program in which they have, via genetic engineering, manipulated the diet of the populace so that those on the farms become stupid and strong, while the privileged elite eat food that is designed to make them more intelligent.
But that revelation is fairly deep into the story, and in the mean time, the reader is able to get acquainted with the two main characters and the cast that surrounds each of them. Each story line involves the central characters chasing down a separate goal, with Remy attempting to unravel a piece of encoded DNA left behind by one of her former professors and Vale assigned to plan and lead a mission to capture Elijah Tawfiq, a key member of the Resistance. As might be expected, these two separate plot lines are on a collision course, and eventually Remy and Vale are reunited, although under less than ideal circumstances. At that point, their stories intertwine briefly, and then each character's story then diverges again, with Vale's trajectory, at least, changed fundamentally by their meeting.
One interesting element to the story is that neither Remy or Vale seem much interested in the larger political issues in which they are embroiled, and to the extent they are, they have very similar outlooks on life. Remy's primary motivation to join the Resistance seems to be the murder of her sister. Vale's primary motivation to excel in his military position seems to be a wish not to disappoint his parents. In fact, until deep into the story, Vale seems completely perplexed as to why anyone would choose to join the Resistance, a stance that betrays a severe lack of self-reflection on his part. This similarity highlights one of the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Because almost all of the main characters are drawn from the same social circle of members or former members of the favored elite of the Consortium, there is a kind of bland similarity to the characters and how they view the world. The books has no character who represents the view of the mysterious "Outsiders" until well into its pages, and even that character is only relatively briefly on stage - and is on stage in such a way that really doesn't provide the reader with any substantial information about who the Outsiders are, or what they might want. Similarly, there are almost no characters from the Consortium's farming communities, and the ones who are in the book don't show up until very near to the novel's end. The Sowing is, in some ways, similar to what one would get if you changed all of the viewpoint characters in The Hunger Games to teens from the Capitol.
In one sense, this singularly focused set of viewpoints is a weakness for The Sowing, as the characters attitudes towards the world around them has something of a monochrome aspect. However, this myopic set of viewpoints also works to the story's advantage, as it becomes apparent that everyone represented in the book share some fairly gaping blind spots concerning the world in which they live. Because all of the characters who are ostensibly on "both sides" of the conflict operate under a common set of assumptions, they, and by extension the reader, can be taken by surprise when they encounter a character who doesn't share those assumptions. And once the reader realizes that the conflict as presented is essentially an intra-family dispute between two halves of a single formerly close-knit social circle, the revolutionary nature of the Resistance seems to be somewhat questionable. While life might be somewhat better for the workers on the Consortium's farms should the Resistance prevail, no one seems to have even bothered to consult them on what they might want. And no matter which side wins, things are likely to remain the same for the Outsiders. The realization that the "revolutionaries" don't seem to have really considered interests other than their own gives this book substantially more depth than many other works of young adult dystopian fiction, and provides the possibility of a stronger, richer story in future installments.
Despite the somewhat monochromatic nature of the central characters, they are all likable in the way that only naive, idealistic youths can be. Though the story in the novel presents a fairly simple conflict between heroic freedom fighters and callous tyrants, the elusive hints of a larger and more complex conflict are what raise the novel above the ordinary. In the somewhat crowded field of young adult dystopian fiction, The Sowing is well-ahead of most others, and will be sure to entertain and intrigue anyone who enjoys this genre.
Subsequent book in the series: The Reaping
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