Another entry in my quest for good SF for YA readers. Occasional quest, I should say - it's not the be all and end all of my reading. And not everything I read ends up with a review.
So I was at WorldCon in Spokane a few weeks back, and at the Golden Duck awards I heard a great definition of YA, which was "teenage protagonists making adult decisions". Brilliant definition, IMHO. This book certainly has that, and the science is right in there. But is it - at the core - a good story?
The cover blurb tells you straight up that the classic female teen protagonist, Lia, discovers that she's a human bomb, set to go off in 36 hours. Good hook. And then it also tells you that the countdown stops. And that it starts up again, but intermittently. It's a great device for controlling the tension, and the author makes extremely good use of it. The author really does play with your head, making you think it's this kind of novel, but then, no, it's that kind of novel. And you don't resent it, because it's well done; on the whole you can see the seeds for the twist in hindsight. When you reach the end, you see the pattern to the whole. It's only in the middle that you feel like an ant trying to make sense of a quilt.
So what do those elements look like?
Well, there's the bomb. It could be simply a race against time to defuse it, and save the space station. But is Lia a heroine or a villain - or put another way, is she on the right side of the war that's raging, or on the wrong side? So maybe the right thing is for the bomb to go off, maybe not. In that context, you can work out that there are probably only a handful of outcomes to the novel. The bomb doesn't go off, or it goes off. In the latter case, nobody dies (because the bomb has been taken out of Lia), or Lia alone dies (because she's taken herself away from the station), or everybody on the station dies. So the question becomes which one, and you're kept guessing right until the end. It's really well done.
Then there's Lia. She starts off as a barely self-aware, cyborg-like personality. She's quite OK with the idea of blowing herself to smithereens as part of the covert war. So where's the story in that? Not surprisingly, Lia gets awakened, and after a while she realises she doesn't want to blow anybody up. You, the reader, are in Lia's head through all of this, and you engage with her. Being in her head, you start to realise that her mind has been tampered with, which is another device that both feeds the tension, and sources fresh twists as protective layers of her mind fall away. You like Lia, and you learn to trust her judgement, that she won't fail to make the right decision when the crunch finally comes. The question is, what will the crunch finally look like?
Then there's the rest of the cast, particularly Michael, Lia's love interest, and Teal, Michael's protective young sister. Michael is Lia's reason to live, and is on the receiving end of a lot of anguish, as Lia variously lies to him (to protect him when she thinks she'll have to die) and opens up to him (when she thinks that she might not have to die). Teal is a very believable protector for Michael, and is arguably better drawn than Michael, with a motivational and emotional complexity that makes you look forward to her contributions.
There's the war. Which side is right? Or are they both wrong? There are peace negotiations happening, so why do Lia's superiors want to re-ignite the war with an act of terrorism?
There are mysteries about Lia's origin, her family, and their allegiances, but no details there, or any other story elements either, as that would be a spoiler.
It is a good story, with mystery, thrills, romance, false trails, believable characters with plausible motivations. A good supporting cast of variously sympathetic and flawed people.
As I said earlier, there were never that many possible endings for the story, and the ending that Margaret Fortune chose is a satisfying one. You do get a glimpse, just before the end, and that's as it should be. It's a necessary part of this journey.
If this book doesn't pick up an award or two, I shall be surprised. It's certainly a strong contender for the next Hal Clement award.