Series: Gaia Chronicles #1
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Published: February 6th 2014
This edition: Paperback*
My rating: 5/5
Like every child in Is-Land, all Astra Ordott wants is to have her Security Shot, do her National Service and defend her Gaian homeland from Non-Lander ‘infiltrators’. But when one of her Shelter mothers, the formidable Dr Hokma Blesser, tells her the shot will limit her chances of becoming a scientist and offers her an alternative, Astra agrees to her plan.
When the orphaned Lil arrives to share Astra’s home, Astra is torn between jealousy and fascination. Lil’s father taught her some alarming ideas about Is-Land and the world, but when she pushes Astra too far, the heartache that results goes far beyond the loss of a friend.
If she is to survive, Astra must learn to deal with devastating truths about Is-Land, Non-Land and the secret web of adult relationships that surrounds her.
Have you ever read a book that impressed you so much you had no real idea what to say about it…? This is one of those.
Astra is the second novel by Naomi Foyle, the first in a post-apocalyptic science fiction series. Beyond this, however (far beyond it), it is an absolutely amazingly realised dystopian world, in which the one we know is little more than a distant memory – and subject to historic interpretation to boot.
Is-Landers live in a secure land, in a peaceful community rich in natural resources and defended by their own developed technology, ranging from communication devices to genetic coding and alteration that, as strictly enforced as it is by an organisation called IMBOD, is mandatory for every Is-Lander when they reach a certain age. Any story about someone’s effort to escape these treatments and secretly defy The Man could be interesting enough, especially in such a world as Foyle has created here – but she goes one step further in making her protagonist a child.
Astra is very young when this story begins, and she trusts Hokma (her Shelter Mother) implicitly. The story follows her through her coming of age after her participation in Hokma’s deception of IMBOD, and the world that unfolds as we get to know her is, for me, the other star of the show.
Is-Land is, quite simply, an astounding work of fictional art. Rather than go down the familiar route of a desolate, wasted world, Foyle creates a world within our world, a place that’s beautiful, peaceful, strictly guarded and, as the story progresses, every bit as unnerving as any wasteland in the aftermath of an apocalypse. There are Is-Landers, who worship Gaia and observe almost fanatical respect of her bounty, and there are Non-Landers, who would tear her apart with their wars and greed and disrespect…
…Yeah. It’s probably not that simple – but this book is about Astra’s experience and her understanding of these things, which unravels more and more as she begins to grow up, both physically and emotionally. Compared to the other Is-Land kids, Astra has almost freakish levels of uncontrolled emotion. She has a fierce temper, which leads to angry outbursts and alarming mood swings. To us she would just be a normal child. To her Shared Shelter Parents, however, it becomes more and more apparent that something is wrong with her. This is what IMBOD ‘treatment’ does to children; powerful emotions are a Bad Thing and are eradicated before they can begin to trouble a child. With Astra only pretending to have been given her shot, however, growing up is twice as difficult for her.
Enter Lil, a child with no Shelter parents who’s taken in by Hokma and becomes a friend to Astra – but unlike the other kids she’s known, Lil seems to know things about Non-Landers – and about Is-Land – that clash almost beyond belief with what Astra’s been taught her whole life. Like any normal child, however, Astra’s curiosity gets more of a say than it might if she was like the other kids. And so begins the unraveling…
This book is very much about setting a scene, the way that first books in a series will often do, and the scene that’s set here is richly imagined, vividly fascinating and not a little bit unsettling – but it’s even more so because we’re seeing it through Astra’s eyes. This is the other way in which the author takes a good story and makes it great – her presentation of this world through this particular protagonist’s point of view is done incredibly well. Her struggle with what she knows against what she’s finding out would be hard on any adult protagonist. For Astra, it’s worse – for every fact she uncovers, there’s something else that leaves her lost, confused, uncertain – and angry. That anger is her problem, and in a way it’s her salvation. Without it, her story would simply end. It’s her passion, and that passion promises to carry her further into the world even while it’s costing her everything and everyone she loves.
And that’s what really tugs at my heartstrings. It’s what makes me angry. The adults in Astra’s life are supposed to be there to protect and love her, right? Yet one by one, either by circumstance or by deliberate decision, they all leave her, or force her to deal with what she’s going through alone. All except one, perhaps, but therein lie spoilers. Moving on!
With hindsight, I know that the only real way Astra can deal with what’s happening to her is to do it alone. Thanks to the world they’ve created for themselves, the bubble they’ve constructed around their perfect, safe place, the Is-Landers can’t deal with what Astra’s going through, whether they understand it or not. She’s treated with wariness, and eventually reacted to with horror, through her struggles to grow up like the other kids. It’s painfully obvious that she doesn’t fit in among them, and none of the adults who are supposed to be wise and loving have any idea of how to handle her. The result is that they do it badly, and I couldn’t help feeling awful for Astra as she has her certainty about everything chipped away – including her knowledge of who she is and what she wants to be.
Every child goes through that as they grow up, but we should never have to do it alone. This is Astra’s real journey, and it’s every bit as harrowing and emotionally scarring as any trek through a dystopian wasteland on A Mission.
I honestly can’t remember the last time a book made me feel quite as strongly as this one did, while leaving me utterly unable to properly express those feelings. I feel like just flailing and pushing this book at people while weeping and hugging it between pushes.
For a second novel, the mastery with which Foyle creates her world is astounding. The deft handling that brings Astra to life is breathtaking – and her journey is a heartbreaking thing, despite the fact that it has seemingly only just begun. If this book is any indication at all of what to expect from her, then I can say with pretty firm certainty that Naomi Foyle is a writer who’s absolutely worth watching out for.
* This book was received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.