Author: Jessica Khoury
Genre: Speculative Fiction, Young Adult
Publisher: Razor Bill
Publication Date: September 2012
Hardcover: 393 Pages
An electrifying action-romance that’s as thoughtful as it is tragic
Pia has grown up in a secret laboratory hidden deep in the Amazon rain forest. She was raised by a team of scientists who have created her to be the start of a new immortal race. But on the night of her seventeenth birthday, Pia discovers a hole in the electric fence that surrounds her sterile home–and sneaks outside the compound for the first time in her life.
Free in the jungle, Pia meets Eio, a boy from a nearby village. Together, they embark on a race against time to discover the truth about Pia’s origin–a truth with deadly consequences that will change their lives forever.
Origin is a beautifully told, shocking new way to look at an age-old desire: to live forever, no matter the cost.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: ARC from the Publisher
Why did I read this book: The concept of an immortality-giving drug, derived from some mysterious plant in the Amazon, is a familiar but well-liked trope. Use this in a YA setting? I’m in.
In the heart of the Amazon rainforest, there is a scientific lab and living compound called Little Cambridge. Little Cam houses some of the world’s top scientific minds, including geneticists, biochemical engineers, botanists, and entomologists.
It also hides a girl named Pia – seventeen years old, immortal, and perfect.
The fruit of five generations of genetic experimentation and injection of a toxic, but immortality-giving extract from the rare bloom, elysia, Pia is the only one of her kind, and a scientific breakthrough that means the beginning of a new, immortal brand of humanity. Pia is the hope for humankind’s future – she has perfect memory, razor-sharp reflexes, and superhuman speed and endurance. Her skin is impervious to harm, and cannot be penetrated by any blade, flame, or trauma. Every day of Pia’s life, she has been told that she is perfect by the scientists that have raised her – yet, the thing she yearns for most of all, the right to join the Imortis Project and be embraced as a full-fledged scientist with the aim of creating a super-race of immortals like her, is still out of her reach. For all that Pia is perfect, she is not yet ready for whatever the Imortis Project entails, until she can pass a series of psychological and scientific tests.
On the eve of Pia’s eighteenth birthday, she discovers that the electric fence that surrounds Little Cam has a hole – and she does something she’s never even dreamed of doing before. Buoyed by the confidence and good spirits of her first ever birthday party, Pia sneaks through the hole and braves the jungle outside for the first time…and she runs into a boy named Eio, and discovers an entirely new world. As she learns more about Eio and his tribe, the Ai’oa, Pia’s view of her destiny changes, irrevocably. At what cost does immortality come? And is Pia ready to pay the price for eternity?
The debut novel from an astonishingly young new author, Origin simultaneously succeeds and fails. There is no doubt that Jessica Khoury has a gift for writing and storytelling, as Origin is a compulsively readable and entertaining book. The novel begins on a high note, as we are introduced to our young immortal, impervious Pia: a perfect girl of “astonishing beauty” (as she is described by one character), whose very existence is the fruit of careful genetic selection and breeding for five consecutive generations. Pia is told, repeatedly, by almost everyone she knows, that she is perfect, and as such, she believes herself to be perfect. She’s spoiled, self-entitled, and, well, bratty – especially to a perky new doctor that arrives on the scene, shortly before her eighteenth birthday. This initial characterization is immensely believable and well executed by Khoury – you can’t help but feel exasperated with Pia’s ingrained snobbery, but it rings as wholly genuine at the same time. When Pia chooses to escape the world of Little Cam – which has, for all intents and purposes, been a Pia-centered paradise as far as she is concerned – her world view radically changes, and she is challenged for the first time by her discovery of a boy named Eio and his tribe, the Ai’oa. This, unfortunately, is where the story slightly goes off the rails.
But before we get to the negatives, the positives. On the plus side, I love Pia’s dedication to science, and her devotion to fulfilling her destiny by creating a race of immortals. After all, this is the goal to which she’s been attuned her entire life, and the prospect of eternity alone is certainly no fun. There’s a palpable tension throughout Origin, and Pia’s struggle to reconcile her predetermined path with her own emotions is exceptionally well done. The small, insular world of Little Cam and all that Pia knows feels real; the obsession of the scientists that have raised her (and the inevitable dark secrets they guard) are also genuinely engaging. Ultimately, Origin kinda reads like a super-hyperbolized metaphor for overprotected you girl, growing up and breaking free of the constraints imposed on her by elders that are acting in her best interest…sort of. (Of course, this particular young girl is immortal and incandescently beautiful, so the actual applicability of said metaphor – or, more tritely, self-insertionism – is dubious at best.)
Praises said, Origin is not without some significant flaws. From a basic worldbuilding perspective, Origin is shaky, stumbling especially in its later chapters. This novel suffers from a problem of simplification and dichotomization – in Origin, this divide is (predictably) between SCIENCE and MORALITY. SCIENCE is presented initially as Pia’s God and creed: she has never heard music with lyrics, she has never read a novel (nor has she heard of the likes of Shakespeare or Plato), she has no knowledge of the world outside Little Cam. She does know the genus and species of all the plants and animals that surround her in the jungle, she can perform large mathematical sums in her head (though the bulk of this prowess is limited to multiplication, for whatever reason), and…she can sketch flowers pretty quickly (seriously).1 SCIENCE, of course, is revealed to be very, very bad, and Pia’s immortality comes at the cost of countless lives – from the scientists who were forced to overcome their own moral compasses, and the blood literally shed to birth Pia.
By contrast, Eio and the Ai’oa (and a couple select scientists) are the counterpoint of MORALITY in the novel. The Ai’oa are rainforest NATIVES, and as such understand their immortality-giving flower better than the scientists ever could, and they teach Pia what it is to be a normal girl, to love, and to live. There’s also a disturbing, continuing reference to the “natives” as being “ignorant,” to the point where Eio (who is half-Ai’oan) repeatedly assets that he is not like his “ignorant” bretheren (i.e. “I know what electricity is…I am not an ignorant Ai’oan, Papi! Half of me belongs here in the jungle, yes, but half of me belongs on the other side of that fence with you and Pia!”).
And, speaking of Eio, there’s the romance. OF COURSE when Pia slips out of Little Cam for the first time, the very first boy she runs into is Staggeringly Gorgeous. OF COURSE he also is half-caucasian, with striking blue eyes, chiseled features, standing head and shoulders above his Ai’oan village-mates (of course, to the Ai’oans, he is UGLY as is Pia). OF COURSE, Pia and Eio fall in insta-love – and the reason why? As Eio tells Pia, the first night he meets her:
“I lied when I said you were ugly. It is not true. You…”
He scrubs at his hair, and his discomfort makes me smile.
“You are in fact very beautiful. More beautiful than any girl I know.”
And then later:
“Ever since the moment you first knocked me over, then shone your stupid flashlight in my eyes and set your jaguar on me. I was angry, but mostly because I was terrified.”
“Am I really that scary?”
“Your beauty is,” he whispers.
Cue excessive eye-rolling.2 While it makes sense that Pia (and to some extent, Eio) is stunningly gorgeous – the progeny of generations of hand-selected beautiful people – the impetus for this Great Romance, based solely on the attractiveness of Pia and Eio, is a little silly, and a little insulting of readers’ intelligence.
Beyond these factors, consistency issues abound – Pia speaks in common slang and knows curses (e.g. she tells one character to screw himself at one point, she makes an internal joke about “going native” at another), but has never been around others who speak as such, nor has ever read a non-scientific book/seen a film before. The “science” in the later portion of the novel – the purpose of the tests that Pia has endured, the truth of the power of elysia and its catalyzing agent – are patently ridiculous, moving the book from dubious genetic possibility to complete science fantasy.
And yet. For all of these flaws, I finished the book and I generally enjoyed myself, in a guilty pleasure, I-shouldn’t-like-this-as-much-as-I-do kind of way. As long as one approaches the novel understanding that there are copious amounts of cheese and ridiculousness, there’s something compulsively well-paced and guiltily engaging about Origin. Recommended, but leave expectations at the door.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
I’m told that the day I was born, Uncle Paolo held me against his white lab coat and whispered, “She is perfect.” Sixteen years later, they’re still repeating the word. Every day I hear it, from the scientists or the guards, from my mother or from my Aunt Brigid. Perfect.
They say other things too. That there are no others like me, at least not yet. That I am the pinnacle of mankind, a goddess born of mortal flesh. You are immortal, Pia, and you are perfect, they say.
But as I follow Uncle Paolo to the laboratory, my bootlaces trailing in the mud and my hands clutching a struggling sparrow, the last thing I feel is perfect.
Outside the compound, the jungle is more restless than usual. The wind, lightly scented with orchids, prowls through the kapoks and palms as if searching for something it lost. The air is so damp that drops of water appear, almost magically, on my skin and on Uncle Paolo’s pepper-gray hair. When we pass through the garden, the heavy-hanging passionflowers and spiky heliconias brush against my legs, depositing dew onto the tops of my boots. Water is everywhere, just like every other day in the rainforest. But today it feels colder—less refreshing and more invasive.
Today is a testing day. They are called the Wickham tests, and they only come every few months, often by surprise. When I awoke in my glass-walled bedroom this morning, I expected the usual: reciting genus and species lists to Uncle Antonio, comparing algae specimens under microscopes with Uncle Jakob, followed, perhaps, by a long swim in the pool. But instead, I was greeted by Mother, who informed me that Uncle Paolo had decided to hold a test. She then breezed out the door and left me scrambling to get ready. I didn’t even have a chance to tie my shoelaces.
Hardly ten minutes later, here I am.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: Make sure to check out our stop on the official Origin blog tour for a chance to read about Jessica Khoury’s Inspirations and Influences, plus a chance to win the book.
Rating: 6 – Diverting, and recommended with some sizable reservations
Reading Next: Renegade Magic by Stephanie Burgis
Buy the Book: (click on the links to purchase)
- On a serious note, other than Pia’s ididic memory and her ability to withstand sharp objects penetrating her skin, her skillset as an immortal heroine is somewhat disappointing. ↩
- It doesn’t help that these characters are named Pia and Eio. When I read “Eio,” I think Michael Jackson’s version at Disneyland – which is infinitely more awesome than our love-struck jungle boy, who seems tohave no character or purpose, other than to wait around for Pia. ↩