Author: J.A. Souders
Genre: Dystopia, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication Date: November 2012
Hardcover: 364 Pages
Since the age of three, sixteen-year-old Evelyn Winters has been trained to be Daughter of the People in the underwater utopia known as Elysium. Selected from hundreds of children for her ideal genes, all her life she’s thought that everything was perfect; her world. Her people. The Law.
But when Gavin Hunter, a Surface Dweller, accidentally stumbles into their secluded little world, she’s forced to come to a startling realization: everything she knows is a lie.
Her memories have been altered.
Her mind and body aren’t under her own control.
And the person she knows as Mother is a monster.
Together with Gavin she plans her escape, only to learn that her own mind is a ticking time bomb… and Mother has one last secret that will destroy them all.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in a planned series
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher
Why did I read this book: Awesome under-the-sea dystopia premise. Enough said.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
Sixteen-year-old Evelyn Winters’ life is just about perfect. Adopted by Mother and made the Daughter of the People, Evelyn is being groomed for the inevitable day that she will take over Mother’s illustrious position as the head of the suboceanic society of Elysium. The war and strife of the hateful Surface Dwellers above led Mother to start a new society of her own, concealed by the ocean’s murky depths. It is Evelyn’s job to listen to the people, to learn from Mother, and most pressingly, to select a mate with whom she will Couple – from the predetermined pool of matches that Mother has authorized, of course.
When a surface dweller makes his way into Elysium, however, everything Evelyn has ever known changes. Gavin – the young, handsome, and impossible Surface Dweller – causes Evelyn to question her society, her own mind, and Mother. As she grows closer to Gavin and decides to help him escape Elysium, she uncovers devastating revelations about Elysium’s past, Mother’s true nature, and Evelyn’s own clouded, brainwashed past.
I was drawn to Renegade because of the killer premise for the book – I love a suboceanic SF tale, and I love dystopian societies with unreliable narrators even more. When I started Renegade, it truly seemed that the book would deliver on this incredibly promising premise – it has a cool sort of Bioshock-ish vibe, combined with a distinct sense of foreboding creepiness, as Renegade‘s heroine is completely unsuspecting that her actions and thoughts are so bizarre. Evelyn’s brainwashed, repetitive thoughts and the little pieces of information she lets slip about her daily life are unsettling and effective in painting a picture of a deep-seated wrongness in Elysium. So, yes, Renegade starts with an undeniable bang. That said, while the first chapters are solid, the book quickly devolves into a puddle of tepid ridiculousness: Renegade is a classic case of great idea, terrible execution. A poorly conceived world that is blandly written with a nonexistent plot and laughable characterizations, Renegade is not a good book.
Let’s start with the (nonexistent) plot. From the description and the first few chapters, you’d think the book will be a girl’s journey to uncover the secrets of her past and come to terms with the conditioning and brainwashing she has had to endure for years. It isn’t. Essentially, the plot of Renegade involves Evelyn and Gavin running around Elysium for the entire book, desperately looking for escape exits and dodging DNA-scanning guns (it’s ok because apparently Elysium has no shortage of “shadows” in which Evelyn and Gavin can hide from guards and gun turrets). While fast-paced, the lack of actual meat and emotional integrity to the story is deeply disappointing. Instead of character development and realistic motivations for character decisions and action, we get slipshod worldbuilding (replete with ludicrous technology – more on that in a bit), people that are EVIL for EVIL’s sake, some good old fashioned insta-love, and a dystopian society that inherently makes no sense.
In Elysium, Mother has declared that only blonde, blue eyed, light-skinned people fit her perfect race. The rationale behind the genetic tinkering and Aryan-esque standard for genetic perfection is never satisfactorily explained, however (which is actually incredibly troubling when you think about it). Nor is it explained HOW exactly Mother had her rise to power. She’s been in power for 30 years, yet generationally this does not account for the older people in the society, and it does not jive with the “gene manipulation” that Mother has implemented for all of her Citizens (e.g. there are older people in this society that are middle aged or the same age as Mother – how, exactly do they fit in with her Perfect Blonde/Blue-Eyed World?). Unless Mother brainwashed every single person on a regular basis, unless every single person that was initially invited to Elysium back when it was a vacation resort was blonde, blue-eyed and white skinned (or there were a sufficient number of blonde blue-eyed white skinned people around that Mother could create a society with them after disposing of all the dark haired/skinned/other colored eyed people)?1
The character of Mother herself is comical, portrayed as both unstable (there’s a scene where she melodramatically whispers “Why does everyone leave me?” to an old photograph of her dead mother before smashing all of her precious perfume bottles in an insane rage), and an Evil Mastermind Dictator that has unlimited resources and loyalty from her police force and guards. 2 It’s incredibly hard to take Mother seriously as a character because of this skimpy motivation and characterization. Why does Mother do the things she does? Essentially, the reason comes down to this: Mother is Evil and Insane and harbors some unexplained prejudice against Surface Dwellers (and people with dark skin/dark hair/non-blue eyes). After Evelyn discovers Mother’s Super Secret Diary, she concludes:
[Mother] grew to hate free will. She believed she had a pure vision of a perfect society – a perfect family – but the Citizens did not comply. She saw the city falling apart before her eyes. The harder she worked to bring her vision to the city, the more the people rebelled against her rules. She wanted them to be more docile so she worked with a scientist to experiment with gene manipulation.
And with that brilliant observation, Mother’s character is explained away by Evelyn. Case closed! She grew to hate free will! That explains everything!
Beyond Mother’s characterization, there is the utter ridiculousness of the science and technology in this world. I can accept that a suboceanic society has some fast and loose science at the helm, harvesting power from oceanic volcanoes and nanobots to prevent the bends – that’s fine. I can swallow that. BUT, the ridiculousness of the computing systems/Elysium’s technology and Evelyn’s magical skills to crack said systems are laughable. Such gems include Evelyn’s deductive skills:
Then I reach another section in code. I can’t make out much, but the dates correspond with the journal from Sector One. Finally, I find a blue hyperlink within the code and I know I have to see where it leads.
And Evelyn’s supreme (and utterly convenient) hacking skills:
The computer immediately asks for a password. At fist I panic [...] But still, I barely breathe while I fight the computer. My fingers fly over the holographic keyboard ad my arm aches like a bad tooth, but I don’t dare stop. Even though I’ve never done this before, it’s like the codes an sequences are all there in my mind just waiting for me to use them. Somehow I know how to peel down each wall of security as if it is an orange [...] with every step I take forward to break the code, the more concerned I am the computer will tell Mother what I’m doing. Finally, just as another drop of sweat dribbles down my back, the desktop appears on the holoscreen. I cracked the password.
And to cover her mad computer prodigy skills, there’s this kicker:
“If Mother was able to see that you fixed Macie’s coupling thing, wouldn’t she have just removed us from the computer again?”
I give him a thin smile. “No. I made it ‘read-only.'”
Seriously. No, SERIOUSLY.
But there’s more! Beyond the ludicrous computer information technology, more importantly there are fantastically convenient devices and nuggets to bail Evelyn and Gavin out of trouble, and also to cause drama to make sure they don’t make it to the ever-illusive exits too quickly. There are conveniently left behind and perfectly preserved notebooks detailing Mother’s past (from both Mother’s perspective, and that of her unfortunate father), and there are caches of weapons from decades earlier that were never removed or discovered in a secretly preserved older sector in Elysium that Evelyn and Gavin just happen to stumble upon.
There’s the deus ex machina factor, too – the (incredibly beautiful, genetically perfect) Evelyn is able to: kick ass because of her Super Secret Past Training. She has secret undiscovered knowledge of weapons and computer systems; she was the youngest enforcer to ever excel at all the things in the world. In order to throw a wrench in this perfect person’s path, there’s a magical failsafe that kicks in “when she tries to help a Surface Dweller escape” (because…that’s something you’d program for in your suboceanic society in which there are no Surface Dwellers?) – how does this work? WHEN does it work? Why does it only kick in at the eleventh hour? Needless to say, the gaps in logic here are insurmountable. And this is just ONE example of the crazy lack of internal logic in Renegade.3
Then, there’s the issue of the inconsistent world – Evelyn doesn’t know the meaning of slang like “hot” and touching is outlawed, but “sexy” is a normal word, stiletto leather boots are around? No livestock are present underwater because the space and resources they consume, but she knows about other animals from the surface? At the end of the book – when the equivalent of 28 Days Later genetically modified/experimental ZOMBIES show up (I shit you not) to throw yet another roadblock in our intrepid couple’s attempts to escape, the following common popular song is being sung:
There’s a poor wee little lamby…The bees and the butterflies picking at its eyes.
Praytell, HOW would this underwater society, whose every move and piece of literature and knowledge has been carefully sanitized, where everyone is a vegetarian because livestock takes up too much room, know what bees and butterflies and lambs are?
And then, of course, there’s the problem of the insta-romance – Gavin and Evelyn know each other for, oh, 3-4 days, and Evelyn is willing to throw away everything she has worked for as Daughter of the People, and she can miraculously overcome the ingrained conditioning and brainwashing that has dominated her life since she was a child. Needless to say, things feel a little rushed, and the character development is stunningly unconvincing. Compounding the problem is Souders’ writing, which ranges from blandly competent to intensely annoying – stomach flutters, breath catches, and phrases like “I lose myself along with my breath and my heart” abound.
There’s also the problem that Evelyn and her friends are so very ridiculously STUPID and slow to put together the pieces (e.g. when friends start acting strangely and issuing weird canned responses – He’s a Filthy SURFACE DWELLER! You are Silly Flighty Girl! – the thought of brainwashing never crosses her mind).
I could keep going on. I really could. But I think you get the picture. So far as Renegade is concerned, there’s only one word that comes to mind to embody my dissatisfaction with the book. Just NO.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
Sacrifices must be made for the greater good.
—Citizen’s Social Code, Volume VI
My life is just about perfect.
Every morning Mother has the Maids wake me at precisely ten. Then it’s time for a light breakfast followed by a mandatory visit with my Therapist. It’s nice to have someone to talk with.
After, I am free to do as I wish until it’s time to perform one of the duties Mother has requested of me. This morning I sit in my garden, quietly doing my cross-stitching. the garden is so peaceful in the morning, especially when the sea life outside the glass dome passes by.
The Surface could never compare. Not that I’ve ever seen the Surface. It is forbidden, even for me.
Which is fine. My life is just about perfect.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Rating: 3 – Very Bad
Reading Next: Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George
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- It’s also worth mentioning that in this dystopian society, people are all apparently heterosexual and expected to Couple with someone from the opposite gender – a problem pervasive in so many YA SF dystopias, rearing its ugly head here. ↩
- Again, how did she win this loyalty? HOW does Elysium actually run, when it seems that Mother has killed all the scientists and she herself has grown up underwater for most of her life without – apparently – any education in the sciences? ↩
- Another key question: the motivation to keep Evelyn alive, according to Mother, is that she needs Evelyn to procreate with another perfect genetic match to pass on her AMAZING genes – but in a society in which genetic tinkering is supposedly commonplace, WHY put up with the drama and hassle of keeping Evelyn around and alive? Why not, I don’t know, artificially inseminate her eggs with ideal sperm in a laboratory environment? ↩