Author: Karen Healey
Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: March 5 2013
Hardcover: 304 pages
My name is Tegan Oglietti, and on the last day of my first lifetime, I was so, so happy.
Sixteen-year-old Tegan is just like every other girl living in 2027–she’s happiest when playing the guitar, she’s falling in love for the first time, and she’s joining her friends to protest the wrongs of the world: environmental collapse, social discrimination, and political injustice.
But on what should have been the best day of Tegan’s life, she dies–and wakes up a hundred years in the future, locked in a government facility with no idea what happened.
Tegan is the first government guinea pig to be cryonically frozen and successfully revived, which makes her an instant celebrity–even though all she wants to do is try to rebuild some semblance of a normal life. But the future isn’t all she hoped it would be, and when appalling secrets come to light, Tegan must make a choice: Does she keep her head down and survive, or fight for a better future?
Award-winning author Karen Healey has created a haunting, cautionary tale of an inspiring protagonist living in a not-so-distant future that could easily be our own.
Stand alone or series: First in a series
How did we get this book: We both got review copies from the publisher
Format (e- or p-): eARC (Netgalley) and print ARC
On the day Tegan Oglietti died for the first time, she had all the hopes for a bright future. She had just hooked up with the guy she had be in love for years and they were about to join a public political demonstration.
Then, chaos ensued.
When she wakes, Tegan is one hundred years in the future. Locked in a government facility, Tegan is effectively a guinea pig, the first ever person to be successfully revived from a cryogenic sleep. She is told she is part of an important project to bring back to life soldiers fallen in battle.
As an army brat whose father died at war, Tegan understands the importance of such a project and at first is compliant. But after some time, all she wants is to have a normal life again – even if she has to start from scratch. Even if she has to comply with some – but not all – of the army’s plans for her. Once integrated into this future, she realises that despite some obvious breakthroughs, not everything is perfect.
There are many, many things I loved about When We Wake: the voice, the narrative format, the thoughtful political discourse, the world-building and the characters.
First and foremost, this imagined (dystopian?) future that is both extremely scary and encouraging. In the 22nd century, Australia is a super-power. A land of plenty, a land of freedom where equality – in terms of gender, of religious tolerance, of sexual orientation – really and truly exists. But Australia is also a country in a world where climate change has altered ocean levels and reshaped borders, where the sun shines stronger and food is scarce. And Australia might be a land of plenty but its immigration policy makes sure it is Australia for Australians only. This is present in the wider political spectrum of law-making but also in the scope of overwhelming racism (since the third world countries – “thirdies” – are often blamed for the state of the world) and anti-immigrant attitudes.
The scary part comes from how this is a totally realistic future. More often than not, when reading futuristic Science Fiction – specially some of the latest YA Dystopian – I find myself completely unable to buy into certain versions of imagined futures. When We Wake presents a future that is a feasible and possible course of history based on the actual world we live in NOW, where climate change, current fucked-up immigration policies, racism could potentially combine to create this type of future.
Then, there is the question of the narrative which works twofold. One, because Tegan wakes up in the future and has to learn everything about it and the reader learns about the world alongside her. This avoids the trap of awkward info-dumping. Two, because of the narrative format: Tegan is telling this story and the way the narrative is framed – I won’t spoil the way or the how – worked really well. There were though a certain conciseness to the narrative and perhaps many aspects of the novel (like Tegan falling in love with her classmate, the Somali immigrant Abdi) felt underdeveloped but that conciseness fits the premise of the narrative perfectly.
I also loved Tegan. She is a very interesting character – self-confident and smart, prone to mistakes but able to learn from them. At first glance, she definitely conforms to a certain type of heroine in YA – the beautiful, almost perfect girl who everybody loves. There is a weird trend of heroine-writing in YA, in which they are mostly either oblivious at how pretty they are or unable to even acknowledge their skills and talents – I often feel uncomfortable about those portrayals as these fall into a traditional type of narrative that often imply that beauty should be natural and girls need to be nice and humble. Tegan, in many ways, breaks that mold by being confident and persistent, by knowing she is beautiful and being proud of it (and yes, granted: her beauty fits the “sleeping beauty” theme). Above all, I loved how she excells at understanding her circumstances and how she uses the power she knows she has. After all, Tegan is, for all intents and purposes, truly unique in the context of this world, important to the army and it’s great how she sees that she can use this to her advantage. I specially loved how this understanding comes from a place of learning about politics, after listening to her social-activists friends and then slowly becoming more aware.
Finally, I truly appreciate how Tegan is surrounded by a diverse group of characters in terms of religious background, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity. But I would be remniss if I didn’t note that despite all this diverse background, the day-saving heroine of the piece is still very much in compliance with the vast majority of white, cis, straight protagonists in YA dystopias (or anywhere, ever) and that is a bit of a let-down. That said, in fairness, Tegan’s whiteness does not go unnoticed or unremarked within the story.
As I was writing this review, I came to learn that there will be a sequel – I am truly delighted about that even if I feel that the ending of When We Wake is perfect. Just the way it is.
The third novel from Karen Healey, When We Wake is, for me, a mixed bag. I loved the worldbuilding and the vision of this future Australia, in which there are plenty of good things – gender and sexual equality for one thing, true freedom of worship and religion, and a concerted effort to conserve and protect natural resources (heck, folks have turned vegetarian and collecting their own fecal matter for composting – which is a tax deduction sanctioned by the government). While there are many progressive changes, there are also plenty of terrible things in this future world – immigrants are demonized by the government, the press and the public, and are sent to the equivalent of death camps; the Earth’s fragile ecosystem is heading towards rapid collapse; and xenophobia abounds especially where non-Australians are concerned.
It’s this balance of the good with the bad that makes Karen Healey’s future so vividly plausible and frightening. As Ana says, it’s almost too easy to see how this type of world could come about, in which good-intentioned people do many things to help get the world back on track, but turn a blind eye to so many other terrible things.1 To me, this brilliantly conceived – if terrifying – future is the strongest part of When We Wake, and what separates the book from the many, many other bland YA SF/dystopias on the market.
Beyond the worldbuilding, however, I was a bit underwhelmed by the rest of the book. The premise of the novel, involving a seventeen year old girl who is cryogenically preserved following her untimely death and revived a hundred years in the future, is great if entirely familiar. The beautiful girl that slumbers for a century (or longer) only to be awoken and return to the world has been a fairy tale staple for many, many years, and is also gaining popularity in the current wave of YA SF – Beth Revis’s lackluster Across the Universe comes to mind, as does the amazing and infinitely more successful A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan. There are many other similarities to familiar YA SF/dystopias and I won’t spoil them, but they are very much there.2
Familiarity aside, the bigger problem I had with When We Wake involves plausibility and suspension of disbelief. While the societal aspects of the worldbuilding in this book are phenomenal and utterly believeable, there is an enormous plausibility gap when it comes to the actions of the government and the technology of the period. With regards to the former, the Australian government has spent billions of dollars on preserving and reviving young Tegan, and it is on her continued health and survival that the whole success of a secret government initiative (The Ark Project) hinges. In what universe would such a secretive and controlling military let Tegan out of their custody, to go to school and prance about willy nilly with new friends? Yes, she has a bodyguard whenever she is in public, but Tegan is allowed access to nifty technology that can easily hack government databases with a single touch, and there are people out there trying to KILL her for goodness sakes. No. I call shenanigans.3 In a similar vein, the technology in When We Wake is a little bit cringeworthy at times — someone else pointed this out on their GoodReads review, but apparently in this future the internet really IS a series of tubes (really, Teeg and her friends all refer to the “tubes” throughout the book). Tegan – whose native time was the 2020s – doesn’t seem to be very familiar with the tablet computers that are incredibly prevalent today in 2013, and has a hard time getting used to future tech. These future computers are basically tablets but on…scrunchable/foldable material with voice and motion command in addition to touchscreens (again, already possible with much of today’s technology in 2013). And there’s a scene where Tegan runs a search on “Koko” (she names her tablet Koko after the famous signing gorilla – again, doesn’t really feel like something a teen in the 2020s would do or know), and runs spying/trace countdown apps to hack into highly classified government files. Again, this feels silly to me, and I call shenanigans.4
On the character front, I’m similarly torn. I DO agree with Ana in her assessment of the YA heroine (in particular the dystopian YA heroine) – these gals are usually effortlessly, naturally, obliviously beautiful. They also tend to be white, with long dark hair for whatever reason (Bella Swan, what hast thou wrought!). Tegan is your uniform YA dystopian heroine in appearance – really pretty, petite, slender, with pale snow white skin, luminous large eyes, and long dark hair. That said, she knows she’s pretty and she addresses it, and that’s definitely a cool thing. I do appreciate her tenacity and her character voice, even if the narrative technique – i.e. narrating her story for an audience in retrospective fashion (involving FORESHADOWING OF DOOM) – isn’t my favorite, I do appreciate the way everything ties together by the end of the book. I also love that Tegan is opinionated and passionate about music, that her love interest is a black young man from Djibouti, that her new best friend is Muslim.
That said, Tegan’s brash tendency to lose her temper, to run her mouth without thinking, to leap into action without weighing the consequences of those actions is incredibly irritating – and again, a tendency that seems prevalent in many YA dystopian heroines. And I’m so tired of the heroine that doesn’t think before she acts, that is lily white and beautiful and straight, who saves the world but manages to also fall in (insta-)love and look gorgeous at the same time.
All these criticisms said and frustrations voiced, ultimately, I enjoyed When We Wake (albeit with some sizeable reservations). The writing is solid, the worldbuilding (technology and government motivations aside) is amazing, and the direction of the series has promise. I’ll probably be back for the next book.
You can read a pretty extensive excerpt over at Tor.com.
Additional Thoughts: We are part of the When We Wake blog tour today. We have interviewed Karen Healey – in character – on the topic of immigration from the perspective of Abdi.
It is a really cool interview, too. You can read it here.
Ana: 7 – Very Good and learning toward 8
Thea: 6 – Good, recommended with reservations
Reading Next: The Archived by Victoria Schwab
Buy the Book:
- If we’re being honest, is this situation so different from our current world with discriminatory legislation, and with shows like Border Wars on television? ↩
- Ok – just one observation while we’re on the subject of similarities. Did anyone else think that media specialist/stylist/coach Tatia was so very Effie Trinket? ↩
- If there’s one thing that The X-Files or any other number of secretive-controlling-government books and shows have taught us, it is that expensive, vital assets like Tegan are not given freedoms. ↩
- Also, how wonderfully convenient that Tegan immediately befriends technological wizards that can hack into these sophisticated systems? ↩