Title: The Scourge
Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Horror
Publication Date: September 1 2016
Hardcover: 368 Pages
When a plague isn’t all that kills…
As a lethal plague sweeps through the land, Ani Mells is shocked when she is unexpectedly captured by the governor’s wardens and forced to submit to a test for the deadly Scourge. She is even more surprised when the test results come back positive, and she is sent to Attic Island, a former prison turned refuge—and quarantine colony—for the ill. The Scourge’s victims, Ani now among them, can only expect to live out short, painful lives there.
However, Ani quickly discovers that she doesn’t know the whole truth about the Scourge or the Colony. She’s been caught in a devious plot, and, with the help of her best friend, Weevil, Ani means to uncover just what is actually going on. But will she and Weevil survive the Scourge—and the gorvernor’s wardens—long enough to make their escape and expose the cruel plan?
Stand alone or series: Standalone novel
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Hardcover
In the land of Keldan, one thing is certain: you do not want to be afflicted with the Scourge. The disease first appeared three hundred years ago, ripping through the country and killing a third of the population. Now, centuries later, Keldan still wrestles with the scars of that disease—the people of the river country were accused of originating the virus, and have been ostracized from the “civilized” population of townsfolk in the valley below. The powerful leader of Keldan, Governor Felling and her reign of exploitation and greed hasn’t helped matters, and the divide between river people “grubs” and townspeople “pinchworms” continues to grow (just as the divide continues to grow between Keldan and its neighboring kingdoms).
And then, the worst thing finally happens: The Scourge returns.
Sweeping through the prisons, and then slowly making its way to the general Keldan population, the Scourge kills without discrimination—the telltale fever, rash, and excruciating pain are quick to strike and impossible to cure.
In order to save her people, Governor Felling decides to institute a quarantine for all of those exhibiting early symptoms. Attic island, off the coast of Keldan, has become a colony for the ill, where the Scourge victims are put to hard labor and to live or die. Of course, no one who has ever been sent to Attic Island ever returns.
Enter Ani, a headstrong young woman and child of the river people, who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. When she and her best friend Weevil are captured by the Wardens who scour the woods for potential Scourge sufferers, Ani is desperate to save her friend, and to escape from certain death. Accompanied by a young town girl—a spoiled pinchworm named Della, who seems determined to despise Ani at first sight—the outlook for Ani and Weevil seems desperate. But if these three can work together, and uncover the true nature of the Scourge and their new prison home, they might be able to save everyone and everything they love from certain death.
I’ve been a big fan of Jennifer A. Nielsen’s ever since reading The False Prince—one of my favorite fantasy novels (and top 10 overall novels) of 2012, the year of its release. Many of the things I loved so much about that book are present here, in The Scourge.
The biggest draw of this standalone fantasy novel—besides the fact that it’s a lovely, true standalone novel—is the characters. Narrated from Ani’s first person point of view, The Scourge immediately sets a funny, direct, and simple tone that is, frankly, refreshing to read in the YA/upper-MG fantasy space. One thing I love so much about Ani is that her voice never feels forced or inauthentic—very similar to Sage, the wise-cracking, upbeat protagonist of The False Prince. Ani is forthright, for the most part, and while she has her own smart-talking and wise-cracking tendencies, she’s also hilariously wonderful in her reasoning process—e.g. sure, she won’t steal medicine right away, she’ll just wait until the time is right for her to sneak a sip or two, later.
The most impressive thing about The Scourge, though, lies with the three main characters and the ribbon of friendship that runs throughout the novel. There’s a particularly painful scene between Weevil and Ani, as both of them try their hardest to save the other from brutal punishment at the hands of a Warden; there’s also the entire growth arc for the relationship between Ani and her nemesis (or is she), Della.
On the negative front, however, The Scourge leaves a few things to be desired on the plotting and world-building fronts. While I love a good standalone fantasy novel—especially in the middle grade and young adult spaces—The Scourge is an example of an area where I wish there was more to the world and the backstory. Everything in this novel felt didactic and heavy-handed. Similarly, the twists regarding the disease, the villainy of certain characters, all of this was incredibly easy to predict and see from the outset of the book. Unlike, say, The False Prince, which may have been easy to guess, but executed its twists with a deftness and humor that’s missing in The Scourge. But, of course, your mileage may vary.
So far as standalone fantasy novels go, The Scourge is a solid new entry from Jennifer A. Nielsen. It’s not life-changing, but the threads of friendship and the hilarity of Ani’s narration should please even the most jaded of cynics… myself included.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
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