Saturday, August 25, 2012

Review of the Week: Partials by Dan Wells

Imagine my surprise when I see a familiar, yet unexpected name on the cover of promising looking dystopian sci-fi tale in the young adult section of my local book store. And here I was, ready to pigeonhole Dan Wells into the supernatural horror category. Since I loved the John Wayne Cleaver trilogy, I had no problem bringing Partials home.


The human race is on the verge of extinction. Eleven years ago, genetically engineered soldiers called partials revolted and decimated the human population, releasing the RM virus that killed not only 99.9% of the population of the United States, but also kills every new child brought into the world. The partials have withdrawn leaving the remaining forty thousand humans trapped in the isolated community of East Meadow in what was Long Island, New York. The humans have rebuilt as best they can, forming a new government, education system and defense force, but the looming spectre of RM infected babies threatens to extinguish all hope for long term survival. The senate institutes the Hope Act, requiring all women under sixteen years of age to have as many children as possible in hopes that a RM resistant child will be born, and a cure can be developed. Predictably, the Hope Act is unpopular giving rise to a revolutionary group known as the Voice who are determined to force its repeal along with other unpopular policies.

Wells opens with our protagonist Kira Walker, a medical intern and virology expert watching yet another newborn die minutes after its birth from the ravages of RM. Kira fears that the Hope Act has little hope of producing an immune child. Convinced that the key to saving the species lies with source of RM, Kira puts together a group of other "plague babies" to travel outside of the safety of East Meadow and capture a partial for study.

With the massive success of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, there was a lot of the premise that felt like ground previously trod, but Wells' manages to turn enough elements on their heads that after just a few chapters I forgot about Katniss, Peeta and crew. Both books feature teen-aged female protagonists, a gritty dystopian future, and a shaky love triangle, but Wells grounds his tale with enough allusions to the world outside the reader's window that East Meadow feels much more tangible than Panem ever does. The political intrigue is well written and reasoned and even the villains both human and partial have a sensible rationale for their behavior.

Our protagonist, Kira, has very little in common with Katniss Everdeen. She is only passibly trained as a soldier and her real contribution to the action is that she is the one that is driving it. Kira's stubborn dedication to making a difference and curing RM is the glue that holds both the plot and her ragtag group of plague babies together. Wells does an excellent job of making Kira and her friends talk like the teenagers they are. They definitely have more adult functions in their society and more life experience than most teenagers in Well's audience, but they banter and moon over the opposite sex often enough that readers will have no trouble seeing themselves in the plague babies. As an adult, some of the more juvenile conversations seem to distract from the plot, but even then Wells keeps these character moments in their proper place, and the pacing never really suffers.

Partials tackles some pretty heavy themes in a way that is accessible for the YA market. The question of when the needs of the society outweigh the rights of the individual is front and center here. The Hope Act, while drafted to address a vital need of the human race, is vastly unpopular and impacts the rights of many of our young heroes. The opinions of Wells' cast are varied and he wisely doesn't pander to one point of view over the other, at least when it comes to the in narrative debates.

Partials concludes in a predictable manner but Wells manages to add more than a few twists and turns along the way, providing a feel good ending with room for future installments. A quick look at Amazon shows another full length novel and an upcoming novella. Based on his first installment, I'd say Wells has another hit series on his hands, and fans of the adventures of young Miss Everdeen, should definitely give this series a look.

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