Publisher: Hot Key Books.
Paperback, 368 pages.
Release date: September 5th 2013.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Reviewed by: Arianne.
‘There is a rumour that the Elites don’t bleed.’
Hundreds of years into the future, wars, riots, resource crises and rising sea-levels have destroyed the old civilisations. Only one city has survived: Neo-Babel, a city full of cultures – and racial tension.
Fifteen-year-old Silver is an Elite, a citizen of Neo-Babel chosen to guard the city due to her superior DNA. She’d never dream of leaving – but then she fails to prevent the assassination of Neo Babel’s president, setting off a chain of events more shocking and devastating than she could ever have imagined. Forced to flee the city with her best friend Butterfly (a boy with genetically-enhanced wings), Silver will have to fight to find her family, uncover the truth about Neo-Babel and come to terms with her complicated feelings for Butterfly.
Packed full of adventure, romance, exoticism and the power of friendship, The Elites is a highly compelling and beautifully written novel from a supremely talented debut author.
All you have to do is look at my Twitter feed to know how excited I was to read this book. It took months to track it down in a bookshop, but as far as little post-Christmas treats are concerned, it doesn't get much better than finally finding one of your most anticipated reads of the year!
Silver is an Elite - or at least, an Elite in training. Plucked from the gene pool at a young age and earmarked for a life as one of her city's most important protectors, she's been surrounded by danger and privilege for as long as she can remember. But far from being revered, she's despised by most of her fellow Elites. Silver is a Red - an ethnic Chinese - and to many, she has no right to a place in Neo-Babel, let alone among the Elites.
On premise alone, I can't fault this book. Dystopia isn't seen as being typical UKYA, making this a great addition to its shelf. I admire the strength and tenacity with which Ngan builds her story: you can really feel how much she loves her characters with every word she writes. The book is told in third person, but switches viewpoints in a technique reminiscent of Rick Riordan's action-packed omnipresent style.
We find Silver mid-training, with sparse details on her background and even less on her future, building the suspense. We meet her cruel, vindictive mentor and the strangely suspicious Elite leaders. We meet Silver's peers and contemporaries. We even briefly encounter Neo-Babel's President Tanaka! It's Butterfly, Silver's best friend, however, who I grew to love most. Sweet, unselfconscious and loyal to the last, you can tell there's a romance waiting to blossom between these two.
Standing in the way of a blissful romance, of course, is the plot. From the opening scene - there is a rumour that Elites don't bleed - it's apparent that this is one author who isn't afraid to pile on the gore and death to give her world some edge. Unfortunately, so many characters die that the deaths begin to feel a little gratuitous. I don't want to spoil, but unless you manage to establish the connection with these characters that sadly evaded me, their losses will feel like little more than a drop in the ocean of YA violence.
Worse still, the writing within The Elites doesn't even read like YA. It's entirely middle-grade. The description is the fantastic, but the sentence structure, stylistic choices and the directness of the paragraphing cast a shadow of simplicity over the book that just doesn't belong. Everything's so easy for Silver and Butterfly. They don't make mistakes, the world does; they run into handy allies and escape clauses at every turn. The best thing about dystopian YA is the potential for unpredictability, but The Elites reads as if the concept raising the stakes has never even crossed the author's mind. If it weren't for the violence and a certain waterfall scene, I'd put this book straight onto the children's shelf; because on a children's shelf it would be awesome, but in a YA stack it seems tame.
That said one advantage of this innocent, straightforward storytelling is the emphasis on values. The need to feel like part of a family and the importance of independent choice feature heavily in Silver's thoughts, and often extend to driving her actions. While I didn't feel it was necessary to introduce so many lost family members (seriously, does everyone in Neo-Babel have secret/long-dead/reincarnated relatives they didn't know were alive?) I could see the intent behind these moral reflections. If only the attempt to explore racial discrimination hadn't been so one-dimensional. Silver is frequently called a 'Red', because she is descended from the 'Red Nations' of Asia, but apart from some cat-calling and grudge-holding, she doesn't suffer much more than anyone else in the novel. Neo-Babel's society is brilliantly multi-cultural, something we need to see more of, particularly in dystopia, but singling out one race in a sea of many for making 'planes fall out of the sky'? I just didn't buy it.
There's definite potential for more from this world and from this author, though - especially if Ngan ever tries her luck in the children's market. Her books would do phenomenally there, although I wouldn't rule out picking up her YA follow-ups, either.
In short: this book gets 4 stars because while I was a little let down by The Elites, I generally liked the focus on story and the book at all times felt as if it was moving forward, lending itself to an enjoyable, one-sitting read.