Resentment and rage fuel a dark dystopia.
Summary: Jenara Celesta Cole is a fiery, f-bomb-dropping, beautiful, red-headed, rebellious, “lower class gutter trash” reform school escapee who teams up with “extremely attractive,” born-with-a-silver-spoon, upper class, gallant and brave cadet leader at the military academy, Myron James Cutter, and the “acne-ridden, bi-focal wearing, teenaged crusader” Oscar Saracen to overthrow the oppressive English government.
Set in a dystopian London around 2044, Jen’s battle to save herself and liberate the English people begins days before her eighteenth birthday, when she defies curfew to taste freedom. Freedom, alas, is not Jen’s lot. She is not only lower class, but also of “non-pure blood,” Scottish blood bearing that evil taint. Thus tainted, through her mother’s line, Jen is subject to being “culled” by vicious government patrols. England is, oddly enough, at war with Scotland. A plague also afflicts the long-suffering English public, although Oscar “suspected they were victims of a government patrol’s bloodlust” and not authentic plague victims at all.
The cast of villains is imaginative and diverse. First we meet the sadistic Dr. Simon Besson, who must multi-task between torturing Jen (“’I have such plans for you, my pretty one,’ he said smugly”), murdering captured Scottish soldiers with his own hands (“’Ah, what a delicious display of horror,’ the doctor said with an evil chortle”), hiding his illicit connections to non-pure bloods and overseeing the building of an army of clones from the repurposed DNA of culled non-pure bloods by double-agent scientist-saboteur Gerick Meyer, “your typical geeky scientific type who was an easy target for bullying.” Then we encounter Prime Minister Edward Myosin and “the Himmler to his Hitler,” revered war hero Brigadier John Howard. Brought into the inner ruling circle by Myosin to do his dirty work and eliminate the opposition, Howard “made short order of the list of Edward Myosin’s opposition, dealing with them swiftly and without fuss,” even including the prime minister’s own brother Joseph, who fell to “a simple bullet to the back of the head.”
Alas for the prime minister, the brigadier lacked loyalty and craved power. “The brigadier said nothing as he trussed the prime minister up like a prize hog; hands tied behind his back and feet pulled tight to his knees. Myosin screamed blue murder, which did him no good.” I will leave to the pleasure of the reader the details of Myosin’s demise and the colorful way in which Howard disposed, and re-disposed, of Myosin’s corpse, for this writer is best in describing scenes of torture, mayhem and death, always vivid, creative and unforgettable.
The plot is a straightforward heroic uprising that moves along with vigorously brisk pacing. The three heroes meet, gather allies, repair a printing press and then bravely print and brazenly distribute anti-government propaganda that blows the lid off the whole culling-non-pure-blood-DNA-to-create-clone-army government conspiracy. Various counter-attacks, captures, torture sessions and rescues ensue, with our three heroes and their allies risking life and limb and balls, not to mention possibly perishing into martyrdom in utterly unexpected ways. Fear not, for “Myron, Jen, Oscar and others of a similarly brave and defiant stripe were damned if they were going to languish under [John Howard]’s iron fist.” In the brave and desperate final assault demanded by the genre, vengeance is extracted, villains punished, evil governments toppled, wars ended, clone armies destroyed and freedom restored by our Clone Cudgel-wielding heroes.
Review: I came to this book with high expectations, as the published reviews were strong overall and I enjoy heroic tales set in dystopias, from Hunger Games and the Divergent series to the Mad Max and Matrix series movies. Going Underground seemed a perfect fit with my tastes, and a substantial 420-page epic fifteen years in the making to boot.
However, I did not enjoy the book as much as I had hoped.
While the (British) spelling was perfect throughout, the copy-editing could have been better, as the author struggled at times with capitalization and punctuation, especially in dialogue.
I did not enjoy the writing style. The author is fond of adverbs and embellished dialogue tags, so lots of sneering and smirking and lamenting tagged along with the characters’ words. The author also brandished frequent and disorienting changes in point of view. The dialogue is reminiscent of 19th century English penny dreadfuls or American 19th century melodramas. I wondered if perhaps it was an intentional ironic melodrama style, a humorous parody of bad period writing, but as page after page wore on for 420 pages, the parody did not wear well if parody it was.
The world-building was haphazard and illogical, although the author came up with some great ideas that, fully developed, could have made for a magnificent dystopian world. A war. A clone army. A plague, or possibly a government-induced fake plague. Genocide perpetrated upon the non-pure bloods. Any of these alone could have carried the book. All of them together, well done, would have been stupendous. However, these world-building elements were left underdeveloped and not well integrated with the plot.
We live in a time of terrible battles over religious and racial ideologies, so I was intrigued by Oscar Saracen’s surname, which means the “Arab” or the “Mohammedan” in medieval usage. At first I thought maybe the book would explore the Western/Muslim divide in Britain in a fictional context, and the non-pure bloods were Muslims. Writing this review the day after London elected its first Muslim mayor, a very interesting fact in the real world, I held vainly on to this hope through many pages before realizing Saracen’s name was just random and the tainted bloodlines were…Scottish.
I could have forgiven an implausible world, girded as it was by the sturdy plot, but the characters I cannot forgive. I hate Jen. She begins, and ends, as a rude, selfish, foul-mouthed, ungrateful, dim and bratty girl who does not deserve half the care and concern lavished on her by noble Myron and brave Oscar. I know she is meant to be fiery and tempestuous, but she is just major league annoying.
About a quarter of the way through the story, Myron and Jen have overcome their early differences, those character introduction bits where he calls her “gutter trash” and she beats him up in front of his mates, and they are now allies sneaking back into London at the risk of their lives. She is tired and footsore and grumpy, as she often is. They reach a silent and deserted Hyde Park. Myron, sensible fellow that he is, points out that “Something’s not right.” So we should go hide, perhaps, to avoid attracting the attention of the sadistic patrols that take one to the camps for unspeakable tortures and death, no? Not our fiery and tempestuous heroine, oh no! Instead, and I quote,
“She wrenched her hand away from Myron’s and ran as fast as she could towards the centre of the park. He gave chase, but there was no stopping her. Upon reaching the centre, she let out one of the loudest screams Myron had ever heard. He knew she was letting out all the tension of recent events and tried to comfort her with a hug.
“’Myron, please! Can you just leave me alone for one fuckin’ minute?’ she begged frantically, rebuffing his advances.
“He respected Jen’s wishes and walked away from her as she began to wail like a banshee again. He concentrated his efforts on finding the food they both so desperately needed.
“For a full fifteen minutes, she wailed and screamed until her throat was sore.”
Jen screams a lot.
She physically abuses her friends a lot, and her enemies even more. She swears with every breath, “arsehole” and “f***in’” being favorite forms of expression. She repeatedly endangers herself, her friends and critical missions by disobeying orders, randomly screaming and fighting, again with both friends and enemies. She marinates in seething resentment against the privileged upper class, constantly raising class differences between herself and son-of-privilege Myron, even after he has defied his father and thrown away all his advantages to save her, repeatedly.
In fact, it is Jen’s raging resentment that lingers with me long after putting down the book after their final victory, not Oscar’s insight and bravery, or Myron’s nobility, or the creativity of the clone army or the diverse and unique ways different characters were tortured, maimed, killed and their bodies disposed of throughout the story. (Body disposal methods—memorably creative.)
No, Jen’s resentment and rage permeate the entire story, even when she is not on the page. Resentment is the scent that lingers in her wake.
A wild and fierce argument broke out recently in the Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) Facebook group. Someone posted an article positing that correcting grammar, spelling and punctuation and enforcing rules of “good” writing was racist and classist, an oppressive form of white privilege used to keep down minorities and prevent underprivileged people from expressing their truths. I did not join the Facebook argument, but I watched it rage for days with great attention and thought hard about the two sides, on one side the defenders of classical and high standards in written communication and on the other those arguing for creating space for marginalized voices to make themselves heard.
In my own life, I have struggled to speak with the “right” accent and write in the most correct manner possible, without regard to whatever deficiencies might have plagued my early upbringing and education, in hopes that my message will reach and touch listeners. I instinctively value those writers who make the same effort with their written expression. And I suppose it is also true that I instinctively devalue the writing of those who do not make that effort or value it as I do.
However, after hearing the many heartfelt and moving arguments in the great Facebook debate from the side of those arguing that grammar and punctuation standards are powerful weapons used to silence marginalized voices, I found myself wondering if I was participating, through sharing in this review my frustration with small nits of grammar and punctuation and writing style and logic lapses, in the silencing of a marginalized voice.
Had I, by picking on those things, completely missed the heart of the author’s message? Was the author was trying to communicate something powerful and heartfelt about the author’s view of the class system in Britain, a class system the author sees as so evil and pernicious that it turns the very bodies of the marginalized into the actual instruments of their own capture, torture and oppression in the form of the clone army, a class system deeper than race—the enemy Scots are white like the ruling English—and more profound than religious ideological differences between native British and immigrant Muslims? Perhaps Oscar Saracen was not named randomly after all, but his Muslim-hinting name was put in the story to underline the author’s position that the evil in Britain is found not in racial issues, nor in religious ideology struggles, but in class oppression like that which so suffocates Jen, who, inarticulate and marginalized, can only scream when she finds her way to the center of Hyde Park.
If so, then Jen cannot change, cannot mellow, cannot soften, cannot forgive, cannot take on the nuanced speech and polite behaviors of the upper class enemy, for they are and forever will be her enemy and her resentment and rage must be equally eternal.
Recommendation: Read it if you love vividly described torture and the darkest of dark dystopias and don’t mind heroes who are constantly fighting, insulting each other and beating each other up. Read it if I am wrong to care about details like writing style, character development, world-building and punctuation, and missing the point about the evils of class oppression in England. Read it in case it is a brilliant work by an overlooked and marginalized voice rejected by a classist grammar Nazi.