Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Culling (Torch Keepers #1) by Steven Dos Santos

Lucien has done his best to survive since his parents died, for his baby brother Cole’s sake. Surviving in the dystopian world of Usofa is an achievement of itself with the brutal police, health destroying work, lack of food and disease

And recruitment. Recruitment means a few young people are chosen to be the next rank of Imposers, the elite military/police. Forced through a series of terrible trials, forced to compete with the threat of a sadistic death on their loved ones – Lucien must win if his brother is to survive. But his winning means someone else must lose – and their family must die.

Including Digory, the recruit who Lucian is growing ever closer to – as their relationship grows closer the inevitable tragedy looks all the more bleak.

The main thing that bothers me about this book is the whole concept of Recruitment and the Culling because it doesn’t make much sense to me

Making people compete in games for amusement’s sake or punishment, even holding the lives of their loved ones as hostages and forcing them to compete viciously makes sense – in a sadistic evil kind of way. It would be another Hunger Games parallel (a very very close parallel), and it would make sense. So it makes sense that Digory and Lucien would be thrown into the games – both are there to be tortured. To be forced to work with people they would then be forced to turn on, to force people to murder their loved ones, to murder each other’s loved ones – and each of those deaths to be utterly awful, terrible demises? Yes, as the terrible oppression of an evil regime, that works

However, this whole system isn’t designed to punish traitors or force compliance. It’s designed to recruit the uber elite soldier/police, the Imposers. Now, should I ever manage to rule my own Sparkyocracy, I think I will skip recruiting my elite guard from people I brutally torture. How is this even remotely a sensible idea? Why have a recruitment process for your elite (who you then train to be dangerous and, presumably, give the shiny lethal toys and the high level access) involve tormenting them in ways that would make them despise the Establishment and everything it stands for? Hey, let’s ensure we get a loyal elite guard by making them torture their own parents to death! That’s bound to work? It’s supposed to be an incentive to make them compete extra hard but that itself fails because several of the trials require teamwork. So not only are you training all these new recruits to hate the Establishment, but also training your elite guard to be utterly incapable of actually working together.

This does not seem productive

I get the explanation – they’re indoctrinating people to have no ties and not place anything ahead of the Establishment – but how does this achieve that? The idea of nothing being as important as the Establishment, even family, then using the death of family as incentive to work harder is not consistent: either family isn’t as important as the Establishment (in which case you should have been training these people to believe this for a long time and not just spring random death on them) and death threats won’t be needed to motivate, or family is more important and you use death threats because you can’t rely on people to work for the Establishment alone. Which undermines the whole point.

And back to that indoctrination – how badly does this brutal police state fail that it couldn’t, out of five candidates chosen to be elite guards (six if you include the one who committed suicide rather than be recruited) manage to produce ONE brain washed loyalist? C’mon you don’t just have a police state, but it has a huge death rate for the poor AND raises the orphans in separate facilities – how bad are you at this brutal oppressive regime that you can’t rustle up at least a couple of brainwashed sycophants who believe the nonsense being spouted at them?

Again, if this were MY Sparkyocracy I'd have a legion of brainwashed little footsoldiers singing my praises thrice hourly. Four times on weekends.

And I get it, there are cuts everywhere, but, really, merging your “punishing traitors” department with your “recruiting elite guard” department is a terrible way to save resources.

I’ve complained a lot about the concept failing because it makes the whole book feel forced and contrived. Which is a problem because the whole book kind of rests on this concept. Except for a brief moment at the beginning, the entire book is entirely based on Lucien and the other four candidates facing the trials one after another, suffering, working together, competing and having people die in really nasty ways. The whole reason for this book is flawed and it just becomes more glaring as it progresses. It’s all extremely well written, it’s dramatic, it’s emotional the way everyone faces such horrors, it’s excellently paced and exciting and in places even riveting. The action is excellent. The tragedy is excellent. I even like how the five different candidates are all pretty nifty and relatively developed in the time we have of them (which is limited because it is all very action focused)

But all this awesomely written action rests on a very wibbly foundation of the whole book’s concept – which makes it all feel kind of pointless

Another weakness is the emotional connections between the characters. It’s so focused on the action (again, very well written action) that we seem to be getting lots of characters forming connections without purpose. It’s funny because individually, Cypress’s grief and determination, Ophelia’s drive and slightly terrifying ruthlessness and Garrett’s painful past and loss are all decent and well rounded characters in and of themselves. It’s the connection between these 5 strangers that I don’t feel

And that includes Digory (the least realised of the characters) and Lucien. Which is sad because I really want to be invested in Digory and Lucian as a same-sex couple and gay protagonists. And I like Lucien and Digory together – their relationship may feel forced because of the suddenness of it and the lack of development – but it feels forced because the author wants them to have a powerful emotional connection (not, as is all too common, because the author wants them to get it on, right now damn it!) to add to the pathos and texture of the setting, to put these two in the impossible painful. There’s a genuine attempt to make these characters’ relationship real and I want to get be 100% behind it and a fan of it and the way gay characters are quietly included in this world setting.

Of course, the inevitable tragedy doesn’t help.

There are female characters with Cypress and Ophelia who are powerful and hyper capable at least on par (especially Ophelia who is scary, very very scary and dangerous, though Cypress is also very scary and capable and dangerous but in a very very different way). Cypress is a character I definitely wish I’d seen more of with her moving backstory.

Actually, can I step in here and say how much Lucian and Digory disappoint me. Here’s Lucian our protagonist and his love interest (who is supposed to be a revolutionary but all he does is… what, posters? Is that it? Can’t you do anything else?!) and they are both completely DULL compared to every other character. It frustrates me immensely that, even though I really really want to read a dystopia with a gay protagonist, that I would STILL rather have read the story from the POV of anyone else but these two dully dull people.

Oh and can we drop the whole "who would you choose?" Lucian's choices are Digory - personality-less man he's known for a few weeks, an old mother figure who is already dying (and dies half way so he doesn't have to bother with pesky moral choices) and his 4 year old brother. This is not a hard choice. 

 In terms of POC… we have one of those ambiguously described protagonists: Lucian has olive skin and Black hair which means he might be a POC… or not. It’s one of those descriptions that could be representation but is shaky because of the overwhelming power of the Societal Default.

Except for Lucian and (I assume) his little brother the other POC is Digory’s husband who only appears at a distance who is described as “caramel skinned” and do we always have to describe POC as food?

I hope that the next book in this series will move away from the trials and with it away from the whole wibbly foundation of the world building. Because the writing is great, the characterisation is great – they just need a better foundation to rest on, a better raison d’etre to pin all this writing and action to because without it it all feels a little… flimsy. You can’t have excellently written action without a reason for it. Well, you can, but then it’d be an action film.

Gah, I just need it to be more – this is the first, the only dystopian series I’ve read with an LGBT protagonist and it’s… lacking. I wanted better than “lets desperately twist this world setting so we can retell the Hunger Games only without it making sense.”