What I’m Reading—Mid-July 2015

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Bookshelf

ATLANTIA, by Ally Condie

At the time of the Divide, the air had grown so poisonous and polluted, those who lived on land endured short, ugly lives, plagued by sickness and misery. Thus, a great underwater refuge was built so that humanity might survive, and a chosen few were sent to live Below, that they might enjoy long, beautiful lives, breathing pure air, and populating the marvelous city of Atlantia.

Since that time, those Above grow the food and supply other necessities to those Below, hoping (it is said) to be rewarded in the afterlife for the bodily suffering they endure in this one. Atlantia reciprocates by trading ores mined by mechanical drones from the floor of the sea. This exchange is not equal, however, which is why each year young people who have reached a certain age are given the choice to stay Below or to lead a life of sacrifice Above, helping to grow the crops and produce the other things that Atlantia cannot provide for its citizens.

Every year, there are some who choose the sacrifice. Rio has always dreamed of going Above, not purely out of a desire to serve, but because she longs to feel the sun on her face, touch living trees, and walk for miles without ever reaching the edge of the world. But the choice of whether to go or stay is irrevocable. There are no visits, no communications between family members once they are divided. Their separation is as complete and as final as death itself.

Rio has a fraternal twin, who has been pleading with her since childhood to remain with her Below. “Though Bay and I are not mirrors of each other,” Rio says,“we’re still as near to the same person as two completely different people can be.” Yet Bay’s devotion to Atlantia is as strong as Rio’s desire to leave—and as the last children of their bloodline they would not, in any case, be allowed to both go Above. Rio remains firm in her decision to go Above until the unexpected death of their mother, Oceana, when Bay’s pleas take on a new desperation. Rather than leave her sister alone, Rio makes the painful choice to stay.

But when the day of the ritual choosing comes, Bay shocks Rio by making the choice to go Above, leaving Rio stranded Below. So Rio must not only endure the loss of her twin, but also the loss of her dream.

Left alone, Rio begins to notice that things are not quite right in Atlantia, that there are secrets that may lead to the truth of her mother’s death and to falsehoods about the very nature of their city and its relationship with those Above. Rio’s only remaining family member is her estranged aunt, Maire, who is one of those born with a powerful gift, the beautiful and compelling voice of a siren. The sirens are both valued and feared, and for the most part kept apart from the other citizens of Atlantia. Only Maire, the most powerful of them all, is able to live as she chooses.

Rio learns that Maire may hold the answers to all her questions about Oceana’s death, as well as other secrets, dangerous to know, equally dangerous to ignore. And Rio has a secret of her own: she too is a Siren, one who has suppressed her true voice in order to keep her freedom.

The setting is captivating and vividly portrayed: from the soaring beauty of the temple with its great rose window, to the chaos of junk and treasures in the deepmarket, to the workshops smelling of oil and seawater where the machinists repair the mining drones, to the constant sound of air pumping through the walls and out into the city.

Rio is an appealing character, both vulnerable and strong. The author does not minimize or trivialize her grief at being parted from her sister; it is raw and inescapable. Yet Rio is not a passive character. She asks questions, determined to solve the mysteries that surround her. She devises an elaborate and dangerous plan for escaping the city and going Above. She doesn’t flinch from the truth when she discovers that so much about her world is not at all as she thought it was.

For most of the book the plot moves along at a steady pace. As well as Rio’s longing for the world Above, her determination to achieve what she wants against all the combined weight of law and custom there are the mysteries to be solved and every answer leads to more questions. Rio’s tenacity in searching for those answers is as much a part of her story as her resolve to reach the world Above. But near the end of the book I thought the plot became over-complicated and muddled, and given that, the resolution seemed too easy and not at all credible. To me, it felt as though the author left out the one thing that could have made it work.

Because the story is told in first person from Rio’s viewpoint and we never get to hear the thoughts of the other characters, or see the world from their perspectives, most of them come across as just a bit flat. Perhaps—even probably—in some cases this is intentional, as with Maire, to maintain her mystery. But it would be nice if the boy who emerges as Rio’s romantic interest were a more rounded character. Yes, he is appealing, and there is more to him than initially meets the eye, but of his personality we see little beyond his kindness and loyalty. His romance with Rio is not, however, a major part of the plot, since it only really develops near the end. Because of that, I think some readers will be satisfied with his character as it is, and others will wish the romance had developed earlier.

Overall, I found this a beguiling story with a delightful heroine, and enough complexity to the plot to appeal to adults as well as teenagers.
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