DREAD NATION by Justina Ireland

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Jane would have grown up in slavery if not for the War Between the States. Instead, she grew up helping her white mother defend the plantation against the onslaught of the undead who began to rise after the Battle of Gettysburg. Although the agreement to end the War so that North and South could join forces against the undead shamblers included the abolition of slavery, Black people are far from equal—arguably not even free. When Jane was rounded up with the rest of the Black teens on the plantation and sent to a finishing school where she would train to defend wealthy white women from shamblers, she hoped it would be an opportunity to gain some sort of liberty and life experience. Instead, she finds herself hampered by the racism and sexism that pervade her society. But when she and a classmate uncover a deadly conspiracy, they find themselves in grave danger and caught between the desire for self-preservation and the knowledge that if they don’t do something, the entire world could be lost to the undead.

This novel is stunning: well-written, nuanced, thought-provoking, timely, and with a gripping and richly imagined historical sci-fi that is nearly impossible to put down. Jane is a compelling and complex protagonist, and it is a pleasure to root for her against both the zombies and the disturbing social institutions that try to hold her back. For all of its thrilling adventure, it never shies away from a powerful and disturbing look at racism and its impact. I loved every page and highly recommend it to teen and adult fans of sci-fi, dystopia, or even historical fiction.

ENDER’S GAME by Orson Scott Card

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In Ender’s world, it is not a good thing to be a third child.  Earth has a strict law limiting families to only two children, and Ender is a third.  This makes Ender’s parents suspect for possibly holding unconventional beliefs about the morality of contraception, and it makes Ender feel like a mistake, an unwanted and potentially dangerous creation.  Only Ender’s sister, Valentine, makes him feel truly loved, protecting him as much as she can from the torments of their older brother, Peter.  Peter is still bitter that he was not quite brilliant enough to be selected for an elite school that trains future military officers for the ongoing war between the Earthlings and the insect-like aliens called the “Buggers.” When Ender is of age, it initially seems that he will not make the cut for Command School either, as the government removes the implant that has been tracking his intellectual development.  But after an incident at school where Ender fights back against a bully, fatally injuring him, the government returns and offers Ender a place at Command School.  Overcoming the disadvantage of his small size, Ender excels at the tests thrown at him, most of which are framed as “games” that challenge him intellectually.  But the greatest challenge may be navigating the social and political tensions at the school in order to prove that he has what it takes to lead an army against the Buggers.

Ender’s Game is a sci-fi classic.  There is plenty of outer-space action, but the main focus of the novel is on character development and the relationships that fuel the social and political subtexts.  I highly recommend this book to teen and adult sci-fi fans!

If you liked Ender’s Game, you might like the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov.


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Matt spent his early life in a secluded cottage, raised by Celia, a maid for El Patron, the 140 year old drug lord who rules over the land of Opium.  But when Matt’s attempt to communicate with three new children leads to a serious injury, he is suddenly whisked into the strange world beyond the cottage.  There, he learns that he is a clone of El Patron, a sub-human creation that many people consider to be equivalent to livestock.  El Patron decides to protect Matt and raise him with the education and lifestyle befitting of a drug lord’s son, but Matt senses something sinister about the old man and his complicated family business, although Celia and his new bodyguard Tam Lin will not explain it to him.  Matt will have to come to grips with his identity as a clone, the reason he was created, and the truth about El Patron’s Opium empire–because his life may depend on it.

Another great Sci-Fi novel from Nancy Farmer!  She builds a vivid and terrifying dystopian landscape that explores potential moral consequences of cloning, as well as providing a commentary on how humans treat other humans, particularly immigrants and the working class.  The novel has a nice blend of action and philosophical musing and will certainly be relatable to anyone who has ever struggled to find their identity or place in society.  I highly recommend it to lovers of dark Sci-Fi novels!

Older teens who liked The House of the Scorpion might like Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood–and of course Nancy Farmer’s earlier Sci-Fi classic, The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm.

Thanks for the suggestion, Grace!

NATION by Terry Pratchett

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In a parallel reality to Victorian England, a plague wipes out most of the country’s population–including the first one-hundred-thirty-nine people in line for the throne. The remnants of the British government must locate the next closest heir and his daughter, Ermintrude, both of whom are abroad.

At the same time, a giant tidal wave destroys a particular island nation. Only young Mau, who was away on a journey to become a man, has survived.  He has left his boy soul on the island, so he arrives back at the Nation—not a boy, not a man, soulless—to bury the bodies of everyone he has ever known. The wave also wrecks the ship carrying Ermintrude back to England. The princess alone survives the wreck and leaves her old identity behind, changing her name to Daphne.  Together, Mau and Daphne try to fathom the tragedy and rebuild their lives as other survivors begin to arrive on the island.

Pratchett does not conceal the grotesque reality of death.  Nor does he avoid the intense spiritual and emotional questions that accompany the clash of cultures in a post-apocalyptic world.  The characters wrestle with identity, cultural heritage, language, racial prejudice, religion, friendship, love, and grief. The philosophical questions are subtle and inconclusive, deftly woven into the narrative.  And underlying all of it is Terry Pratchett’s quirky sense of humor–especially poignant in this dark context.  Although written for young adults, Nation resonates with a broad audience.  It will keep you thinking even after you put the book down!

SHIP BREAKER by Paolo Bacigalupi

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In Nailer’s world, you need luck to survive.  You can be small and able to work on light crew, stripping copper from shipwrecks for low pay.  Or you can be strong on heavy crew, breaking down the larger metal salvage.  But if you get an infection, you won’t be able to get medication, and you’ll die of fever.  If you get stuck inside a wreck you’ll drown, or choke in the dust and oil, and the rats will eat you.  Of course, even if you have no bad luck and are smart enough to do everything right, you still die on the beach sooner or later.  Unless you get a really lucky strike. . . .

After a huge “city killer” hurricane, Nailer and Pima find an isolated wreck and hurry to get the first scavenge.  But when they find a rich girl still alive, they have to make a choice.  Pima suggests two options: cut the ringed fingers off her swollen hands while she’s alive, or slit her throat first.  The girl is, after all, a great scavenge–a true lucky strike.  With just the gold rings on her fingers they could feed themselves and more—maybe never have to work again.  But Nailer chooses to save her instead, knowing that this decision might be the last he ever makes.   Now he and “Lucky Girl” must somehow escape the clutches of her rich father’s corporate enemies and Nailer’s abusive, drug-addict father who wants to turn Lucky Girl in for ransom.

This post-apocalyptic vision of Earth’s future is very violent and very dark.  Bacigalupi explores the meaning of family and loyalty and challenges readers to reflect on human treatment of the environment and the extreme gap in wealth and lifestyle between the heads of corporations and the lowest level industry workers.  Ship Breaker took the 2011 Printz Award (for Young Adult Literature) and was a finalist for the National Book award.  It is a great read for teens and adults.

ORYX AND CRAKE by Margaret Atwood

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As far as Snowman knows, he is the last human left on Earth.  The blazing sun—hotter now that the atmosphere has thinned—burns his skin, even in the shade of the tree that is his home.  His only companions are the human-like Children of Crake, a tribe of genetic experiments of whom Snowman was made guardian, before the known world came to an end.

Food is scarce, and Snowman must brave a dangerous trail, crawling with genetically-modified predators, to find supplies in the ruins of a nearby city.  Haunted on his journey by the memories of Crake, the cunning super-genius, Oryx, his enigmatic lover, and Jimmy, the unremarkable boy that Snowman used to be, he relives the series of seemingly inconsequential events that led to the destruction of his world.

Oryx and Crake is both exciting and thought-provoking–taking readers on a journey through the monster-infested ruins of American civilization and forcing them to consider the potential dangers of genetic engineering, cyber-stalking, global warming, and biochemical warfare.  As in most post-apocalyptic tales, Snowman’s story is intense and tragic.  It isn’t a light read, but this book is hard to put down!

If you liked Oryx and Crake, you might like The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer.