Charlotte Walker lives in a future America that looks nothing like today. The state runs television. Everything is for a war effort against Canada, which has cut off the Keystone Pipeline. There is no president or Congress. There is only the Party. And Maxwell Cooper, the Supreme Leader.
This is the only world Charlotte has known, and the Party manages to turn even that upside down. Humvees roll into Harrison Corners, a small town in northwest Ohio that, up until now, has been isolated from the turmoil gripping the US. She, like her neighbors, are forced to work in a factory making shirts for the war effort. But there’s more than war production behind the occupation. As Charlotte points out in the first chapter, she’s just found out she is Cooper’s bastard. What follows is a clandestine escape to Canada, followed by a harrowing rescue run back to Harrison Corners.
Two authors came to mind as I read this: Stephen King and John Scalzi. Like Scalzi, Celi makes her future familiar. However, whereas Scalzi’s Earth in both the Old Man’s War series and The Android’s Dream is actually a decent place to live, Celi’s America has more in common with Susan Collins’ Panem, minus any bloodsport spectacle. (Yet. This is a series after all.)
The King comparison comes from the desperate vibe that permeates the book, which echoes The Running Man (the book, not the movie), The Long Walk, and shades of The Stand. The status quo is bleak, hopeless, and insidious.
There are nice touches here as well. Cooper is described as an Ohio native son who bears a resemblance to a certain House Speaker who hails from nearby Butler County. But whereas Mr. Boehner usually looks like he has a migraine (Wouldn’t you with the current Congress? Even if most of them are your people?), Cooper solves the problem of gridlock with a coup. But on a more mundane level, the Humvee has replaced the limousine and the Army Jeep as the ride of choice for the powerful.
Still, anyone can make a new universe, altered reality, or dystopic future. Celi, however, has an affinity for romance (which is the bulk of her subsequent books). The real story is Charlotte, who already has to be a survivor thanks to a neglectful mother, and Fostino, a fellow student who has had a crush on her. Fostino finally sees a chance with Charlotte when he is drafted into the Homeland Guard (Cooper’s storm troopers) and takes her under his protection. It’s this relationship that drives the story. Charlotte must leave Fostino behind as he is part of the occupation, then must go back for him when the government betrays its own citizens in Harrison Corners.
I liked this story for its quick pace and its spanning of three genres (YA, science fiction, romance). This is Celi’s first novel, and a very fine effort for a debut. I look forward to more in this series.