‘The Girl in the Road’ Review: A Sci-fi Future That Seems Almost Real

GITR-cover2Monica Byrne’s debut novel, The Girl in the Road, breaks into the world of sci-fi with a forceful voice and a demanding presence. It offers a great change of pace to the overwhelming amount of post-apocalyptic stories out there right now. Instead, it tells the story of a world that doesn’t seem so unfathomable.

The Girl in the Road takes place in India, Africa and on a floating chain of energy-harnessing scales that spans the ocean between the two. It’s alternating chapters tell the story of two women, Meena and Mariama, both of whom are on journeys to escape their past. Symbols and connections overlap the two women’s stories, but it isn’t until the novel’s shocking climax that we learn how they are connected.

Meena is running away from an apparent attempt on her life. She ends up traveling across The Trail, a new type of technology, created by the giant corporation HydraCorp, that harnesses the energy of the Arabian Sea. Mariama travels the width of Africa, from Mauritania to Ethiopia, in search of a life better than the one of slavery she previously knew. The two women’s stories do not exist in the same time. Meena’s story takes place over a couple of months, while Mariama’s takes place over most of her life. When their stories do intersect, however, it is in a wholly unexpected way.

As visceral as Meena and Mariama’s stories are, though, Byrne, sometimes takes away from them with an overuse of sci-fi plot devices. Semena Werk, the organization who Meena believes to be after her, is never fully-realized. Throughout the novel it remains an unexplained, and ultimately unnecessary, force to move the plot. Byrne has a masters degree in geochemistry, which lends a wonderful authenticity to the science in her story, but she often spends too much time on the scientific mumbo-jumbo, and the story slows way down. Also, the snake, the main symbolic motif throughout the novel, is over utilized. Rather than letting the reader make the symbolic connections on her own, Byrne forces the connections on the reader. There are a lot of things going on in The Girl in the Road, so much so that the story sometimes seems confused, as if it’s not sure what it’s really about, but they aren’t harmful enough to ruin the story.

As much as Byrne stumbles in some areas, she excels in others. Much of the technology in her book is grounded enough to seem like realistic things we can expect from the future, and it’s exciting to read a sci-fi story that puts forward ideas that might actually come to pass. Byrne also takes this opportunity to address not just the technology of the future, but the sociology of it as well. The LGBTQ community has made great strides toward equality, and people are much more comfortable with sexuality in general. India’s caste system exists mainly in the minds of the older characters, with the younger ones embracing a culture where money doesn’t have to determine your status in life. Africa has become the new mecca for humanity, “the new India, after India became the new America, after America became the new Britain, after Britain became the new Rome, after Rome became the new Egypt, after Egypt became the new Punt, and so on and so forth. Now we’re back to Punt.” Byrne puts forward the thought that America will not always remain the superpower it is now. One day we will all go back to where we began.

The Girl in the Road ends on a bit of a confusing note. A lot of things are left unexplained. In the end though, it is an excellent debut from Monica Byrne. I read it in four days. I could not put it down. So if you’re looking for something new and exciting to read, The Girl in the Road is it.

4/5

 

*FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review. 

Advertisements

Step Aside, Teens. Benjamin Percy’s “Red Moon” Is a Tale for the Masses.

percy_RedMoon_TPI recently finished Red Moon by Benjamin Percy, and it is quite honestly one of the most intense novels I’ve read recently. It is a kind of alternate history of the United States, clearly meant to speak to those of us living in post-9/11 America. Although, rather than tell a story about xenophobia toward Arabs and Muslims, the characters in Red Moon are fearful of werewolves (or, as they are called in the book, lycans). Stay with me. This is not Twilight or True Blood or any of the many horror books and movies and shows aimed at teens. This is literary horror that Stephen King and Dean Koontz readers have been hoping would emerge in this new generation of writers.

The lycans of Red Moon have been around since the seventh century. Their condition is caused by a prion called lobos. It is a blood-borne contagion, similar to a virus, which affects certain areas of the brain that control stress-related functions. When lycans change, they don’t turn into wolves. They become hairier, their teeth sharpen to points, their nails turn to claws, but they are still human. They are less the mythical werewolves we’re used to and more people with hulk-like abilities.

In Red Moon, lycans are treated as second-class citizens. They are required to register, and, even though they can control the change on their own and can function as normal human beings, they are required to take monthly blood tests to ensure they are taking Volpex, a drug which inhibits their transformation. Non-lycans are afraid of lycans, and that fear is reinforced by splinter groups of lycan terrorists fighting for their right to be treated the same as everyone else. Most lycans, however, are not a radical as those in the splinter groups and just want to live normal lives (sound familiar?).

Those lycans who wanted a homeland where they could live freely created the Lupine Republic, situated between Russia and Finland, in 1948. However, when the U.S. discovered a boat-load of uranium un the Republic, they occupied it and began mining the uranium. Most U.S. troops are sent there until the lycan terrorists back home set off a nuclear explosion.

There are parts of this book which are not fully realized, mainly the characters. Claire and Patrick, the novel’s two teens, have an ongoing and complicated romance throughout the novel. They don’t grow that much, though. They move from one tragedy to the next, and they become harder, but they are relatively unchanged from the beginning of the book to the end. Chase Williams, a politician who is as against lycan rights as you can imagine, is turned into a lycan. Even that, however, doesn’t change his mind. He remains so far to the right in his beliefs that he seems less like a person and more like a vehicle for Percy to make a point. Many of the other characters exist more in the background than anything, and Percy sometimes seems unsure of what to do with them.

In the end, though, Red Moon is still a very impressive book. Percy’s prose is almost poetic at times. He describes violence in a way that makes it seem almost beautiful, which, in turn, makes it even more horrifying. I saw the whole book in my head so clearly it was hard for me to put it down. Percy’s descriptions are so clear I felt like I was there. And while the characters might not be as fully developed as they could be, Red Moon is, at its heart, an allegory for the world we live in. The lycans represent many of the minorities at the forefront of the tragedies and discussions of the last few decades. The resettlement and registration of the lycans is like that of the Jews during the Holocaust. The protesting lycans are reminiscent of the 1960s civil rights movement. The medical context of the virus that infects lycans, and the fear and lack of understanding of that virus, mirrors the initial scenes of the AIDS epidemic. And, of course, the Islamophobia of today’s post-9/11 America is possibly the biggest comparison Percy makes with his lycans.

I don’t know if Percy is trying to make a point one way or the other with Red Moon. Arguments could certainly be made for both sides. Rather, I believe Percy is merely trying to make readers question our thoughts and actions in today’s world. His novel goes to extremes, but I think that is to show us what could happen if we continue on our current path. In any case, Red Moon is an intriguing and intelligent read, and you would do yourself a disservice if you didn’t go pick up a copy right now.

On the Benefits of Binge Reading

9780385754309_custom-8006d202f8bdaddd4b2db22ad6cbfa6b75854575-s2-c85This weekend I did something I haven’t had the time to do in a while: I binge read. Scandalous, I know.

About a month ago I saw a screening of The Spectacular Now. I didn’t realize it was a book until after I had already seen it, which, I’m slightly ashamed to say, does happen sometimes. But on Friday a friend lent me the book, and I took it home, sat on the couch, and didn’t move for the next two days.

There’s something wonderful about binge reading. Sure, sometimes I like to make a book last. Sometimes I simply don’t have the time to read it all at once. But every now and then I will get so engrossed in a story that the only thing I want to do is be in it as thoroughly as possible. The Spectacular Now is one of those stories. It is about being a teenager and growing up and falling in love and struggling with who you are. It’s about life, and it’s real.

I stepped out of my own world this weekend and into the world that Tim Tharp created. The windows were open and a breeze kept making the curtains flutter. The Wooden Birds (an amazing band, check them out) played in the background on repeat. I forgot to eat at regular intervals, although this is a common occurrence when I’m reading something so delicious I forget I need physical sustenance too.

I’m not saying you need to read The Spectacular Now — well, no actually I am. You should read The Spectacular Now. But even if you don’t, you should take a weekend and just read. Put on some good background music, sit in a room (or outside) where the natural lighting takes care of everything, and just read. Immerse yourself in a world that isn’t your own. It’s the best kind of escape there is.