I’ve been taking a break from genre fiction after a bit of a dystopian overdose, so when I picked this one up I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about going back there. Happily, Burn Mark can hold its own in these increasingly crowded ranks. The premise is intriguing, set in a alternative version of modern London where ‘the burning times’ of 17th century England are vividly remembered and the descendants of those long-ago witches and witchfinders are still locked in an antagonistic, but symbiotic, relationship.
The story revolves round a pair of 15-year-olds, Glory, the down-at-heel descendant of a long line of famous witches and Lucas who has been groomed to succeed his father, a powerful and influential Witchfinder. When they both get the Fae that marks them out as witches it is an expected and much-wanted occurrence for Glory, but a source of horror, confusion and shame for Lucas. Thrown together as unexpected allies in the fight against corruption in high places, they discover they have more in common than they could have guessed.
Burn Mark is slow to get started, but by the time I was half way through I was thoroughly gripped. I liked the way Powell has used the historical background to give depth to her alternative reality. The large cast of secondary characters are well-drawn and convincing and the central pair of Glory and Lucas have enough hinterland to make them feel like proper teenagers. Straddling the genre boundary between dystopia and thriller with a bit of history thrown into the mix, and with a point of view that switches equally between the male and female protagonists, Burn Mark should appeal to a fairly wide cross-section of readers in the 12-15 age group. Health warning though: the novel opens with a rather gruesome depiction of a witch-burning, so take care about recommending it to very sensitive children.
Burn Mark – Laura Powell, Bloomsbury, £6.99
With Breathe, Sarah Crossan has taken the now-familiar dystopian format and injected a more explicitly eco twist. Set in the not too distant future, on what is still recognisably Earth, it explores what happens when ecological catastrophe means that the air we breathe because the most precious and sought after of all commodities.
Right now, with so many dystopian titles out there now, it is getting more difficult for an author to stand out from the pack. Crossan achieves that not so much be her characterisation and plotting, we’ll come back to those in a minute, but through the way in which she manages to entwine some very relevant questions around current global environmental policies and the way in which 21st century big business operates into the plot in a teen-friendly way. The consequences of global warming are vividly depicted and should lead to some interesting conversations about eco-awareness.
Breathe features the now-familiar tropes of YA dystopian fiction: the love triangle (two girls and a boy this time), the oppressive government with a hidden agenda, a rebel band of outcasts who know too much, and the feisty, beautiful-but-doesn’t-know-it teenage girl, here named Alina. However, rather than adopting the standard dystfic tactic of writing the novel from Alina’s point of view, Crossan uses first person narrative, shifting round the different members of the protagonistic triad, to good effect to give more rounded portraits of the supporting characters.
Breathe got off to a bit of a slow start for me, and I found that familiarity with conventions of the genre made it a little too predictable, but it is an enjoyable read and the cliffhanger ending left me with high hopes that the sequel will prove even better. I would have no hesitation in recommending it to an 11-14 year-old who has already read The Hunger Games, Divergent or The Carbon Diaries and is looking for a well-written eco-thriller or dystopian title.
Breathe, Sarah Crossan, Bloomsbury, £6.99
A couple of years ago you couldn’t go into the YA section of a bookshop without coming slap up against a dedicated Dark Romance wall with its glowering shelves of Twilite wannabes. (And don’t even get me started on the repackaging of Jane Eyre as a Dark Romance title.) Now, the buzz is all around dystopia, with the runaway success of The Hunger Games and Divergent fuelling a boom in disfunctional heroines on a mission to save the world. I was really excited when Crewel arrived in the post a couple of days ago, as there has been so much hype surrounding it, but I really expect it to surpass Collins and Roth. Well, I was wrong.
Although Crewel serves up many of the familiar dystopian tropes that readers will be familiar from the Hunger Games, Divergent, et al; a spiky heroine Adelice, who needs to conceal her unusual powers, a technocratic world controlled by a secretive and powerful elite, a love triangle… the resulting novel is considerably more than the sum of its parts.
Crewel’s underlying theme, like that of the Hunger Games, is taken from Greek mythology. Where Collins used the Theseus story to underpin her novel, Albin’s plot echoes the ancient myth of the Moirai, the three fates who spin the thread of human life and decide when to bring it to an end. Born on the highly regimented world of Arras (think Polonius for a clue to the plot twist), Adelice is chosen to be a Spinster, one of the sequestered female elite who weaves the fabric that holds their world together. Torn from her horrified family, she struggles against the sinister Guild Ambassador Cormac Patton, finding help in unexpected places as she attempts to piece together what is really happening beneath the surface of Arras.
Alongside the inevitable romance, there is a strong feminist strand to the book which will appeal to its target readership. Adelice is a heroine very much in the mould of Katniss Everdeen and although character delineation in the book is totally subservient to the demands of the action, the contrast between her inner vulnerability and tough exterior readily engages the reader’s sympathy.
Ultimately, however, it is the detail of Albin’s invented world and quality of her writing that lift the whole novel well above the pedestrian and comfortably wins it a place in my top five dystopian titles. Crewel is a real pageturner, I read the whole thing in a single sitting and I’ll be waiting impatiently for the next instalment to find out how Albin moves the action on from the inevitable cliffhanger ending.