There is something vertiginous about a great British dystopia. Perhaps it's just that extra layer of distance between Americans and Brits. Perhaps it's just being culturally closer to seminal works like George Orwell's 1984 or, more recently, Alan Moore's V for Vendetta. Or perhaps it has something to do with insularity, with the feeling that the characters really have nowhere to go, whereas in American dystopias, characters have a whole continent at their disposal as long as they have a good pair of boots. There's a feeling that in Britain business, entertainment and government are all in the same place and are all the same thing, while Americans have the decency, or geographical space, to split those up into different cities.
Whatever the case, Slated Teri Terry's excellent new YA dystopia, takes that dystopian insularity to its extreme: Kyla is trapped by her own mind. Spoilers ahead...
Like all other teenage terrorists, Kyla has had her memories erased, and she's been assigned a new family. She has a "levo" attached to her wrist that monitors her emotions. Negative ones like anger, fear, sadness or violent tendencies can result in anything from a shock, to being knocked unconscious, to death. She is sent to a family who live in a village a few hours away from London. She has a slated older sister, and her new mother has some very important family connections.
We soon discover that Kyla's "slating" did not go like most people's. While most slated are tractable, smiling and not-all-there, Kyla is stubborn and re-learns skills quickly like walking and feeding herself. Kyla is ready to return to school much sooner than other slateds and she has excellent muscle memory – she can draw and drive a car without anyone re-teaching her. While she faces bullying, there are those around her who genuinely seem to want to help her and the other slateds reintegrate into society. But this is a fascist dystopia and it isn't long before Lorders –- Law and Order Agents -– are at the school, disappearing students and teachers. Kyla discovers there are underground organizations trying to reunite slated children with their old families. And Kyla has strange dreams: dreams of things she can't possibly remember, like torture and interrogation.
Kyla's erased memory works wonderfully as a storytelling device. The reader gets bits and pieces of the history of the world only when Kyla needs them — keeping the story free of info-dumps. At the beginning of the story, Kyla can't even remember not to touch the blade of a knife, but by the end she's negotiating a complex web of relationships and lies. Her naiveté means readers will occasionally beat Kyla to the punch, but Kyla's misreading of people is always believable.
The book is really interested in the ways that fascism takes a toll on relationships and family. As people warp the truth to stay safe, even the simplest and relationships and most banal interactions suffer. As Kyla tries to learn the difference between what people say and the truth, she learns just how sinister some of the people near her are. There is a bit of a romance in the book, but it feels organic and based on friendship, and it plays into the main plot pretty well. Kyla's tense relationship with her new mother is very well done. It's not often that authors can capture a mother-daughter relationship that is both supportive and loving as well as conflicted and put-upon.
It will be interesting to see how the mother-daughter relationship plays out when more is revealed in the next two books. Terry has set-up the possible conflict superbly: Kyla doesn't know who to trust, but several events have pushed her to the point where there is little chance of going back. For those across the pond or have no interest in waiting, the sequel Fractured should be available in Britain in early March.