Nadia is an orphan abandoned in the street by her parents as a very young child. Being an orphan in the dystopian future is not easy at all, especially one who spends an unidentified amount of time blind and unable to watch the television shows that obsess the rest of the populace before having her sight restored, although her eyes remain a weakness for her always. The terribly overpopulated world she lives in is suffering from a severe drought, water is rationed, megacities sprawl across the dirty, dusty landscape of the former US, and the government is restrictive, cruel, and unbalanced in its treatment of its highest and lowest citizens. Nadia is of minimal importance in this random, oppressive world and she keeps slipping closer and closer to being in danger of being eliminated entirely with each of her infractions, small and large.
When she has an ill-advised affair with her oversupervisor's husband, she knows that she is no longer safe and rather than be taken and potentially executed for the gruesome new televised executions, she runs, striking out for Lighthouse Island, the vacation spot she's long fantasized about and the place where she imagines her parents waiting for her. So starts her long journey through the unending city and to her fateful meeting with cartographer and demolitions expert, the wheelchair bound James Ortolov. James is much higher up in the hierarchy than she is and yet when he stumbles across her on the rooftop of the Ritz-Carlton, they spend the evening talking, they fall in love, and he works to aid her on her way to Lighthouse Island.
Nadia is a smart, resourceful, and inventive character but she is also lying and manipulative in the face of desperation to survive. She mostly shows a curious lack of empathy for others trapped under the same governmental strictures to which she is a hostage and yet her callousness is rewarded time and time again. But her very emotionlessness makes it hard to believe in her love for James. The love story itself is necessary to the plot, otherwise he has no real reason to aid her in such potentially dangerous ways, but it is underdeveloped.
Jiles builds this future world of Nadia and James masterfully but then continues to repeat the descriptions ad infinitum as Nadia plods through one sector after another trying to make it to the Northwest. Having intentionally stripped the world of place names and dates, in fact, having stripped Nadia herself of her original name both through governmental decree and then over and over again as she tries to travel undiscovered through the city, there were an awful lot of instances where characters used the supposedly forgotten and verboten ancient names to orient themselves. The world itself is a strange and frightening one, close enough to a possible future for us to cause a reader a lot of discomfort. And yet there are some strange incongruous things about this future world. For instance, people no longer know how to create many things we take for granted. All the manufacturing of things like computers was shipped overseas and then those foreign societies which retained the knowledge of how to create collapsed, and yet the whole of the future world and its corrupt government is reliant on computer technology. Not entirely compatible ideas here. The tone of most of the book is one of bleakness and despair and yet it ends on a completely incongruous, hopeful note. It is a book that exults the power of literature through the broadcasts of novels on the radio and through Nadia's prodigious memory of poetry and it holds these things as important and life changing. Combine this with Jiles' beautiful facility with language and it should have been a wonderful quest novel. Instead it was dense, oftentimes repetitive, and ultimately underdeveloped. Regular readers of dystopian fiction might feel differently about it than I did however.
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Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.