Very rarely, I come across a book that manages to surprise me.
We are living in a post-Harry Potter-and-Twilight world, and "young adult fiction" has become synonymous with mediocre imitations of either series. Books for younger readers are lucrative right now, and publishers have swarmed to tales of wizard schools and supernatural romance like flies to a bloated, festering corpse. For every book that manages to find its wings and rise from the rotting carcass of these peripheral bookstore genre shelves (Suzanne Collins managed it with The Hunger Games) there are countless other squirming maggots hatched from the eggs of publishing greed that remain writhing around and devouring their own filth and the respectability of the genre itself. It was with these frustrations that I opened the first page of Proxy, Alex London's upcoming sci-fi for young readers novel.
From the first sentence, I knew that all of my assumptions and hesitations were going to be irrelevant, and what followed was one of the most exciting and surprisingly multi-layered works of YA fiction I have ever read.
And I do hate that genre distinction. There is nothing juvenile or childish about this work. The best YA fiction should only differ from "grownup" fiction in the age of the protagonist, and like the great Roald Dahl, Alex London treats both his readers and his characters with intelligence and respect.
Proxy takes place in a post-societal collapse technocracy (though I hesitate to draw comparisons, think Panem in The Hunger Games, but with sharper teeth). In Mountain City, the 1% live a life of sci-fi utopian marvels in the Upper City and the poor live down in the filth and stink of The Valve. It may sound familiar in concept, but is executed in a fresh way that avoids genre cliches -- the poor are not technically enslaved by the Upper City, but exist in a state of something like mental/spiritual slavery thanks to the debt system. The poor are kept poor by adding years of debt to any goods and services they require to the point where it becomes impossible to ever pay off, and are kept from organizing in any rebellion by the constant distraction of having to compete with each other for resources.
The most interesting and unique take on this familiar setting is the proxy system. When rich kids (patrons) in the Upper City break the law or do something punishable, they are forced to sit and watch the punishment (usually some form of electrical shock, though forced labor also comes into play) be taken out on their proxy. The proxies never see or meet their patrons. In one of the novel's best written and most memorable scenes, we watch as a patron experiences psychological suffering while watching his proxy's physical suffering during punishment. This book goes to some very dark places, and this is a scene that will stick with me for a long time.
It is through the proxy system that we are introduced to the two main characters of the book. Knox, a spoiled rich kid from the Upper City, and his proxy Syd, a poor orphan from below. Once again, if that sounds like an overly familiar character setup, think again. There is nothing one dimensional or obvious about these characters. As we follow Knox and Syd's journey (the details of which I'll avoid spoiling) we see them grow and change and develop in ways that make them feel very real and believable. These two (along with Marie, the third member of their group) are very flawed, but also very complex and smart. If there was ever a time you were reading Harry Potter and wanting to throw the book on the floor because Harry was so stupid and you just wanted to shake him and force him to listen to Hermione, you will be pleased with these characters. Syd and his friends are all intelligent and behave in ways that make sense. This is, at heart, a character-driven story about friendship and self discovery. Those things can be incredibly eyeroll-worthy in lesser hands, but London does a fantastic job at creating some of the most fully realized and believable young people I've experienced and makes the entire thing work. I found myself continuously impressed with each character without it seeming like they were unrealistically perfect. They're not sainted and idealized versions of youth: they lie, they steal, and they kill. This is what makes the book so great. There is a sense of grittiness and honesty about the brutal world of adolescence here that I really appreciated. One of the big pitfalls of writing books with younger protagonists is that they can often come across as incredibly wooden, overly precocious, and unbelievable. Even the greats sometimes make this mistake (sorry Stephen King, I love you, but....)
Some sense of world building is sacrificed for the sake of jumping straight into the action of the story, but this actually works to the book's advantage. We get no Tolkien-style break in momentum to describe the workings and details of the world they inhabit, but rather learn these details gradually through the perspectives of Syd in The Valve and Knox in the Upper City. The Hobbit fan in me sometimes craved more details about the city, but I think in this particular case, the fact that we are only given partial information through each character is effective considering that these are still children and they themselves have only a partial and limited understanding of the world around them.
Syd would be a welcome addition to the YA main character pantheon on these merits alone, but there is one other thing that sets him apart from the rest of the stock orphan protagonists in young fiction. Syd is gay. I knew this going in, and was both intrigued and worried about the way it would be handled -- so much of fiction with a gay main character ends up being limited by the "I was showering in the locker room with the captain of the football team who always beat me up but today I caught him looking at me" type of plot, and I was concerned that Syd's sexuality would either distract from the plot or be treated offensively and clumsily. London pulls this off impressively -- Syd's sexuality, as well as his skin color (darker than his friends and most of white-washed genre storytelling) is at the core of his character but doesn't define who he is or become ALL that he is (you know, like the way people actually are in real life!)
Syd's struggles with sexuality are not the focus here -- he is outed fairly early on in the book and seems more annoyed by it than anything else -- but it does give an added dimension and unexpected layer of nuance to the way he experiences the world. One that is an extremely welcome and long overdue addition to this kind of story. In one of the most heart breaking and uncomfortably true to life moments in the book, we discover that before he really understood how the patron/proxy system worked, he blamed himself and his sexuality for the reasons that he was chosen for beatings and punishment. Syd's journey of coming to terms with this in the dystopian future should strike a nerve with most LGBT readers who dealt with similar feelings growing up in the real world.
This is not light reading, but it's not entirely doom and gloom -- there are plenty of fun and touching moments between the three friends that struck me as being some of the few scenes in YA fiction where the humor seemed genuine and not forced. You can actually imagine these three hanging out and spending time together for reasons other than the fact that the author made them do it. The way they joke around and tease each other sounds real, and even the gay jokes are great. Some of the best moments come from Knox, who is as infuriatingly endearing to the reader as he is to those around him. When he flirts with Syd, you want Syd to punch him in the face, but you also understand why he doesn't, and I caught myself smiling at these scenes. In a world where all three of these people were constantly plugged into a larger network that continuously streamed data and advertisements directly into their brains, it was exciting to watch them learn and grow and discover things about themselves and each other as they go off the grid in the latter half of the novel.
The book keeps up a brisk and steady pace right through to the last page, with an ending that was powerful and emotional without being forced or sententious. Yes, I cried.
My major frustration with the novel is that I wanted more of it. It is one of the few times that I'm actually upset that the publishers showed restraint and didn't force the author to split this into a trilogy or series, because I was wanting to spend a lot more time with these characters. I do hope we see Syd again in the future in some other form, though I like that this is a complete and self-contained story.
At one point Syd, in a moment of frustration, thinks that he wants his friends to be traveling together "as people, not as ideas", and that sums up everything that is right about this book. For a story to juggle so many layers of symbolism and allusions without seeming like awkward and heavy handed allegory takes immense skill on the author's part, and the fact that London manages to do that here while still creating some of the most believable and nuanced young characters I've ever met in fiction is a true accomplishment. I wish this book had been around when I was a kid. I'm proud to display Proxy on my shelf alongside the classics in this beloved genre, because its position there is entirely deserved. Rating: A
Proxy will be available June 18th, 2013
EDIT: GUARDIAN, the second book in this series, will be available May 29, 2014