A dystopian-leaning mid-apocalyptic YA with a pandemic premise and a code savvy heroine.
The book takes place in a slightly alternate version of the present-day U.S., several years after a catastrophic presumed terror attack (referred to as the Blackout Bombing.) Thousands of people died and those responsible were never captured. The result was a weakened central government and the emergence of a popular govern-less organization called Front Line—which seemed to develop from volunteer first-responders who filled the void in the aftermath.
The story is told exclusively through the first-person present-tense eyes of 16-year-old Luisa Ochoa-Jones, a gifted coder with grand ambitions. Though she is tightly controlled and not outwardly very emotional, Luisa’s unusual neurological response to emotion has resulted in her taking a strong interest in the emotional reactions of others. So much so, she’s come up with an algorithm that scans the internet for pervasive emotional responses to a particular image. (A social media scraper, of sorts.) The data can then be sorted into geographical locations. It’s this algorithm, which she calls ‘LightYears,’ that she is (in the first chapter) pitching to a famously successful tech entrepreneur in hopes of winning a highly competitive fellowship. Of course, her priorities are forced to re-order when a deadly mystery illness begins sweeping across the globe…
What I liked:
The heroine is unique in that she apparently has a form of Synesthesia.
Synesthesia being a neurological condition/disorder (occurring in 1-4% of the population) which blurs the distinction between the five senses. Meaning, a person literally perceives something in a sense besides the sense that’s being stimulated (i.e. the sight of certain colors, shapes, or numbers may be perceived along with a particular taste or smell, or vice versa. Certain sounds or smells may concurrently be experienced as colors or textures…etc.)
Depending on the frequency and intensity, this involuntary extra perception can sometimes be overwhelming and/or disorienting for the person affected. And that’s precisely the case with Luisa. She thinks of her condition as sensory misfires, and explains the experience thusly: “Smells come with flashes of color, sounds have tastes, sights bring the sensation of temperature or touch. Certain people or places can spark complex reactions.”
For her, emotions tie in with this cross-perception effect. She indicates early on that her grandmother was the same way, and people viewed her as crazy—and so Luisa hides her condition from everyone but her immediate family.
I appreciated that, while the main character was Hispanic and there was some well-woven and openly translated Spanish involved, her ethnic background served as natural enrichment rather than an artificial focal point.
The prose itself is distinct—a strong voice with sometimes borderline poetic qualities. There were moments that memorable quotes and characterization bits punched through and lodged in my memory. Here’s one particular instance that manages both:
"My dad may be a recovering addict with five years of sobriety under his belt, but my mother is a recovering martyr with two decades of resentment under hers."
(And there you also have Luisa’s parents neatly summed up.)
What Didn’t Work For Me:
I was disappointed that Luisa’s neurological condition wasn’t actually named in the book. Not even when she finally reveals that part of herself to her love interest. She gives him only a few examples, explaining that she always thought it made her “weak” and “weird.” Sadly, this ended up feeling like a missed opportunity to better inform readers about a real neuro atypical issue in an unobtrusive way.
(While there are some great explanations of synesthesia out there, I personally favor the Good Mythical Morning version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xj7vukZT9sI )
Unfortunately, this reader wasn’t able to connect with any of the characters as well as I would have liked. Ben was whiny and indecisive, Kamal seemed bland (outside of the novelty of being British and Muslim), Phoebe was domineering, manipulative, and frigid to an unrelatable degree… and Luisa was difficult to empathize with—which is discouraging, given we spend the whole book in her head.
Luisa presents as an aloof, calculating mind and a regular party girl with reverse Peter Pan syndrome. Once the apocalypse kicks in, she also turns out to be the kind of girl who’s apparent first instinct, when gifted a holy book by an uninfected quarantine camp worker, is to throw it in the garbage. And despite her purported high intelligence, she made a number of inexplicably senseless decisions toward the end that—along with a seeming late shift from the apocalyptic genre to the new-age spiritual/paranormal—may cause a distancing rift between the reader and the main character, as well as the reader and overall believability.
This reader’s biggest reservation centers around the perplexingly vague ending. Beyond a simple cliffhanger, it’s the kind of ending that raises more questions than it answers, and perhaps calls reality itself into question. All of the repeated symbols and spirituality never quite congealed into something sensical. (I still don’t understand the significance of the scar on Luisa’s knee, though it was brought up often enough to be blatantly purposeful.) It does at least seem clear that more books must be intended, so readers may simply have to wait to find satisfaction.
Content Note: The first half of this book is pretty laden with coarse language—f-bombs in particular—primarily from the lone viewpoint character. (Oddly, as the situation becomes more dire and apocalyptic, the language eases up—just when it would be easier to contextually overlook.) The book also contains numerous scenes involving casual underaged drinking, including one in which it is encouraged/facilitated by an adult.
The prose in this debut shows a lot of promise, but for me, the narrative didn’t quite come together. Readers who enjoy more in-depth worldbuilding and/or a sense of closure may want to hold out until the next book releases for a better sense of where this may be headed.