For fans of The Maze Runner and The Fifth Wave, this debut YA novel from Hugo Award winner Will McIntosh pits four underprivileged teens against an evil billionaire in the race of a lifetime. Sully is a sphere dealer at a flea market. It doesn’t pay much—Alex Holliday’s stores have muscled out most of the independent sellers—but it helps him and his mom make the rent. No one knows where the brilliant-colored spheres came from. One day they were just there, hidden all over the earth like huge gemstones. Burn a pair and they make you a little better: an inch taller, skilled at math, better-looking. The rarer the sphere, the greater the improvement—and the more expensive the sphere. When Sully meets Hunter, a girl with a natural talent for finding spheres, the two start searching together. One day they find a Gold—a color no one has ever seen. And when Alex Holliday learns what they have, he will go to any lengths, will use all of his wealth and power, to take it from them. There’s no question the Gold is priceless, but what does it actually do? None of them is aware of it yet, but the fate of the world rests on this little golden orb. Because all the world fights over the spheres, but no one knows where they come from, what their powers are, or why they’re here.
High-schooler David “Sully” Sullivan is a low-income kid trying to keep his tiny family afloat through sphere-hocking. Nobody knows exactly what the spheres are or how they work—but it’s been 9 years since they first showed up hidden in man-made settings and the world became obsessed. The 42 known color shades of these objects all have one thing in common: A pair of the same color will grant you enhanced abilities of some kind if you “burn” them. The rarer the spheres are the more significant the enhancement; and the more Sully can get for them at the flea market. His one dreary claim to fame is that he was badly cheated several years before by a big-shot sphere retailer named Alex Holliday. But when Sully meets a street-wise girl and begins sphere hunting with her, his life gets a lot more interesting…
What I Liked:
This book started out strong on many fronts. Underdog protagonists, survivalist tough-girl love interest, high stakes seek-and-find theme, and the largely rapid pacing—all solidly reader-pleasing. (It’s like Geocaching on speculative-fantasy steroids!)
This reader appreciated the unlikely friendship between Sully and Dom. It’s clear they wouldn’t have found camaraderie if not for the fact that they both are infamous—Sully for finding the match to the rarest known sphere (and being cheated out of it), and Dom for having an uncle who committed an unforgettably terrible act. A bit of commentary on this actually turned out to be my favorite quote:
"It was a weird bond they shared, being known for something. At least Sully was known for something he'd done. Dom had to live with a last name that was a verb through no fault of his own."
I liked that the primary antagonist (although largely depicted as a one-dimensional and generic corporate bad-guy) came from a rags-to-riches background and considered himself a “gamer.” It was a gutsy, unique move to make him relevant and even admirable to the book’s target audience—though he was obviously corrupt.
I also liked that the book rounds out with the sense of a cautionary tale. The main protagonists (while largely good-intentioned) consistently make poor, impulsive, or selfish choices and then face fairly logical corresponding consequences. And aside from that spot of teenaged realism, the story graphically conveys age-old concepts like: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” And “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
What Didn’t Work For Me:
One of my biggest complaints would be feeling let down by the world-building. As much as this reader enjoyed the idea of the spheres, I would have loved a recap on what methods had been exhausted to learn what the heck they are or where they might come from. The cultural aspect was decently fleshed out—with regular examples of the societal impact the spheres were having (brag buttons, social ladder climbing, entertainment industry impact, public and religious opinions.) But the scientific angle is left almost entirely unexplored. There’s some vague mentioning of spheres affecting people at the neurological or even DNA level, but only once and in passing. Also, who first figured out that if you touched two identical mystery balls to your temples, they will drain of color and give you inexplicably enhanced abilities of some sort? (Especially considering you apparently don't FEEL any different after you've "burned" them.) It does underscore the overarching caution over not flippantly messing with things you don’t understand, but there’s no reason that readers couldn’t be given more background.
While this reader was relieved that there was no insta-love, the romantic buildup between Sully and Hunter seemed oddly forced. (Perhaps in part because we are only receiving the story from Sully’s somewhat bland POV.) As much time as they spent together with shared goals and hardships, there should have been plenty of opportunity for a gradual and organic attachment that readers could believe in. And yet… it fell a bit flat. I think the reason for this stems from the book’s overall sparseness of any visceral emotional conveyance. Even the physical descriptions are somewhat lacking beyond blatant ethnicity cues—and this oversimplified tendency seems to carry over on a psychological level as well. I was never able to feel particularly connected with the characters or invested in their plight.
There is an abrupt sort of tone shift around page 80. Up until that point, the book could have easily passed for an upper Middle Grade story in style and content. It’s almost as if some mild sexualized commentary was inserted to help reinforce its belonging on YA shelves. From about the 1/3rd mark onward, the story lost some of its momentum and never quite regained it—racing in the last 50 pages into a conclusion that struck this reader as a color-coded YA version of Stephen King's ‘The Mist’—more silly than surprising.
Ultimately a fun popcorn, pop-culture kind of read—but one that may not have lived up to its full potential.