As a mysterious virus infects the world’s population, a girl embarks on a quest to find a cure in this thrilling debut from Emily Ziff Griffin. Luisa is ready for her life to start. Five minutes ago. And she could be on her way, as her extraordinary coding skills have landed her a finalist spot for a fellowship sponsored by Thomas Bell, the world’s most brilliant and mercurial tech entrepreneur. Being chosen means funding, mentorship, and most importantly, freedom from her overbearing mother. Maybe Lu will even figure out how to control the rare condition that plagues her: whenever her emotions run high, her physical senses kick into overload, with waves of color, sound, taste, and touch flooding her body. But Luisa’s life is thrust into chaos as a deadly virus sweeps across the globe, killing thousands and sending her father into quarantine. When Lu receives a cryptic message from someone who might hold the key to stopping the epidemic, she knows she must do something to save her family—and the world. Suspenseful, lyrical, and thought-provoking, Light Years features a remarkable heroine on an intensely physical and emotional quest for hope and existential meaning.
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.
Thank you so much Simon Pulse and the FFBC for providing me with a e-arc for review. In compliance with FTC guidelines, I must state that I received this book for free and was in no way compensated for my review.
I found the overall premise to be quite fascinating. We see a society which is very similar to ours. There are still apple watches, and people listen to Taylor Swift and Katy Perry (I’m not going to lie when I say that it did require me to stretch my imagination to honestly belive that within the next ten years she’ll still be relevant), teens are worrying about getting into college etc. They also live under the fear of the next terrorist attack; five years before the novel takes place there had a been another terrorist attack in New York City which was refered to as the Blackout Bombing. The US has a president and a government that the citizens feel unsatisfied with as a result of the handling of the Blackout Bombing. The mishandling of the terror attack cause for Front Lines ( a self-governed, volunteer based organization that has become more popular and more heavily relied on than government first aid services) to be founded. Light Years is different than most other dystopians because we get to see the progression from normalcy to living in an environment in which the lives of millions are forever changed. The rise of militas, distrust in the media and the panic that comes along with an epidemic. Light Years plot was able to capture my interest because of my curiosity about the cause of the epidemic and its solution as well as my interest in seeing Font Lines in action.
Like I already mentioned, my disinterest for the characters caused me to not be completely invested in the book. I would have to say that the biggest issue that I had with the characters, was Luisa. She was not a complex character; Luisa made rash decisions based off of her emotions when she’s supposed to be portrayed as un-emotional and rational. There were instances where she came off as a know it all rather than a leader which didn’t make her a likeable, endearing character. I also wasn’t blown away by her innovative technology because it felt…..not inovative enough. Therefore, I found it to be very difficult to connect emotionally with her and it ended up being a reason why I chose to take a star off of my rating.
The little moments that Luisa and Ben had with their parents were my favorite. We readers were able to examine the dysfunctional and complex relationship children can have with their parents. It added realism and depth to the story.
An aspect about this book that really, truly disappointed me was the portrayal of Luisa’s Synesthesia.
Synesthesia “is an anomalous blending of the senses in which the stimulation of one modality simultaneously produces sensation in a different modality. Synesthetes hear colors, feel sounds and taste shapes…. Synesthetic sensations are highly consistent” according to Scientific America. We see throughout the story the “blending of senses” that Luisa has when she recalls memories, feels stressed, happy, sad, observes interactions etc. However not only is this neurological condition never named but Luisa is ashamed of having it because it makes her feel “foolish”, “weak”, and “freakish”. It didn’t make sense to me why the author would decide to give the impression that Luisa was ashamed of her condition and yet have it be huge part of the story. Obviously, it’s not like I was expecting the protagonist to preaching about self-love and acceptance of disabilities in the first chapter; but the use of the work weak to describe an illness that other people suffer with was an unwise decision to make on the authors part.
I took off another star from my rating because the ending was perplexing. It felt rushed and this is because Light Year’s is a stand alone novel and so the beginings of an epidemic, travelling across the country, and finding a solution to said epidemic had to be rolled into 304 pages. The novel should have been longer for the ending to feel more fleshed out and so that more questions were answered.
Overall, I enjoyed the writing style of Emily Ziff Griffin and I would defnitely read any of her future releases. Would I recommend Light Years? I’m not sure, I think that it depends on what you enjoy reading since so many people have enjoyed this book.