This is a story about family, and about Sisters Doin It For Themselves. It is also about a post-apocalyptic dystopia, set in Manhattan following a devastating war in the near future apparently started by China after a year of worldwide droughts and tension over trade.
In the summer, Sarah Miller and her daughters Sky (Skylar) 17, and Phee (Phoenix), 16, survive as they can, hunting the offspring of animals that were let loose from the zoo, or killing squirrels, or living off the small garden they have made on the roof of the abandoned building they inhabit. In the winter, all survivors in Manhattan (382 at the last census), officially prisoners of war, are required to come live in Central Park, where they all help work large farms and share food and lodging.
The “Warden” of these POWs is a woman called Rolladin, who rules with an iron hand, although she seems to have some sort of special relationship to Sarah and her children. Rolladin also has a guard called warlords (the girls call them “whorelords”) who help keep discipline, and who provide, it is believed, lovers to Rolladin.
The story begins on Phee’s sixteenth birthday, which is also the day of the mandatory annual census. Sarah wants the family to make a stop first to show them their old apartment where Sky was born, and while there, Sky finds a diary apparently written by her mom, and secretly takes it with her. Sarah will never talk about the past before the war, and the girls are desperate to know what happened.
Meanwhile, Rolladin, who is a firm believer of the time-tested bread and circuses method of rule, organizes yearly “games” in the park after the census. These games are actually brutal fights between warlords and would-be warlords. Because the Miller family is late for the census (Sarah sprained her ankle on the way back from the apartment), Rolladin punishes them by insisting one of them participate in the fights. Phee, the fiercest of the three, volunteers. To everyone’s surprise, she does well (even though she is saved from certain death at the end by Rolladin).
Phee considers what it would mean if she were to become a warlord, because her mother despises Rolladin. But she never has a chance to find out; several days later, some men are captured outside the park, bringing shocking secrets with them. The truth they bring changes everything, and the nature of survival changes radically for them.
Discussion: The story is told by alternating narration between Phee and Sky, and by excerpts from Sarah’s diary. The book has the pacing of a thriller, with plenty of twists (albeit with some – but not all – being fairly obvious). The author does a good job of making the two girls very dissimilar (Phee is mostly about emotion and Sky about reason) without stripping them of complexity. In addition, she nicely conveys the way in which the love and loyalty the members of the Miller family feel for one another transcend any differences.
And while the book employs plenty of “the usual” post-apocalyptic dystopia tropes and clichés, the author still manages to put a unique stamp on the story, first by the way in which she brings Manhattan to life as a prison, and secondly, by the way in which women dominate the action.
This book is marketed as adult science fiction, whereas I would put it in the YA/Adult post-apocalyptic category. I see no reason for it to be called “science fiction” and unfortunately, I think that will probably limit the audience.
Published by Saga Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2015