Sand Runner by Vera Brook

Sand Runner by Vera BrookWeaving the certainties and urgencies of young adult dystopia with the plausible nuances of adulthood, Brook creates science-fiction that speaks both to those seeking fast-paced teenage heroism and those seeking a more complex struggle.

In the near future, ubiquitous 3D printing has all but destroyed traditional industry, leaving many communities surviving on only their printing allowance. The leading sport is now running. However, not just any running: endurance racing through the harshest terrain. Sixteen-year-old Kaiden Reed is one of the best runners in his town; but no matter how fast he runs, he can’t escape his lack of prospects. Until a talent scout offers him a chance to compete in the most famous race of all, a race so hard that the competitors undergo radical cybernetic upgrades just to survive.

As with many young adult dystopias, this novel opens on a teenage protagonist in the resource-starved ruins of the modern world. However, here the transition to a bleaker world is both stated and plausible: in a society where anything that can be engineered once can be replicated endlessly, manufacturing and bulk transport cease to matter; creating a world where most of the jobs supporting infrastructure are wiped out at a stroke.

This sense of plausibility also pervades the neo-gladiatorial sport at the centre of the plot. While it isn’t possible now, advances in 3D printing could easily create a world where someone could create prosthetics designed to be stronger, faster, or more efficient at certain tasks than flesh and bone. And, once someone can rebuild themself to leap further, climb faster, or any other athletic pursuit, people will try to rebuild themselves to be better than that again, and corporations will be all too happy to pay for the research in exchange for having their name in every photo op and report.

However, this is not a dry text on future history. While Brook has created a blood-sport-obsessed dystopia that is more plausible than many, she mostly leaves the reader to infer the course of history from glimpses and asides. This leaves plenty of space for the traditional young adult threads of teen love and the underdog fighting against an unfair world.

While these threads make this book well suited to the core of the young adult market, Brook weaves them with the same skill that she used in world building. Young love burns bright, yet it remains only a part of the plot rather than intruding into movements of real threat; as such, readers are unlikely to find themselves wishing to bang characters heads together. Similarly, the corporate world is not some monolithic oppressor to be smashed, but rather a complex system that can bring good or bad.

Kaiden is an engaging character. While he begins as the poor yet talented contender from a disadvantaged area who is motivated by a pretty face rather than more mature concerns, Brook swiftly reveals him not to be a stereotype. Instead of preparing for and running the race, his greatest obstacles and victories are internal: finding ways to motivate himself when the girl he fancies isn’t there to see; deciding whether to take the comfort his new life might offer or stay true to his past; and facing how much he might be prepared to sacrifice to win.

The supporting cast are similarly complex characters rather than ciphers: his fellow runners aren’t evil, but they do have something more important to them than being decent; corporate support crews want their runners to be happy and healthy, until it risks their own chance at staying above the poverty line.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel. I recommend it to readers seeking fast-paced yet feasible young adult dystopian thriller.

I received a free copy from the author with a request for a fair review.

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