Over a decade ago, humanity was decimated by a plague that spliced animal DNA into it’s victims. Now the survivors huddle apart for safety, subject to constant surveillance and regular testing. Chloe Dark’s dream is to join Purity, the paramilitary force that keeps humanity safe from the maddened freaks and the genetic corruption that makes them. Until the kidnapping of a series of apparently normal teenagers makes her a target for both criminals and the authorities; and makes her question whether the world is as simple as humanity vs. freaks.
Turnbull starts the story less than a generation after the plague strikes, creating a United Kingdom that still has the infrastructure of a developed nation but lacks the population to properly maintain it, let alone progress. Combined with an adult populace still paranoid from the initial surge of infections and a youth raised under the watchful eye of Purity, this provides the reader with both the immediately recognisable frame of reference and pleasing sense of mystery that mark a good thriller.
This approach also avoids on of the issues most likely to damage a reader’s acceptance of authoritarian dystopia: how society transitioned from modernity to whatever it has become. While not all readers will easily accept the idea of a viral plague that blends human and non-human DNA into a viable chimera, such an event is an entirely plausible starting point for a world where most survivors live a mix of subsistence and modern life in decaying ruins while the head of the bio-tech company that developed a plague test lives almost like royalty.
Turnbull extends the same balance of dramatic and believable to the plague itself: while humans surviving the genetic changes might incline more toward the world of superheroes than strict realism, the freaks are only semi-viable; both madness and death loom larger with each day they live. And – save potentially in degree of likelihood – these are not superheroes. The few who are not scooped up to fight in underground arenas live as criminals denied even the inadequate benefits of being human.
Where Turnbull might have moved beyond some readers’ acceptance of the unlikely is in the reason that unites the kidnapped teenagers: not because it is more implausible than the plague – it might perhaps be less so – but because it has an air of coincidence that some thriller fans might consider untidy.
Turnbull, seeking to enhance the resonance with a television series, has structured the work as six episodes. And further divided each episode into chapters that often contain several points-of-view. This results in multiple mini-cliffhangers interspersed with slightly stronger ones; however, as the book contains all six episodes and the last episode ends with the major arc wrapped up, this is more likely to result in binge reading than irritation.
Chloe is a well-crafted protagonist. While her defence of socially disadvantaged schoolfriends against the popular kids might on the face of it seem contrary to a desire to join an authoritarian organisation devoted to enforcing a rigid set of moral and biological rules, both stem from an underlying decency and compassion. This genuine desire to keep others safe provides both a solid motivation to succeed and an obstacle as she discovers purity is not as simple as it seemed.
The other major viewpoints are similarly nuanced. The most efficient killer of freaks is driven not by hatred but by the remnants of a duty forged before the plague. The longest-lived chimeras have abilities others do not, but are also shaped by the vulnerabilities and instincts of their animal side. And the powerful seek out the physical contact others fear, not from a sense of joy but an nihilistic search for something meaningful.
Overall, I enjoyed this book greatly. I recommend it to readers seeking a complex science-fiction thriller that balances action with depth.
I received an advanced review copy from the author with a request for a fair review.