3 out of 4 stars
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As I write, the US Government is shut down over the issue of a proposed border wall. At times like these, science fiction writers may imagine the dystopias that could result from current trends.
The Seclusion by Jacqui Castle is set in a near-future version of Tucson, Arizona. Now a police state with a degraded environment, America is secluded within walls spanning both its northern and southern borders. It is controlled by a shadowy entity known as The Board. A society divided into rigid tiers lives under constant camera surveillance. The story opens with an incident where the heroine, 22-year-old geologist Patricia (“Patch”) Collins, is interrogated by a Compliance Officer after lingering too long near the southern wall. Alarmed though she is about getting onto the authorities’ radar, Patricia continues to explore off-camera areas with the hero, her friend Rexx. A find in one of these areas triggers a chain of events that forces the pair to flee.
Patricia and Rexx embark on a perilous journey through a post-apocalyptic America. Castle’s world-building is excellent. She vividly describes the crater left by the 2029 nuclear bombing and a town cracked apart by a fracking-induced earthquake. As well as imagining future disasters and their aftermath, she has coined terms that are seamlessly integrated into the narrative, like “lumicomm” and “idecation”. They are readily understood in context.
The story is narrated in the first person from Patricia's point of view. In addition to evocative descriptions, the style also features many metaphors and similes. These are sometimes a little clichéd, such as when Patricia compares two characters to deer in headlights; I can’t quite see that she would have experienced night-time driving or deer. Maybe. However, she also explains things to the reader in terms that she surely cannot be familiar with. For example, when referring to her credits that always disappear at the end of the month, she remarks that there are no savings and no safety net. Especially since information is tightly controlled by the Board, it seems implausible that she would have any access to these concepts.
Similarly, she tells the reader: “Every single establishment, whether in the food industry or not, existed under the umbrella of America One.” This seems like a fish describing the water it swims in as wet. When she gives the reader information like this, she does not quite ring true as an individual who has been brainwashed her entire life.
Brainwashing and totalitarian control are important themes in this novel. Sometimes it seems a pallid derivative of dystopian greats like The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984. TV presenter Aelia Ramey lacks the brashness of Serena Joy; Patricia’s pity for the “poor saps” watching her eat dinner fails to chill like Winston Smith being admonished through the telescreen.
This is not to say, however, that Castle does not succeed in creating a disturbing world. She absolutely does. A key theme is the Board's inability to control everything. Banned items and inconvenient memories survive; individuals question propaganda and find ways to evade controls. The book is also about how humans persist in the face of fear. Denunciations are encouraged, and the action plays out in a climate crackling with suspicion. Will the people Patricia and Rexx meet turn out to be more like Nick in The Handmaid’s Tale or O’Brien in 1984?
This tension is sustained throughout a novel full of adventures, with a few slower passages where readers can catch their breath along with the protagonists. Patricia’s character develops alongside her growing knowledge. There is some romance in a subplot but no sex; this book could be suitable for young adults. A few scenes detail the violent methods used by totalitarian enforcers, which sensitive readers might find distressing. This novel would appeal to science fiction fans, especially those whose taste runs to dystopian settings.
The editing is excellent – I encountered only a handful of anodyne errors. Despite some flaws in the narrative as described above, this is a gripping tale set in a cleverly constructed world with likeable, relatable characters. Taking all aspects into account, my rating is 3 out of 4 stars. While the story comes to a definite and satisfying end, the scene is set for a sequel, which I’d be more than happy to read.
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