Oh how I like me some interesting Dystopian fiction. I like it even more when said Dystopia is caused by chemical corporations. And Catherine Austen gets double points for the portrayal of a teenage boy that well, feels like a teenage boy.
But I get ahead of myself. Maxwell Connors lives in New Middletown with his mother and sister. New Middletown is centered around Old folk homes, which are big business in the future. Built, owned and managed by Chemrose. The people who live in New Middletown are all employed by the corporation. Their children go to schools run by the corporation. And everybody, whether living in a large house or a small apartment, pay rent to the corporation. Maxwell and his little sister, Ally, miss the first week of school due to their aunt’s death. When they get back, they notice that the kids in Ally’s class are acting weird. They no longer play, scream, or even fight. Most terrifying of all, they are perfectly behaved and worse, it is spreading.
In her acknowledgments, Austen quips that she, “did not intend to write this as George and Harold Meet Teen Zombie Nerds in Stepford.” That pretty much sums it up. Max and his friend Dallas jump off the page as real teenage boys. Not too sensitive, not perfect with the overwhelming need to do stupid things. Yet Max loves his sister. He works hard at school despite his ‘tude and is obsessed with art, a love which he honed through illegally “decorating” the buildings in his neighborhood.
I don’t want to give too much away, but at one point Max and his friend put two and two together and realise what is going on with the younger kids and that they are going to be next. The struggle to hold on to their identity in a sea of friends-turned-zombies is both moving and terrifying. Austen grows this tension until it reaches an insane pitch.
The world she builds is also rich with detail. It is the world how it might be in a few years- where it works pretty much the same- the opening scene has Maxwell being frisked by an airport security guard. But the uniformity, the disparity between those allowed to live in the city and the those who are not, the hierarchy created by those who can afford the best genes for their children and those who can’t all ring prophetic. Austen takes not only at the environmental devastation caused by the large chemical corporations (there is a city on the banks of the St. Lawrence that has been turned into Freaktown because of a chemical spill), but she also takes aim at our current education system and the whole idea of streaming our children. These aspects might be exaggerated in All Good Children but they are still very identifiable.
My only quibble with the book would be the abrupt ending. Austen slowly grows the tension until the reader is vibrating with it, but then never tones it down. I would have liked a slower descent to match the slow ascent.
Still, an excellent read for those who liked the Hunger Games, Matched, The Maze Runner, and well, all the other dystopian lit out there. It also won the Sunburst prize for speculative fiction as well as the CLA award for Young Adult fiction, just in case you need a gold sticker on the cover to appreciate a book.