In Camille Picott's Sulan, Episode 1: The League the United States has been reduced to a weakened former shell of itself. A sovereign default, compounding the effects of advanced climate change that has reduced agricultural viability in North America, has left the country poor and scrambling to provide the most basic of services. Famine and refugees camps are common. If that wasn't enough, a terrorist group, the Anti-American League, is waging a bombing and assassination campaign against anyone they deem useful to the country, including innocent college kids. The most powerful entities in this new power structures are multi-national corporations jockeying for position as they work on producing everything from weapons to programs for virtual reality.
Teenage math prodigy Sulan Hom is somewhat shielded from these harsh realities. Her parents are important employees in one of the more powerful corporations. She attends virtual reality school. In such an unstable world, though, no one is truly safe.
There's a lot to like about Sulan. The near-future science fiction setting provides a lot of cool toys and ideas that still come off as rather plausible. I don't want to spoil the book, so I'll note I particularly liked a few things they did with genetic engineering.
The main character herself is likable and proactive, even if she's a bit understandably sheltered at the beginning. Interestingly enough, I'll even note she comes off naive early on, despite the fact her witnessing a terrorist broadcast of a college execution ostensibly is a chief motivating factor for her to start wanting to learn to protect herself. That said, when we're first introduced to her, it's obvious that her issues, despite the horror around her, are really more about more typical adolescent struggles to define themselves and assert some control in a time of responsibility and transition. That said, she doesn't really come off as self-centered, an interesting feat in a book centered around a 16-year-old genius girl living in conditions well superior to many people in the setting. One of my particular bugbears in YA fiction centered around female leads are non-proactive heroines, and Sulan Hom is a character that is doing everything she can to influence her situation.
The primary side characters, her friends, are likable enough. Similar to Sulan, they all a solid combination of teens with believable teen issues and desires who are a just a bit more impressive than your average teen. This is, though, to be expected. By the nature of the setting, these characters represent the children of the elites.
The primary antagonists of the book, the Anti-American League, don't get as perhaps as much depth as probably needed. They certainly come off sinister and present a credible threat, but as presented, generate more than a few questions about the actual plausible nature of the terrorist group represented. Additional geopolitical context perhaps would have benefited our understanding of their League, their goals, and their strategies, and, as such, made them come off as a slightly more realistic, and therefore menacing, terrorist group. It also may be that some of these questions are answered in sequels.
Though the plot overall is brisk, it initially lingers a bit slightly too long on Sulan training in virtual reality. Despite some setting elements introduced to make it clear she's not totally safe even there, it still dampens some of the tension. The second and third acts, though, move along at a solid clip that is exciting without seeming too rushed, despite the relatively short length of the book. There are several nice action scenes combined with more than a few times where the characters have to try and think their way out of a predicament. At the same time, the plot provides plenty of mystery for sequels but still tells a complete and satisfying story arc.
Please stop by tomorrow to read an interview with the author.
Sulan: Episode One: The League is now available in physical, ebook, and audio book format at Amazon.