Dan Wells’ YA novel Partials mixes Margaret Atwood with military fiction
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With series like the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games books becoming international mega-bestsellers, young-adult fiction is now a thriving genre that draws readers of all ages. YA Why? is a periodic book-review column that looks at YA releases from the perspective of what they do or don’t do with familiar YA tropes, whether they appeal to a broad audience or strictly to the younger set, and why we might want to read them.
Book: Dan Wells’ Partials, published February 28, 2012
Plot: First scientists created “Partials,” semi-human supermen to be used as soldiers. Then the Partials rebelled against their creators, Battlestar Galactica style. As they fought, a weaponized virus called RM wiped out most of humanity, and the virus continues to kill newborn infants within days. Eleven years later, a small, struggling settlement of survivors on Long Island is trying to understand and cure RM by focusing on solving the 100-percent infant-mortality rate—which means legislating that women become pregnant at 18 and produce as many babies as physically possible, in hopes that someone will be born immune, or that ongoing testing will bear results. Kira, a 16-year-old prodigy working in the maternity wards, is determined to cure RM, both to save the soon-to-be-born first child of a close friend, and to escape legally enforced impregnation herself, as her community leaders debate lowering the reproduction-requirement age to 16. Meanwhile, a group of terrorist rebels fights back against the government’s increasing control of its citizens’ bodies.
Series status? Although first in a trilogy, Partials largely wraps up its major plotlines by the end of the book, and only teases at a new, more expansive upcoming story toward the end.
YA cliché? Partials’ setting is reminiscent of other recent dystopian YA novels: post-apocalyptic world, oppressive leadership, plucky teenagers defying the rules and the odds, but Wells gets around the familiarity of the setup by grounding it in geographical and physical specificity. Like the community in Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Kira’s settlement is designed in detail around the need to keep intruders out and keep residents occupied and functional. Wells focuses more on the barriers than the interior, but when Kira and some friends decide to escape the community and capture a Partial for testing, he brings across their journey with harrowing military-fiction detail, offsetting the fantasy elements with a sharp focus.
Similarly, his plot requires a standard “protagonist proves implausibly key in all situations” setup, which seems particularly odd when Kira starts solving mysteries that mankind’s best (surviving) scientists weren’t able to touch. But in all cases, Wells eventually justifies the ways he manages to put Kira at the center of the action. When her bizarre, ill-planned plot to capture a deadly Partial sees some success, there are reasons behind it that only gradually unfold. When the leaders of her community grant her the right to study her subject alone, shutting out more experienced scientists, she actually has the wherewithal to wonder why they’d do such an unlikely thing, and she eventually finds out. Wells does a solid job of anticipating the “Why would adults act this way?” questions, and turning them into key plot points.
Bad sign: That oppressive government is awfully simplistic, and its most transparently up-to-no-good members have a tendency to explain their plots to Kira in ways that may be necessary for the story, but seem unlikely. “You don’t need to spell everything out for her,” one member huffs when another gets a little too truthful. Good call. Also, Kira spends a little too much time admiring the Partials’ physical perfection (in contrast to her own body) in a way that flashes back to the similar maunderings in Twilight.
Good sign: Kira thinks clearly and intelligently about the pregnancy-legislating “Hope Act,” what it means to the women forced to enact it, and how the breakdown of families might have caused it. Confronting a Partial about the ways genocide have hardened her people and destroyed their sense of basic connection, she moves him to tears: “The scientist in her wanted to study [his teardrop], to take a sample, to find out how and why and what he was crying. The girl in her simply thought of the Hope Act and wondered if a law like that could ever pass if a voter knew it would be forced upon his own daughter.”
Young-adult appropriate? For all its Margaret Atwood focus on women’s control of their own bodies in the face of enforced reproduction, Partials is light on both the sex and the violence; it finds its emotional violence in other ways, like when Kira and her friends deliberately start a dangerous riot, knowing it could kill people, but seeing no other way to achieve their goals. Partials is mostly appropriate even for preteen readers, but occasionally moves into more impressively nuanced Robert Cormier-esque moral gray areas, as Kira debates what compromises are necessary and tolerable to achieve her ends, and what delineates a terrorist from a freedom fighter. If nothing else, Partials may cast a lot of present-day politics and news in a new light for younger readers.
Old-adult appropriate? Older readers can enjoy Partials as a moderately twisty thriller with a good deal of innovative plotting and world-building ideas, particularly when more becomes clear about what the Partials are and how they work. Wells does an excellent job with his slow reveals, setting up expectations and then moving off in unexpected directions.
Could use less: …of Kira’s underdeveloped boyfriend Marcus, who largely seems to be in the picture to set up some extra pathos and character conflict as he constantly disagrees with her dangerous choices. Their early-book flirting is cute, and it’s vaguely amusing how he comes across as a male version of the John Grisham Whiny Wife, the stock character who only exists to spout melodrama-churning variants on, “Why won’t you stop doing the right thing? Don’t you know it’s dangerous? You’re tearing this family apaaaart!” But his repeated refusal to get involved with the plot tends to make him a non-character, and as a drama hook, he’s a wet noodle.
Could use more: …of a sense of how the young cast sees the world, having grown up in a post-apocalyptic ruin. There’s a smart bit of characterization revolving around MP3 players, which one of Kira’s friends collects and thinks of as people 10 years ago might have thought of CDs. Her friends are familiar with the collection and periodically request she plug in one specific player over another (identifying them by their engraved dedications, e.g. “To Nissyen from Lisa”) based on the overall mood each one conveys. The book could use more of that kind of detail, the sense that each generation, regardless of the world’s status, tends to have a shared culture and worldview.
For fans of: Catching Fire for the politics and rebellion, Feed for the viral science, Steven R. Boyett’s Ariel for the grungy post-apocalyptic world (albeit minus the unicorns and manticores), and dystopian adventure fiction in general.