Author: Kat Zhang
Genre: Alternate History, Sci-Fi, YA contemporary, Dystopia, Biopunk
Publication Date: September 17, 2013 (HarperTeen – North America)
Source: Publisher-provided ARC
Synopsis: “I’m lucky just to be alive.”
Eva was never supposed to have survived this long. As the recessive soul, she should have faded away years ago. Instead, she lingers in the body she shares with her sister soul, Addie. When the government discovered the truth, they tried to “cure” the girls, but Eva and Addie escaped before the doctors could strip Eva’s soul away.
Now fugitives, Eva and Addie find shelter with a group of hybrids who run an underground resistance. Surrounded by others like them, the girls learn how to temporarily disappear to give each soul some much-needed privacy. Eva is thrilled at the chance to be alone with Ryan, the boy she’s falling for, but troubled by the growing chasm between her and Addie. Despite clashes over their shared body, both girls are eager to join the rebellion.
Yet as they are drawn deeper into the escalating violence, they start to wonder: How far are they willing to go to fight for hybrid freedom? Faced with uncertainty and incredible danger, their answers may tear them apart forever.
☆: 4.5/5 stars – Not quite as breathtaking as book one, but still a really, really awesome follow-up to it.
Review: “What’s Left of Me” was definitely in my top ten of my favorite debuts of 2012, and so I was really, really happy to get a copy of this next installment in the series, “Once We Were”. While not quite in frenetic in its pace (except for the last quarter or so), “Once We Were” is a quieter book that reflects on what has happened in book one, and what’s on deck for Addie, Eva, and the rest of the hybrids on the run, as well as delves a little deeper into the differences between Addie and Eva in pretty much every way. So for those that want that non-stop action from book one may be a bit let down, but “Once We Were” is just every inch as good as its prequel – just a little emotionally deeper.
Since the technical areas were more or less just as awesome/flawless as book one (though pace did lag a bit, admittedly), I’m going to delve a little deeper into the issues brought up in the book, and maybe try a little analysis/speculation/meta. I’ll try to keep it as spoiler-free as possible.
If there was one word I had to pick for this book, it would be “growth”. This book is all about growth in so many areas. It’s about Addie and Eva, growing both together in one body, and apart as separate entities/people. It’s about growth in terms of adolescence – the last phase of innocence of childhood, the shedding of the last ignorances of the world that we wear around us as people before we become adults. It’s also about the growth of the world around the Americas, and the Great Wars (Civil [speculative], WWI and WWII [explicitly mentioned]), and the growth of a people on two continents from mild fear into witless terror of the hybrids, by a government grasping on whatever it can to survive, and keep control. And finally, it’s the growth of a bunch of people, brought together by pure circumstance, creating and growing their own resistance in order to survive.
The growth of Addie and Eva, and both of them as separate people is obvious. This is where I think where the book slowed down for a lot of the early readers. Addie and Eva very slowly start testing the limits of the body their share, as well as the mind – how long can they “disappear”/”submerge”/”sleep”/”dream”, leaving the other soul to have sole control of the body for a certain period of time. They also start testing the limits with each other, both attracted to different boys, and both having to share a body that will be touched by a boy they don’t consider theirs (there’s a very sensorily vivid scene with Addie, Eva, and Jackson about halfway through, but that’s all I’ll mention when it comes to spoilers). How does that feel? How long can they can they keep being patient with that other soul, allowing them physical and emotional time with someone that isn’t each other? Zhang uses free-form poetry to describe the “dreaming” times of the souls when they leave the other alone, and those are quite vivid, as well. I can see why it might not have worked for other readers – free-form poetry isn’t for everyone, especially when experimentally stuck into a traditionally-structured novel. But for me, it worked. It made sense. It made the sense of “dreaming” and separation from that other soul, as well as how far deep down the bond to the other soul went all the more vivid and real.
There’s also the sense of psychological growth – from being a child, trusting everyone who helped them get to Anchoit, to becoming an adult – an “awakening” (which made a really nice contrast to the “dreaming” the souls do when they “disappear”), and a loss of innocence. Is the resistance really the best path for Addie and Eva, both together as one person in one body, and as separate entities? Can they really truly trust who is taking care of them, keeping them out of the hands of the government? And can they keep up this path without destroying themselves, each other, and the budding (and established) relationships around them? The rebellion as a metaphor for growing up (that’s how I saw it, at least – just a bit of meta on my behalf) was very finely wrought, and you weren’t bludgeoned over the head with it. Even if the pace is slower here, I don’t think it’s an obvious part of the book on the whole as a metaphor, though there were some scenes/chapters that were very obvious about it as individual parts building the whole. You have to look beneath the surface just a bit. Pay attention to the scenes were Addie and Eva are learning how to “disappear”/”dream”, and I think you’ll see what I saw. At least, I hope so. Even if it was unintentional, I have to give a golf clap for Zhang for pushing the psychological envelope there. In a lot of YA, we see obvious, explicit (in terms of being mentioned and established as official events) awakenings and losses of innocence, but I think that there’s a little less of this quieter examination of the fine line between childhood and adulthood, and what it takes to pitch one over the edge into adulthood.
The world also opens as we see more of Anchoit – we get some important information about the world in general, and how it’s different in terms of alternate timelines/histories since the US Civil War (this was hinted), and WWI and WWII (this was explicitly touched upon). We also know how far the control of the anti-hybrid government reaches in terms of physical geography, and how the world around it has progressed, basically leaving it behind. I won’t spoil anything, but comparing The Americas (as they’re called) to Soviet Russia would be a pretty good comparison. Technologically behind by a few decades, trading with whatever country that will continue to side with it and supply it, and so forth. Not a ton of information, but we get a few more bones thrown our way to furnish the physical world of The Americas in our head as we read through this series.
Final verdict? While there is a LOT of exposition (Zhang almost gives George R R Martin a run for his money with the amount of exposition here), there’s also a lot of good sensory input as well. “Once We Were” doesn’t disappoint, at least, not for me. “Once We Were” is out now from HarperTeen in North America, so be sure to check it out when you get the chance. And be sure to stop by the blog on September 20, 2013 for a guest post by Zhang on the process of writing a sequel!