Book 2: ABOVE WORLD by Jenn Reese
Goodreads synopsis: Thirteen-year-old Aluna has lived her entire life under the ocean with the Coral Kampii in the City of Shifting Tides. But after centuries spent hidden from the Above World, her colony’s survival is in doubt. The Kampii’s breathing necklaces are failing, but the elders are unwilling to venture above water to seek answers. Only headstrong Aluna and her friend Hoku are stubborn and bold enough to face the terrors of land to search for way to save their people.
But can Aluna’s warrior spirit and Hoku’s tech-savvy keep them safe? Set in a world where overcrowding has led humans to adapt—growing tails to live under the ocean or wings to live on mountains—here is a ride through a future where greed and cruelty have gone unchecked, but the loyalty of friends remains true.
I had a bit of trepidation starting this one, partly because it sounded a bit more "Under the seaaaa" (you all know the tune, right?) than I thought I was in the mood for, fun as that song is, and partly because it's middle grade instead of my usual YA. But neither of those proved to be problems once I was just a short way in, and even if Aluna hadn't left her ocean home (the clue *was* in the title) very quickly, it would have been fine.
Or more accurately, if Aluna hadn't headed for land, followed quickly by Hoku. One of the nicest things about the book is the journey companions, and the way these two friends pick up new ones along the way. Hoku and Aluna are the classic polar opposite types of friends, with Aluna being the one who wants to be a warrior (but isn't allowed to be, though at least she can train because of her brothers' willingness to teach her), and Hoku utterly uninterested in fighting, but fascinated by technology. It's nice that there isn't just this fairly standard twist in the grrrl being feisty and keen on fighting though, as the next companion to be added is Calli, an Aviar (I'll get to the 'splinters' soon), who's just as mechanically minded and smart as Hoku. And with whom Hoku is immediately smitten, in a really sweet and funny portrayal of first love. Hoku's internal musings on kissing were delightful. Dash, who eventually joins the group, is - or should have been - an Equian word-weaver. And there's the utterly adoptable Zorro, a -- well, a very special raccoon, not to spoil anything.
The world is complicated and fascinating. As earth became over-populated and life there unsustainable, big corporations (including HydraTek) invented bio-engineering abilities to allow humans to exist under the sea, as with the Kampii and Deepfell; in the air high above earth; in the desert; and elsewhere. The Kampii refer to the Ancients, who gave them thick skin and strong bones to allow them to survive underwater, but also breathing shells, which attach to the necks and allow them to draw oxygen from the water. But the breathing shells need power to function, unlike their other adaptations, and the Kampii don't have the technological abilities to generate that power in sufficient quantities, when the breathing shells start to fail.
I thought this was all wonderful, and was quite happy to leave the details of the science aside for the most part - I'm happy to see the book as just as hybrid as the splinters, rather than being categorised as simply straight science fiction or fantasy. I did have some quibbles occasionally, however. One was about the group of Aviars Hoku and Aluna encounter and come to be allied with, Skyfeather's Landing. This group is all female, and though there are other groups which are all male, the separate communities appear to have little interaction - and there's nothing about men and women getting together for reproduction, let alone any kind of romantic interaction. And yet [mild spoiler alert] Calli's interest in Hoku is as immediate as his for her, and in fact she kisses him first.
This isn't a major point, and I suppose I only noticed it because of the evolutionary-science slant to the story. The other problem I have is harder to address, because it is absolutely nothing intentional, and I could well be misreading anyway. (It's entirely possible that things that seem quibblesome now will be explained in future books in the series too.) That problem is the depiction of the Upgraders. These are certain types of Humans, and in pasing, despite our human-centric expectations, Humans are the beings with the least degree of 'humanity' to them. The name Upgrader comes from the fact that they make up for their missing or deformed body parts with a combination of techno-bits (generally adapted for violent purposes) and parts stolen from other creatures. It's not clear by the end of the book whether or not these Upgraders actually have choice about the killing and theft of body parts for their own use, or whether it's all the fault of a few arch-villains. But lines such as these do seem disturbing: "One of the riders had no legs at all. Her torso seemed like part of the mechanical insect itself. Did these misshapen creatures really share the same ancestors as the unadorned Humans in the boat? The same ancestors as the Kampii?" and: "The Upgraders shuffled through the entrance corridor and into the room. [...] Another seemed to have bare feet, but they were made of dull-black metal. Even the toenails! If the Upgraders were Humans once, they'd left the legacy behind, as sure as the Kampii had left dry land." It comes close to reading as if the 'misshapen' bodies are indication of lack of humanity, though as I said, it's clear that nothing like that is intended, especially as one of the strengths of the book is the coming together of societies that have feared and even hated each other in the past.
I am very much looking forward to the next book. (By which I mean the next book in the Above World series, rather than the next book in my 48 Hour Book Challenge!) I do hope it won't be too long a wait.