I really enjoyed Tankborn, the first in Karen Sandler’s futuristic series featuring a world (called Loka) where some human beings are genetically engineered for hard labor and other undesirable tasks – a scientifically designed slave class. Our protagonist, Kayla, is one of these GENs – genetically engineered non-humans. At age 15, she was assigned to work for a powerful high-born man who turned out to be the leader of the Kinship, an organization dedicated to transforming the society on Loka, freeing GENs from their crippling restrictions, and gaining them rights of full humans – as the Kinship believes they are. Awakening continues this story, after Kayla has joined the Kinship in her own right.
While Tankborn focused on both Kayla and her best friend Mishalla, another GEN, Awakening focuses almost entirely on Kayla, with the majority of the story told from her third-person perspective. There’s a lot going on with Kayla in this installment. She struggles with her feelings for Devak, the grandson of the Kinship’s leader, a trueborn boy. There’s another GEN boy in the picture, Abran, who has secrets of his own. Then there’s the fact that Kayla keeps discovering things hidden in her brain, downloaded and installed there by an unknown person, that hint at a splinter group called FHE: Freedom, Humanity, Equality.
I assumed that much of the story would entail Kayla’s fight for equality with the Kinship, but that’s not quite the direction the book takes. Instead, a large part focuses on a disease affecting GENs (and only GENs) called Scratch. Even more mysteriously than the disease itself, which has no known cure, is the fact that some GENs seem to have the ability to heal others of Scratch simply by touch.
There’s a lot going on in the book, obviously, but I found it to be much slower than Tankborn despite this. It seems less focused and more meandering, with a few too many sections of dialogue where characters simply muse on what to do next instead of just doing it. A benefit to this, though, is that we get a lot more insight into Loka – its culture, its wildlife, and its environment. We learn more about Loka’s moons and their cycles, about the allabain people and their religious beliefs, about the history of the settlements. As a result, Loka feels like a living, breathing place, and it’s clear Sandler has put a lot of thought into making it seem so. Things like this are of huge interest to readers who love detailed world-building, but may be tedious for those who want a more plot-driven story.
I mentioned it in my review of Tankborn, but it bears mentioning again: Kayla is a black girl, and she is the star of this series. She’s not the best friend or the villain; she doesn’t even share protagonist status in this volume like she did in the first. What’s more, her face is prominently featured on the cover of the book. The series is published by Tu Books, an imprint of Lee and Low, who are dedicated to promoting culturally diverse books. In science fiction and fantasy, the lack of protagonists of color is a worrying problem, so books like this are essential.
While I don’t think this series will necessarily appeal to casual SF readers, it will most certainly appeal to seasoned ones, and I hope they’ll give it a try – it’s original, well-written, and unpredictable. We need to show that we want more SF stories like this featuring girls of color – and the way to do that is to read them, talk about them, and buy them.
Check back tomorrow for a twitterview with Karen Sandler addressing some of these things, plus a giveaway of a finished copy of Awakening.
Review copy provided by the publisher.