Kat Zhang was nineteen when she sold The Hybrid Chronicles to HarperCollins.
Let me repeat that.
To put this in perspective, when YA Guy was nineteen, my main accomplishment was sneaking into a classmate’s dorm room and moving all his furniture onto his balcony. I’d written novels, sure--I insulted my freshman philosophy professor by finishing a novel for a young writer’s competition rather than writing a paper for his class--but I was certainly not selling them to HarperCollins.
Zhang’s accomplishment would be noteworthy even if the first book in the series, What’s Left of Me, were no better than average. I mean, come on. I teach freshman composition these days. I’m not looking for miracles.
But What’s Left of Me is much, much better than average. It’s excellent. The concept, the writing, the plotting, the pacing, the characters: all excellent.
Now that’s something.
In Zhang’s book, we’re taken to a not-far-future world where people are born with two souls (or personae, if you prefer) cohabiting a single body. The recessive persona typically “dies” before the teen years, leaving the dominant persona in complete control. But in the case of protagonist Addie/Eva, the supposedly recessive soul, Eva, remains: locked within a shared mind, able to communicate with Addie and experience everything she does, but unable to communicate with the rest of the world or move a muscle of their body. The two are what their society terms a hybrid: a feared and shunned being believed to be the cause of earlier wars of destruction. If ever their hybrid nature is discovered, Addie and Eva will be subject to incarceration, experimentation… or worse.
There’s so much to like about What’s Left of Me, but I want to focus on the strengths my fourteen-year-old daughter (herself an aspiring writer who met Zhang at a young authors event) succinctly described: “It’s really well-written!” It was a brilliant decision to have Eva, the recessive soul, narrate What’s Left of Me: her desire to return to full life, to re-experience the autonomy she knew as a child, provides the book a compelling narrative drive. And the lyrical language of the book brilliantly expresses the strange condition of being two-in-one, both intimate and separate, as in the opening words of the prologue:
Addie and I were born into the same body, our souls’ ghostly fingers entwined before we gasped our very first breath. Our earliest years together were also our happiest. Then came the worries--the tightness around our parents’ mouths, the frowns lining our kindergarten teacher’s forehead, the question everyone whispered when they thought we couldn’t hear.
Why aren’t they settling?
We tried to form the word in our five-year-old mouth, tasting it on our tongue.
We knew what it meant. Kind of. It meant one of us was supposed to take control. It meant the other was supposed to fade away.
That’s really good stuff. And it gets even better.
What’s Left of Me isn’t perfect. I found parts of the book, particularly the extended sequence in a psychiatric institution, not wholly convincing; so totalitarian a society, I felt, could not have run one of its premier institutions so tentatively, indeed ineptly. And I was never entirely sure what the origin or significance of hybridity was; there seemed no rational explanation for why people in this society are born double, which made me fear the book was using the condition as allegory. Perhaps the second book in the series will help resolve this question.
But whether it does or not, What’s Left of Me proves beyond doubt that Zhang is for real. And that being the case, we can all be thankful she got started so early sharing her words with the world.