YA Guy’s been waiting for Tom Isbell’s THE PREY for a long time.
I first learned of Isbell’s debut YA novel way back in 2012, when I was agent-hunting for my own debut. The concept immediately gripped me: a post-apocalyptic society, the Republic of the True America, in which teenage males referred to as LTs (Less Thans) are raised to be hunted by the elite. It’s got HUNGER GAMES qualities to it, sure, but also an original flair. Sounded like just the thing for YA Guy.
Well, now I’ve read it at last. And it was worth the wait.
THE PREY is narrated in alternating chapters by Book, a scholarly LT, and Hope, a teenage girl who’s been subjected to twisted experiments in the perversely named Camp Freedom. (The LTs, meanwhile, are housed in Camp Liberty.) When the mysterious Cat, a teenager who seems to know the inner workings of the LT system, appears in Camp Liberty, some of the boys plan a prison break, hoping to find their way to a nearby territory where they can seek shelter from the ruthless Republic regime. Joining forces with Hope and some of her fellow inmates, they set out on a dangerous journey across a landscape ravaged by a past nuclear war, with the Hunters hot on their trail.
This is a grim book, and Isbell doesn’t pull any punches. The Republic of the True America is Nazi Germany revisited, with its storm troopers, concentration camps, human experimentation, and plans for wholesale extermination of “undesirables.” But the horrors of this world are redeemed by the simple faith of Book and the desperate courage of Hope, two appealing characters who fight for what little good is left in the world. Readers will identify strongly with them and root for them as the non-stop-action plot unfolds toward its measured conclusion.
Isbell’s writing is spare and straightforward, his command of dialogue (not surprisingly for an active playwright) impressive. There’s not a scene in this book that isn’t expertly paced for maximum effect. And as in the best YA, there’s always a light that shines through the darkness, leading the characters and the readers on.
There were a couple of elements to this book I didn’t care for. The alternating perspectives (first-person past tense for Book, third-person present for Hope) made sense when the two were separate, but when they joined forces, the switching seemed redundant. And though Book and Hope are highly likable in themselves, the romance between them seemed perfunctory and routine: boy and girl see each other, can’t stop thinking about each other, share a kiss, encounter a conflict in the form of girl’s attraction to another guy, etc. Partly that’s just me: I don’t see why every YA, even dystopian science fiction, needs to have a romance. But I do feel in this case that if the romance needed to be there, it could have been handled more originally.
But hey, those are minor quibbles about a book this rich, compelling, and readable. I sped through its 400 pages in three days, which is unknown for me. There will be sequels, though I’m not sure of the publication dates.
So now I guess I have to wait again!