I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review: unlike other submissions I accepted in the past, this one took a different path. The author is also a fellow blogger, and he built some anticipation for his book by sharing first an excerpt and then the cover art, an interesting – if puzzling, at the time – image that further piqued my curiosity.
Children of the Different is a post-apocalyptic novel dealing with the aftermath of the Great Madness, a wave of murderous, virus-driven insanity that swept the globe some twenty years previously, whose victims fell prey to an unstoppable killing instinct. Apart from a number of people who proved to be immune – as it often happens with any kind of plague – the only ones to avoid the Madness’ effects were those who had previously exhibited mental problems of various gravity: they not only survived the infection, but their afflictions were cured. Those who did not fall into either category became Ferals: as the name suggests, they are little more than beasts attacking other people, killing them and feasting on their flesh.
Now, all children born after the Madness undergo, once they reach puberty, a process called “the Changing”: they enter a comatose state in which they experience the Dreamland, a place of the mind capable of affecting the body as well, so that an injury sustained there shows in all its painful tangibility in the waking world. The Changing can bestow unique powers on those youths, or transform them into Ferals, who are driven away from the communities where they grew up.
As the novel opens, young Arika just started her Changing, observed with huge trepidation by her twin brother Narrah, who is alternately worried for his sister and for the ordeal that will shortly claim him as well. The story unfolds following the twins’ experiences – both in the Changeland and in reality – while they slowly discover more about the world they live in, as it once was and as it is now: until their Changing they lived a very sheltered life in an isolated settlement, the only information about the outside provided by the elders of the community, and therefore lacking many important details that they need to complete the puzzle.
Arika and Narrah’s path is both a coming-of-age journey and a quest, and a fascinating one at that, since it develops on several planes, due to the intermingling of reality and dream-state, without forgetting the peculiar powers that both of them gain from their Changing: here is where I finally comprehended the full meaning of the cover image, and where I understood my feelings of dread when I observed the figure of the echidna, the Ant-eater that keeps plaguing the young protagonists both in the material world and the dream state. The malevolent countenance and the red eyes of this creature struck me as totally evil on the cover, so that when it appeared in the Changeland, threatening the twins, it appeared even more of a danger than it would have from description alone.
As far as dystopian novels go, this one was quite unlike my previous experiences, and it was a very welcome change: for starters, the Australian setting is unusual for the genre, and it adds a further dimension to the post-apocalyptic landscape, imbued as it is with some Aboriginal wisdom and customs, which give it a distinctive flavor in respect of similarly set novels. Then there are the main characters: forget the much-used (and abused) tropes of angsty youngsters, whining about the unfairness of the world or dealing with the equally ubiquitous love triangles – Arika and Narrah feel like real, flesh-and-blood teenagers, eager to take their place in the world and at the same time plagued with doubts and uncertainties, but strong enough to want to face any obstacle before them. Their courage comes from the awareness of the responsibilities they carry toward each other first, and then toward their community and, later on, the wider world; the love and the strong bond they share is the power that drives them forward through hardships and terror, and it’s a delightful and very real emotion to behold.
The interweaving of reality and mind-scape is another fascinating side of this story, because it helps focus on the changes that the Great Madness brought to what remains of humankind: if the real world is scary enough, what with the constant threat of Ferals, or other humans preying on the weak, the Changeland is much worse, if nothing else because of its unpredictability and the opportunity for other, stronger minds, to affect it and create nightmarish dangers. Following the twins during their Changings, or the later visits they are compelled to pay to this dream-state, can be a disturbing experience, one that personally made me hold my breath more than once, such was the power of the images I found there.
This is a novel primarily directed at a young audience, and as such it suffers a bit from the need of detailed exposition and the reiteration of a few basic concepts – both instances probably aimed at strengthening the understanding and attention span of its intended target, though slightly jarring for a more… mature reader. That notwithstanding, the story is a fascinating one, and the characters very easy to relate to and care about, so that I feel perfectly comfortable in recommending this novel to everyone who wants to hear a new voice in the speculative fiction panorama.