Sunday, February 16, 2014

Astra - Naomi Foyle

A couple of weeks ago I won a copy of this novel over at Worlds Without End. The nice things about book giveaways is that you tend to take a chance more easily on books that you wouldn't have purchased or the release of which you most likely wouldn't have noticed. This is one such book. Although the premise appealed to me I probably would have missed it without the giveaway. Foyle is a relatively new name in genre fiction. As far as I have been able to determine, this is her second published novel after Seoul Survivors (2013). Astra is the first novel in the Gaia Chronicles and it doesn't appear to be related to Seoul Survivors. It set in a post apocalyptic world, with a generous helping of genetic engineering and social experiments mixed in. The premise and style of the novel are very interesting but I must admit that at times, the book tried my patience.

Growing up in Is-Land, seven year old Astra's greatest wish is to do service in IMBOD, the agency that defends Is-Land's borders against intruders an terrorists. To do that she needs her Security Shot, a serum that will  make her more receptive to the training she will have to follow, more resistant to doubt and closer to the children she grows up with. One of her shelter mothers, Dr. Hokma Blesser, disagrees with Is-Land's policies in this regards and fears that it will take away something of Astra's intelligence and curiosity. The excel in science, she needs these qualities in tact. She offers Astra a choice to conspire to refuse the mandatory shot. Reluctantly Astra accepts.

The entire story is told from Astra's perspective and revolves around the unfair choice she has been offered. The novel is divided into three parts. The first is set when Astra is seven years old, the second part shows us a twelve year old Astra and in the final part she is a girl of sixteen. Astra's upbringing is very sheltered in a way, she lives in a small and somewhat isolated community, allowing Foyle to slowly introduce elements of the nation of Is-Land and the wider world. On the surface, the community Astra grows up in appears idyllic but it is obvious from the start that all is not well in Is-Land. The feeling that things are being hidden from the children is present from the very first pages of the book and finding out what, is what keeps the tension up in this novel. There are things that will make the reader feel unease throughout the book.

Their religion, or perhaps I should say philosophy, revolves around respect for the planet. Killing an animal, no matter how insignificant is an almost impossible act in Astra's seven year old mind. It's a crime, something that hurts Gaia. At the same time, radically altering crops, animals and even humans is everyday practice in the community. Many weaknesses in the human genetic code have been fixed and radically altered versions of animals that went extinct before the crises humanity barely survived are being introduced. On top of all that, the Gaians are now raising a new generation of humans with the aid of the serum. An experiment they believe will safeguard their nation for generations to come. There is something fundamentally contradictory in those two approaches. There is a kind of respect for the natural world, life is sacred, but at the same time it is manipulated to an unprecedented extent to suit human needs.

Foyle cleverly used a number of unreliable sources to lay out the history of her world. From what little we get to see about what befell the planet, a large conflict, partially caused by oil and food shortages, ended the world as we know it. Gaian communities were already in existence then, combining a reverence for the planet with advanced knowledge of genetics, they tried to forge a new way of living independent of fossil fuels. According to official Gaian history, their communities suffered terribly during the conflict but in a post apocalyptic world, their genetic resources prove invaluable. So much so, that they've been able to found their own nation, protected by a treaty with the outside world. This sanitized version of history hides a lot of ugliness and power politics. Their knowledge gives the Gaians and edge they exploit to enable to build a community based on their principles. It is not until the twelve year old Astra meets a dissident that she starts to seriously doubt the stories she's been fed all her life.

It's doubt that plagues Astra throughout the novel. Where the serum makes her playmates more susceptible to the stories they are told, more ready to conform and accept, Astra questions. As Hokma feared, the serum changes children in ways that may lead to the creation of good border guards, they loose something in the process as well. Astra is constantly forced to try an suppress her natural curiosity. As she grows up, the gap between her and the other children widens but interesting enough it's her relationship with the adults that suffers. The strain that hiding her secret puts on Astra intensifies as the demands being made on her grow. Gaian education is thorough and all-encompassing, it has little patience with those who question the tenets of Gaian society. The conflict between her curiosity and her desire to fit in  is central to Astra's development and it makes her a fascinating character.

Foyle puts a lot in this novel but it is still not a book for impatient readers. I think the book dragged, especially in the middle section. The section dealing with the twelve year old Astra deals for a large part with the structure of Gaian society on all levels. Their family structure is complex and beyond anything that existed before the conflict that ended our way of life. Sexuality plays a large part in that. Although something that could be considered a marriage exists and some taboos remain, individuals enjoy a much larger sexual freedom from puberty onwards, than would be considered acceptable in just about any culture in our world. With Astra's own sexual maturity approaching, quite a lot of her time and energy is devoted to the subject. There is an elaborate rite of passage being described that appears to be only loosely connected to the central conflict in the novel. Foyle's description of the Gaian look on sexuality, bonding and family is interesting but I couldn't help but feel she overexpanded that bit of worldbuiling.

What I felt Astra has going for it, is the way Foyle handles what to reveal to the reader and how. The limited perception of the young Astra and the numerous unreliable tales spread throughout the novel make the reader feel uneasy about the true nature of Gaian society but also prevented me from jumping to conclusions. I don't think the pacing of the novel is perfect, Foyle does tend to elaborate on some aspects of the community Astra lives in, but the tension present in the mail character is very well built up. The climax of the novel left me curious about which challenges Astra would be facing next. I probably would have missed the release of this book without the giveaway but I'm going to be keeping an eye out for volume two.

Book Details
Title: Astra
Author: Naomi Foyle
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Pages: 379
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-78087-634-4
First published: 2014

No comments:

Post a Comment