Liam bought this for me back in 2015. And yes, it’s taken me this long to get around to reading it. Not because I didn’t want to; it’s my usual dilemma - I really wanted to read it but once I read it, that would be it. I know it doesn’t make sense, but I do like to savour things I believe I’m going to enjoy.
Before I go any further, can I just say, I love the cover! I know I said in a previous review, I should stop choosing books for the cover but, for me, this cover is near-perfect. From the look of the character to the rain effect, it mirrors the story so well.
Hundreds of years into the future, only one city has survived: Neo-Babel, a melting pot of cultures and peoples – and fear and discrimination. As a ‘Red’ – an ethnic Chinese – Silver could never have dreamed of becoming an Elite, a guard of the city’s Council, yet she is now on the brink of her first major covert assignment.
But when Silver’s parents go missing, she is forced to confront the Outside – life beyond the walls of Neo-Babel. Silver is plunged into a strange new world of slums and dissidents, of secret splinter groups and deeply guarded secrets. And as the dirty truths about Neo-Babel begin to reveal themselves, Silver has to search deep within herself for the strength to fight against all she has ever known…”
This is Natasha Ngan’s debut novel and, my goodness, what a debut. Instead of taking an easier route, she’s woven sub-plots into the main plot; introduced a fair number of characters; and included various organisations jostling for prime position. And she hasn’t shied away from racism.
The main character, Silver, is a 15-year-old ethnic Chinese, a race considered even lower than the other races; they’re not usually chosen to be members of the Elites. So, along with her training, Silver has the added burden of constantly feeling she has to go above and beyond to prove herself. I like Silver; she can handle herself in a fight, is an ace sniper, but her vulnerability is never far away. Like many teenagers, she has her moody, sometimes irrational, moments, which makes for a realistic character.
The other Elites, Silver’s friends, are well-drawn and given distinct features; it’s easy to tell them apart. And Natasha includes other races as well with none of them feeling like a ‘token’ addition.
Silver’s best friend, Butterfly – yup, he’s a guy called Butterfly – is likeable too. He’s strong, convincing and has his own vulnerabilities.
There’s a touch of romance, skilfully handled. When both, Silver and Butterfly, have to deal with traumatising revelations and the accompanying emotions, the way they react to the events and to one another is so real and plausible, I had to stop a moment and savour that!
But what I enjoyed most – the romance took a back seat to Silver’s hunt for her parents. The main love of the story was familial love, not romantic love. To find that in a YA novel was such a refreshing change.
The Elites mostly seem to be in their teens. I didn’t find that jarring or unrealistic. The city of Neo-Babel was born following years of wars, riots and natural disasters. As it’s separated itself from the outside world, which it considers dangerous and full of bloodthirsty barbarians, to me it seems logical that there wouldn’t be vast numbers of people to choose from to train as guards. So, it only makes sense to start them young and get as many years out of them as possible. Personally, I liked that Natasha didn’t spend too much time focussing on the training, instead covering it in broad brush strokes; I think it would have distracted too much from the story if she had.
After I read the book, I learned that Natasha has family in Malaysia, on her mother’s side! That explains why some of her descriptions seemed familiar to me; like the two-tiered boats with “intricate carvings… delicate minarets adorning its roof. Coloured lanterns were strung across the boat’s outer surfaces, dappling puddles of multicoloured light in the water below.”
The city of Neo-Babel – it’s easy to imagine the shining buildings of the rich but where Natasha excels is in describing the poor areas, the areas the rich and privileged members of society pretend don’t exist:
“They stood at the edge of an enormous cavern… the main chamber of the Limpets was criss-crossed all over with walkways, plaited ropes and wooden bridges, pathways made entirely from metal sheets stapled together. From many of the larger bridges hung hammocks and strings of clothing, and even what looked like little shacks, ladders running from their porches up to the walkways above. The cavern went five storeys into the ground. Ringing it above were the different floors that Silver had seen from the outside, though here their ledges hung open to the chamber, as though a huge piece had been scooped out of a giant wedding cake.
The whole place was alive with activity. People scurried across walkways. Groups shouted orders to each other. Small children with no shoes shimmied down the ropes and ladders and precariously balanced staircases that led from floor to floor. Pungent odours mixed with the stink of excrement, and the acrid taste of smoke bit the back of Silver’s throat.”
Compare that to her description of Outside:
“… open land stretching out before them as though some god had unfolded a map at their feet and the world rolled out… an emerald sea of grass and forests, the glittering snake of the river winding through it all. The grass was long and green. Pockets of flowers dotted the landscape, and even the dark swatch of trees at the closest forest border was coloured with more shades of green than Silver knew existed. Above, the sky was a flat lid of blue. The horizon shimmered in the distance, a pale grey slither like a mouth waiting to smile.”
There’s a nice balance of action and quiet moments, allowing you to catch your breath. But it keeps you on your toes, with the various factions and their scheming. There are, in my opinion, genuine surprises, which are well-handled and realistic.
Another thing I liked – this isn’t told in first person; Natasha uses the ‘all-seeing’ third-person; my personal preference when writing. And it works well because of the number of characters and the way the plot unfolds.
Having waxed lyrical over ‘The Elites’, I would stop short of giving it a full 5 stars; I’d give it 4.5 instead. Why? There are one too many coincidences, like chance meetings with the one person who’s seemingly perfectly placed to give the help that’s needed at that exact moment – when that happens in a crowded city and the meetings happen between characters who don’t even know of each other’s existence, I question it. Also, I personally would have liked a little more with Silver and her parents.
But those are minor quibbles; I really enjoyed this book. I like Natasha’s style, effortless and easy on the eye, making the story flow well. And one I’ll be reading again in the near future.