When my fiancé asked me what this book was about, I thought for a moment and responded, ‘Violent pacifists in BC’. That oxymoron is at the heart of society in Kersh, the walled mega-city situated on the northwest coast of North America. The rest of the world is at war, and the Board that runs Kersh has an ingenious solution to keep Kersh safe: every child born has a genetic double and, at some point before their twentieth birthday, they must either kill their doppelgänger – or Alternate – or be killed, ensuring that the fittest survive to deter, or if need be fight off, any necessary invasion.
The premise of Dualed is a perfect example of one of my favourite things about speculative fiction; I love the way that creating a society so different from our own opens up ways to explore the ramifications of culture on individuals’ morality and viewpoints. The first time West Grayer witnessed a completion – the term used for when a person kills their Alternate and becomes a ‘complete’ member of society – as a child, she was horrified, even though she had had it impressed upon her her entire life that this was right, that it was the way to ensure that only the most worthy reached adulthood to protect Kersh’s fragile peace. By the time she is assigned the task of fighting her own Alt, West does not question the morality of the act, only her own worthiness to complete it. Even so, she feels guilt when confronted with the truth of her Alt’s own humanity, evidence that this other girl loves and is loved by others. West may be conditioned to view murder as a natural part of coming of age, but that does not erase her natural empathy.
There are those in Kersh who take a more explicit stance against the concept of Alternates and completion, arguing that being unable to stomach killing another human being does not make someone a less worthy member of society, and that physical prowess is not the only indicator of societal contribution. These views are not the focus of Dualed, though judging by the summary for Divided I expect that ideals of worthiness are going to be explored much more deeply in the sequel, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it.
Perhaps the reason West seems to teeter between blindly following the status quo and overt questioning is her background. So often the protagonists in a dystopian setting fall into one of two extremes: either they’re impoverished and clearly suffering under the current regime, or they’re privileged and blind to the flaws in their society. West falls somewhere in between. Her middle-class upbringing – less privileged than her Alt’s – was fraught with loss, her happy family torn apart one death at a time. She knows all too well the human cost of Kersh’s completion programme, and she clings desperately to the few loved ones who remain, yet she continues to frame her concerns about her assignment in terms of whether or not she is worthy, not whether the entire concept is barbaric.
The result is a fast-paced, emotionally gripping novel about love, loss and humanity, perfect for fans of The Hunger Games and Red Queen.
Nicola lives in Edinburgh, where she’s been making the most of her favourite season by curling up with a good book.