The Burning of Cherry Hill is a tale set in a dystopian future, but it begins in a pastoral paradise.
Fourteen-year-old Zay and his sister Lina have been living on a beautiful, rural island with their parents and 1,372 other people, including his beloved girlfriend Hope. Aside from a few inexplicable quirks on their parents’ part, life is idyllic. One day, however, everything turns upside down when soldiers attack their home, burning the island and destroying everything except, apparently, Zay and Lina.
The children are kidnapped and taken to the mainland, where they are put in foster care and taught the rules of life in the United North American Alliance, a place where speaking of forbidden topics like “gardens” or “unions” can result in disappearance without a trace. When members of an underground rebellion sparked by Zay and Lina’s father make contact with the children, they find information that leads them to believe their parents and friends are still alive, in a prison called Cherry Hill. But can they find their way there and rescue their loved ones? And can the courage and love of two young teenage siblings upend an entire society?
This story is amazingly powerful. It is told from Zay’s point of view, as a series of journal entries, up until the end, and the reader hears his voice clearly, with a vivid three-dimensional personality behind it. Other characters, even minor ones, live and breathe through the paper, not a one of them flat. The author has a gift for putting deep emotions into small gestures and images, and can break the reader’s heart or uplift it (sometimes both simultaneously) with a few deft verbal brushstrokes.
The plot unfolds itself smoothly, revealing through action and event, rather than tedious explanation, a clear picture of how a society can descend into brutishness and cruelty step by horrifyingly easy step. The writing is brilliant, vivid, and well-edited. If you are prone to cry at emotional scenes, have a few handkerchiefs handy when reading this book – I don’t mind saying that I needed mine.
The tale does get a bit melodramatic at points, but never mawkishly so. The chief villain is probably the least three-dimensional character in the book, but then, he’s a pretty realistic depiction of a psychopath, so it seems reasonable that he lacks much of a soul. Tavish Scot, the children’s father, is his counter-image – almost unbelievably heroic and brilliant – but people like that, too, exist, and he is, of course, being seen through the eyes of his son, who loves him deeply and idolizes him.
This is one of the best and most haunting dystopian-future novels I have read in years. It is thought-provoking, emotionally powerful, disturbing and uplifting.
Kids battle totalitarian sadists in this searing sci-fi novel.
In the year 2159, roughly a century after World War III, young teenager Zay Scot and his little sister, Lina, are living an idyllic life of chores and gin rummy on Block Island. Then stormtroopers invade, burn the place, apparently kill their parents, Tavish and Ava, and haul the kids off to the mainland capital of the United North American Alliance. Like any dystopia, UNAA is a mixed bag. There are floating cars, helpful hover-bots that deliver personalized meals, awesome virtual-reality combat games at the skyscraper game center, and implanted scanners by which the government tracks everything citizens do, buy and email—for the citizens’ safety and convenience, of course. But there’s a downside: Dickensian foster homes; strict curfews; constant spying by yet more robots and cameras; the ever-present threat of electroshock-lashings from black-uniformed goons and their psychotic supervisors; and the experimental drugs they secretly sprinkle into those ready-to-eat robo-meals. Zay’s refusal to log in to the all-seeing computer system plunges him into hot water, and with the help of a dissident underground, he and Lina set out to find the truth about their parents and a giant gulag known as Cherry Hill. Butler’s yarn unfolds in punchy but evocative prose that’s full of well-realized characters. Although the political economy of this imperfect future doesn’t make a wholly reasonable amount of sense, the portrayal of its mechanisms of control is chillingly effective. Characters languish in an oppressive sense of helplessness under a state so domineering that citizens can’t share a bite of food without the government’s permission; in the background is an unspoken but ubiquitous brutality that emerges with gruesome realism in the electroshock scenes, which are both convincing and hard to read with their mixture of workaday jocularity and devilish cruelty. Steeped in teen martyrdom and paranoia about the total surveillance society, the narrative depends too much on plot contrivances, and the violence, profanity and sexual menace are a bit heavy for YA fare. The story wraps up rather patly, but the fictive world is sure to pull readers in.
An imaginative, engrossing work of speculative fiction, like an Edward Snowden rewrite of The Hunger Games.