(The Whisper, the sequel to The Roar, has now been released! Here are my thoughts)
The Roar, by Emma Clayten (Scholastic, 2009, upper middle grade on up, 481 pp)
In a hellish dystopia, where a mega-London lies half-drowned, in a world where all animals are dead and walls enclose the overcrowded warrens of humanity to keep them safe from the plauge, there lives an eleven year-old boy named Mika who refuses to believe his twin sister is dead.
He's right, and the reader knows it--she's the first person we meet, desperatly flying a stolen pod fighter homeward, trying to escape from a mysterious Them who have kept her imprisoned on a spaceship. But she doesn't make it all the way home, and Mika's life in the dampness and darkness of the lower classes remains unchanged.
Then one day a new and strangly sinister Program is announced, a program that will make the kids of London Fit and Happy. A large part of this is a new virtual reality video game, based on flying pod-fighters in combat. The game offers everything to children who have nothing--if they play the game well enough, they can win fabulous prizes. And despite his growing sense of danger, Mica knows in his heart that if he is a winner, he can find his sister again....But the games keep getting harder, and each round brings new challenges.
So in short, this is a survival game story, a story of clever children outwitting and outplaying their grown-up enemies, set in a post-environemntal-disaster dystopia.
Contrary to what the reader might expect from the referrence to spaceships early on, it's set pretty firmly on earth--a convincingly drawn mess of a place. Mika is a smart, interesting character. He's just as much in the dark as the reader, and Clayton does a fine job letting reader and character figure things out at the same pace. Because the book focus so tightly on Mika, he's the only one of the cast of diverse kids involved in the game who became real to me, but looking back on it, this is is in keeping with his rather self-focused state of mind throughout the book.
Clayton keeps the book moving briskly with fresh intrigue and complexity at each level of the game, and the unsolved mysteries made for gripping reader. But for me at least, the story fell apart a bit toward the end--the answers felt a bit anticlimactic--and so I was left a little disappointed.
But that is just me. I think many older middle grade kids, and teenagers as well, to say nothing of adults, might well find this gripping and enjoyable right to the end. Especially after reading glowing reviews such as this one at Pink Me and this one at The Book Blog.
Especially recommended for boys who love video games that involve blowing up space ships, who also care about the environment.
(review copy recieved from the publishers, for Cybils Award consideration)