Above World, by Jenn Reese (Candlewick, 2012, mg/YA, 368 pages)
Thirteen-year-old Aluna is about to grow her tail, and become one of the adult Kampii--a people who live hidden in the safety of the ocean, in the City of Shifting Tides. The Kampii depend on ancient technology from the Above World, and when Aluna finds one of her friends, drowned, she realizes that this technology is beginning to fail. But the conservative Elders refuse to venture to the one place where a solution might be found--the Above World enclave where the devices were made.
Aluna, headstrong and defiant of the gender stereotypes of her society (one in which girls are kept safe so that they can make babies), sets out to find this place herself (while she still has her legs). Which her friend Hoku, a tech made boy, she journeys above the water. There she finds a world where, hundreds of years ago, science confronted the problem of overpopulation by tinkering with nature in strange, horrible, but fascinating ways.
Unlikely allies, her skills as a fighter, and her indomitable spirit (plus lots of help on the tech side of things from Hoku) bring Aluna to the place she was looking for. But there she will have to confront the most grotesque creature of all--a being who has taken meddling with humanity to inhuman extremes.
Above World brings interesting twists to the standard story of the strong warrior girl on a quest. The science-fictional elements of genetic manipulation are especially fascinating--the different sub-groups of humanity are modeled after mythological beings, and Reese does an excellent job making with the two groups (the merfolk Kampii and the harpy-like Avians) interesting and compelling. The dark side of this--twisted mechanical/human/animal hybrids abound--is also fascinating, albeit much more grotesquely distasteful! The action scenes, of which there are many, are gripping.
Characterwise, Aluna fills the "brave warrior girl" niche nicely, though, in my mind, at least, she never quite transcends it. So much is happening the requires her to be "brave warrior girl" that she doesn't get much chance to be anything else; there were brief flashes of real personality, but I'd have liked more!. Her friend, Hoku, with his geeky, obsessive interests, appealed to me more.
I appreciated the fact that they stayed just friends (a loyal friend is a good thing!); that being said, the introduction of two other characters, a boy for Aluna, and a girl for Hoku allowed each to have a chance for a bit of romance. I liked Hoku's relationship lots. His new friend is a science-minded Avian girl, and they had the opportunity to bond peacefully over radio technology, and despite neither of them being good with a weapon, they both contributed in vital ways to the successful outcome of the story--yay geeks in love helping to save the day!. I was glad, however, that Aluna's stayed in the first preliminary stage of possibility, because even as it was I thought it unnecessary and a tad forced, given the desperate life or death circumstances of their time together.
Adventure-loving kids will probably enjoy this one lots, and even those who aren't kids may well enjoy the fantastical future world Reese has created. It was a busy string of encounters with fantastical beings and circumstances, leading ever onward to greater dangers, so I'd recommend it in particular to those who like fantastically vivid and unexpected external elements in their stories. It didn't, for me at least, have a ton of emotional power and resonance, but I enjoyed the ride just fine.
Note on age: this is marked to kids ten and up. Younger, or somewhat sensitive readers, might want to pass--some of the sci fi manipulations are hauntingly gruesome (I, for instance, am disturbed by people grafted onto giant crabs). On the flip side, it has enough umph of adventure and sci fi to appeal to younger teen readers.
other reviews: The Intergalactic Academy, Hippies Beauty and Books, and Hooked on Books
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)