The Blending Time, by Michael Kinch (Flux, YA, 2010, 264 pages)
In the year 2069, North America is pretty much a dystopian disaster for the bulk of its people. The cites are cramped pits of pollution, while drought has devastated Mexico and the south west. Turning seventeen in this world means receiving a mandatory work assignment--back breaking canal work for the least skilled, technology jobs for a lucky few, and a rather curious option for others--to go to Africa, as part of the Global Alliance's Blending program. And never to come back.
For Africa has been hit by its own particular disaster--one that left its people with genetic damage. The only hope for new children to be born is for new blood to be brought into the continent--teenagers from North America, matched most scientifically with new mates, and destined to procreate.
Jaym and D'Shay are city boys, one white, one black. Neither has had much of a life. Reya is a refugee from Mexico, whose life in what was basically a prison camp has been horrible. For the three of them, the Blending program promises hope of a better life. On board the ship that carries them to the east coast of Africa, they become friends...and vow to watch out for each other once they arrive. If they can...
This future Africa is, to all intents and purposes, not all that different from what you'd find in the poorer, war torn countries of today. Crowded, dirty cities, vicious bandit gangs outside the urban areas, who wield more power than government forces, who use rape as a weapon and are quick to use guns and machetes against those who resist, and villages where people manage to live close knit lives with little technology.
It is an Africa where Blenders from North America are not welcomed with open arms, and are, in fact, particular targets of the bandits. Jaym, D'Shay, and Reya are in immediate danger, and for Reya, in particular, the outcome is dire. Kidnapped by the leader of a particularly evil bandit group, she is raped repeatedly. But the three of them manage to find each other again, and, despite the dangers they face, the book ends with hope for the future.
Although a little slow to get started, once the teenagers arrive in Africa things pick up. It's gripping, it's interesting, it's horrifying, and is not for the faint of heart. It's multicultural, and one of only a handful of YA books set in a future Africa. Reya in particular is an interesting character; the boys, unfortunately, not so much.
But I had some problems with the book. To wit:
At a gut level, the idea of westerners being sent to Africa to save its people smacks, to me at any event, of colonialism. It made me uncomfortable, which is not necessarily a fault of the book. Related to this, I found it discomforting that this future Africa is something of a stereotype--violence, urban disasters, and timeless villages. Sure, this is an unpleasant future all round, but bits like the villagers with whom Jaym is settled having no clue about how to repair their solar array, and expecting Jaym to fix it, seemed unnecessarily patronizing. Africa isn't a timeless place, and a future Africa should be at least a little different from the present Africa (although god knows it sometimes seems like there is little reason to hope that things will become dramatically better in many countries anytime soon). I also would have liked more grounding as to which particular part of Africa the book is set, with more references to the particulars of geography and political history.
The premise on which the story was founded was not quite convincing. the Blending program was hard to swallow--all the work to match the participants seemed to speak of a level of organization that wasn't seen anywhere else.
Reya is never given any page time in which to deal with the traumatic shock of having been repeatedly raped. Although Kinch handled this part of his story carefully and well, the fact that it ceased being an issue in her particular story arc, understandably overshadowed by other concerns like staying alive, disappointed me a little.
So it didn't quite work for me, although I found it an interesting read. The sequel, The Fires of the New Sun, is out now...and Kirkus gave it a favorable nod-- "For some great action, this can't be beat." I'll probably read it, but not right away.