Proxy, by Alex London (Philomel, June 2013, YA) Courtesy of the publisher, I'm offering an ARC to a reader who comments by midnight next Friday, July 5; US only)
A near-future dystopia is most horrible when it is a logical extension of what's wrong with the present, and the world in which Proxy is set is just that. To the standard environmental catastrophe and sharper divide between rich and poor, London adds bits of fresh hell--from the merely discomforting haze of projected advertisements that people bombard into their surroundings without conscious volition, to a system of debt that warps individual culpability most horribly. In this world, debt traps the majority of the remnant population, even new-born babies. And the debt of a child can be bought, and the child can be used as a whipping boy, or proxy, to take the punishments earned by the rich kid whose parent owns the debt. Pretty messed up.
Syd is the proxy to rich brat Knox, and Knox has never given a damn how many times he had to watch (remotely) Syd getting tortured as punishment for Knox's rich-boy "fun." When Knox kills a girl in crash, after loosing control when joyriding, Syd is not only physically punished, but years of hard labor are added to the two years of debt he still owes. So Syd runs.
And that choice sends Syd on a truly unexpected path, one that starts by taking him straight to Knox,who he's never met face to face before. Knox, whose primary motivation is pissing off his father, goes with Syd to help him escape, and with a third unexpected companion they set off beyond the comfort of Knox's lush life, into a journey with consequences they had never imagined....
The first 150 pages do a fine job of making it clear how messed up this world is. Syd's life is horrible, Knox is horrible in his self-centerdness, there's violence and torture and lots and lots of ugliness (and homophobia--Syd is gay, which makes his life even harder-- and antisemitism are both alive and well), and London takes his time moving through all this set-up before the story truly gets going. I frankly wasn't sure I wanted to keep reading--there's Syd, constantly being spat on by life most awfully, and there's Knox, an utter jerk, and there's this ugly, ugly world and people are hurting--but I kept on.
I was rewarded when the story became more Story-ish--having met the characters and their world, the quest begins that might save the world, or at least, bring about one faction's idea of world saving, and Syd, Knox, and the third teenager who joins them have to survive a brutal journey in order to make it happen. And interest is added by the dynamics between the three teens, especially that between Knox and Syd. Though I wasn't convinced that what happens between them is the most logical and believable arc, London works hard to make Knox appear increasingly sympathetic.
I had a sense as I read that there were many patches of thin ice in terms of "believability," most notably, the bit where they set off on horseback, their first time riding, and two of the characters are naturals, and everyone can walk the next day, but there were other bits and pieces as well. But I tried not to notice, because I didn't want my reading to stall--I was too curious to see what would happen next.
So if you enjoy really screwed-up futures, violence, twisted relationships, and such, that come with a welcome hint of hope (once you get through the first half of the book), and if you find the whipping-boy premise intriguing, you might well enjoy this lots.
Here are the two things I liked best:
Syd, like all orphaned refugee babies, is named for a literary character--his full name is Sydney Carton, from Dickens' ATale of Two Cities, and London makes a very satisfactory nod to how things play out for the Sydney in that book that pleasantly surprised me with its twist.
One of the few bad things about life today that doesn't survive into Syd's world is prejudice based on skin color (perhaps because of Nigeria's rise to global power). So, for those looking for diversity, Syd is a fine example of a black, gay hero of a dystopian YA novel.
I'm the final stop on Proxy's blog tour--you can find the other stops here at Alex London's website.
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher