Lizard Radio, by Pat Schmatz (Candlewick, September 2015), had won the YA Tiptree Award, it was a natural next step to actually read the copy of it that has been in my TBR for months....I think I hadn't read it sooner because the cover reminds me of the 1970s tile in the bathroom of an old and dingy house I once lived in...and also because the blurb at the back references "a mysterious saurian race" and I am not a fan, in general, of saurian stories. But now I have read it, and found it good! It is off my TBR pile! I can recommend it! Yay!
Just by way of quick intro--it is almost our world, but with a dystopian fascist overlay, different slang, different drugs, and a nasty way of tucking all non-conforming people (political agitators, criminals, gay and gender ambiguous people) away forever in a prison city of their own.
Kivali was just a little baby, wearing a t-shirt with a lizard picture on it, when she was found by Sheila. Sheila, being unpartnered, had to fight to keep the baby as her foster child, but she succeeded, and then raised her with the story that she is a little lizard child, dropped on earth by suarians, and though this wasn't Sheila's intention, Kivali has ended up believing this, and feels more lizard than human, listening to "lizard radio" when meditating. In large part this is possible because Kivali is a "bender," with a gender score just barely tilted toward female, and she doesn't do human socialization very well (I found myself think of her as being on the autism spectrum, though this isn't explicit).
In Kivali's world, teens have to go to Crop Camps to get their hands dirty and to get indoctrinated before they can be Integrated into proper society. Failing out of Crop Camp more than once means being stuck in the prison city. And as the book begins, Sheila is making Kivali go and get it over with.
Crop Camp is sort of like a religious youth group (lots of emphasis on everyone joining together to find the One) meeting agricultural work camp, and the heavy emphasis on community and belong is made more palatable for people like Kivali by the drugs the campers are given every evening. For the first time, Kivali has friends, and is accepted, and nicknamed, in a friendly way, Lizard. She finds passion for the first time in the kiss of a bright shinning fellow camper girl. And she feels that she has stepped out of her lizard skin, and is actually a person.
But the ruler of Crop Camp wants to manipulate and control the kids, and freedom of thought is not tolerated. Campers disappear. Those who aren't conforming are confined. Lizard cannot stay, but where can she go? And how can she leave her friends? What is a young lizard, who wants to be loved, to do? For Lizard is still a little lizard, trying, as she herself puts it, to get her tail out from under the boot of the camp director. Her answers come from her recognition that she doesn't have to choose between binary opposites, but can instead find power in being both and neither....
So the vibe I got from this reminded me somewhat of The Scorpion Rules, by Erin Bow--the kids forced together under adult control, with threats keeping them corralled, and a protagonist who hasn't been in the habit of reaching out to other people. This one, though, is an almost totally character driven spec fic story; the world around Lizard is bad and difficult, but the point is how she as an individual is going to make it through. Lizard is a brave and hurting and seeking protagonist, one to be held in the heart of the reader. And though there's no firm ending, there's a bit of hope she'll find hope, somewhere. Not a book if you want dramatic action with bombs and stuff, but more a book if you want a person trying to be a good lizard, or good person, in difficult and painful circumstances occasioned by a tangly plot full of mysteries.