I really enjoyed this book, a young adult science fiction novel which is the first book in the Hero Rebellion series by Australian author Belinda Crawford. Hero is a teenager who has to take medication because she hears voices. She’s treated as “special”, which she hates; her mother hires minders who watch everything she does, and she’s been kept away from the public all her life. Her only friend is Fink, the animal companion she communicates with telepathically, until she’s allowed to go to school in Cumulus City.
The book takes place on the planet Jorn, which unfortunately has a pollen that makes the ground toxic to humans. Cumulus City, as the name suggests, is a city located in spires in the clouds.
The first third of this book felt young to me, which is okay since it’s aimed at young adults, not me. That said, as an adult reader, I would have liked more world-building. The book is set in an interesting place and time, but the early book focuses more on Hero’s anger at her family, her new school, her difficulty making friends, and her insecurity about her illness. The school has a racing team which reminded me vaguely of Quidditch in the early Harry Potter books (there for entertainment but not necessary to the plot).
At first, Hero seemed spoiled and self-centered. But I became more sympathetic to her, because of how overprotected she is by her family. She’s told nothing, experiences nothing in the real world, and is forced to take medication that makes her head fuzzy, without understanding why. She’s old enough to make some decisions for herself but no one lets her. If I was treated like that, I’d act out every chance I got, too.
While the first part of the book feels young, the story soon picks up and becomes much more exciting. Hero begins receiving mysterious messages from someone named The Robin, and she suspects her mother and her minders are mixed up in something complicated. The characters are interesting, the story moves quickly, and the issues raised are complex, from evolution and genetic engineering to bullying to treatment of the mentally ill.
One thing I appreciated about the book was Crawford’s use of names. Hero, Regan, Tybalt, Benedict – see a pattern here? One character is named Dorian and his companion is Gray; I can’t be sure that’s an Oscar Wilde reference but I’d like to think so.
There are some YA tropes in this book (tortured relationship with parent, heroine with special powers), but for the most part the story transcends them. There’s a conflict but it’s not entirely clear which side is right and which is wrong. I liked Hero’s developing friendship and I appreciated that there was no cheesy love story.
The companions are particularly interesting. Hero’s companion is a genetically engineered ruc-pard (part leopard, part “rucnart”) who’s a giant teddy bear most of the time, but also a fierce protector. In a particularly interesting scene, Fink has to defend Hero from harm. Hero’s been so sheltered all her life that she’s never seen Fink turn ferocious, and when he does she’s genuinely scared. Fink also looks out for Hero in other ways; he has the social skills and empathy she often lacks.
I mentioned that I would have liked more world-building. Hero basically knows nothing because she didn’t grow up around other families, so she has no frame of reference. Whether it’s because Hero’s knowledge is so limited, or because Crawford wanted to focus more on character development, I really wanted more detail about Hero’s world. It’s clear there are social and class structures but we don’t know much about them; we don’t know much about how the companions work (are they just pets really, or more psychically linked); we don’t know about the pollen except that it’s toxic; we don’t know much about the history of Jorn or whether there are humans on other planets.
It’s a series, so I imagine that as Hero learns more, we will too. And some of this information is in the book, it’s just covered quickly. But it will tell you how much I liked the book that I wanted to know more.
All in all, it’s a book I really enjoyed and would recommend.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from publisher Odyssey Books in exchange for an honest review.