Title: The Culling (The Torch Keeper 1)
Author: Steven dos Santos
Cover Art: Chris Nurse/Debut Art Ltd.
Buy Link: Buy Link The Culling (The Torch Keeper)
Genre: GLBT YA Dystopian
Length: Novel/432 pages/approx. 90,000 words
Rating: 4.25 stars out of 5
A guest review by LadyM
Review summary: Exceptional debut novel – a truly disturbing dystopian future with compelling characters that will break your heart.
Blurb: Recruitment Day is here…if you fail, a loved one will die…
For Lucian “Lucky” Spark, Recruitment Day means the Establishment, a totalitarian government, will force him to become one of five Recruits competing to join the ruthless Imposer task force. Each Recruit participates in increasingly difficult and violent military training for a chance to advance to the next level. Those who fail must choose an “Incentive” — a family member – to be brutally killed. If Lucky fails, he’ll have to choose death for his only living relative: Cole, his four-year-old brother.
Lucky will do everything he can to keep his brother alive, even if it means sacrificing the lives of other Recruits’ loved ones. What Lucky isn’t prepared for is his undeniable attraction to the handsome, rebellious Digory Tycho. While Lucky and Digory train together, their relationship grows. But daring to care for another Recruit in a world where love is used as the ultimate weapon is extremely dangerous. As Lucky soon learns, the consequences can be deadly…
I was never an avid reader of YA fiction, not even when I was the ‘right’ age for it. Thematically, they rarely captured my interest and imagination. However, that doesn’t mean there weren’t any – Barry Lyga’s I Hunt Killers or Aterovis’s Bleeding Hearts are just two of those I could mention. In the end, a good book is a good book – it captures your attention regardless of your age or interests. And The Culling is a good book and exceptional debut novel.
The civilization as we know it has ended in an event known as the Ash Wars and from the ashes – pun intended – emerged the Establishment, a totalitarian regime which redefines the terms cruel and bloodthirsty. The ordinary citizens live in inhuman conditions, with no plumbing or power, in polluted environment, slaving in factories or mines. The food is scant, diseases – especially Reaper’s Cough – rampant. Any suspicion of dissension or, better said, any suspicion at all leads to arrest and disappearance. But, the worst is the isolation of people from one another, maintained by fear and further fueled by yearly Recruitment Day – when five young people are forced to go through the brutal training and Trials, where not only their lives will be at stake but also the lives of their loved ones. They are Incentives, sacrifices to be ‘culled’ every time a Recruit fails. Who would you choose to die first?
Our protagonist, Lucian “Lucky” Spark, lives in this world with a sole purpose – to protect his four-year-old brother Cole. When he is betrayed by a childhood friend to whom he turned for help, he is forced to become one of the Recruits and fight for everything he holds dear in life. His situation is complicated by his growing attachment to Digory Tycho, a rebel and one of the participants. If he wants to live and save his brother, Digory and everyone else must die.
It is easy to like Lucky. In a heartless world, he kept his soul. He starts as a bit naïve, a dreamer who makes up fairy tales of better world for his brother based on a stolen (and forbidden) book. He soon learns the extent of Establishment’s cruelty though and has to learn to fight for himself, even if it’s at the expense of others. As we are constantly in his head, we get to know the other Recruits together with him. Whether it’s Cypress, tough, seemingly cold-hearted girl with disturbing past, or Gideon, smart, quiet boy who used to be bullied in school and suffers violence at home or Ophelia, in one moment giggling and naïve, in other vicious, there is much more to them than meets the eye. As we learn their stories together with Lucky, we are forced to feel everything he does towards them: sympathy, compassion, anger, fear. But, whatever they truly are, they are all used and abused by the Establishment and they will break your heart. Even Cassius, the villain of the novel, is a broken young man, trying to recapture part of his old self and failing miserably. Digory, a young rebel and Lucky’s love interest, is steadfast, kind and loyal, protective of Lucky, but he remains a mystery until the end of the novel. There is a lot we don’t know about his past, including how he got involved with the resistance. And I don’t know if we will learn them at all, since his destiny is unknown at the end of the novel.
I liked author’s writing a lot. He has an eye for the atmosphere and writes mean action scenes. But, be warned, he doesn’t hold much back. The violence is heart-stopping, gore – graphic, action – adrenaline inducing. There was a particularly horrible scene during the Trials (although, frankly, they were all pretty horrible) which made me queasy and showed the reader what happens to many ‘disappeared’. The readers should also enjoy the irony: as cruel as the Establishment is, it isn’t homophobic. The same sex marriages are recognized, same sex relationships nothing special. Though, you can count on the fact that the Establishment can use and twist any relationship between the two people.
The novel is not without flaws. Part of them stems from the fact that this is the first novel in a planned trilogy. That means many of your questions won’t be answered and, by the end of the novel, you’ll have even more of them. Since the novel was focused on Lucky, the world at large was left somewhat vague. What are the Ash Wars? Who are horror-inducing Fleshers, when even the Establishment members are afraid of them? Like I said, questions, questions. The implied triangle between Lucian, Digory and Cassius was somewhat weak. Digory’s statement that he was interested in Lucky even earlier, when they were in school, didn’t ring quite true. I would have personally preferred if the author treated the connection between him and Lucky as a new thing.
I’ve seen some readers compare The Culling with The Hunger Games. I have no reason to disbelieve them, but I haven’t read (I can already hear a collective gasp!) that book, so I can’t really confirm or deny. What I can say is that The Culling is well-written, disturbing, gritty, heart-stopping and heart-breaking dystopian novel, with subtle romance and interesting characters. Since Lucky’s (and hopefully Digory’s) story isn’t over, think of my rating as temporary. Depending on how the novel holds to the remaining two, the rating may go up, but it will certainly not be lowered.
The publishing of (yet unnamed) sequel of The Culling is planned for March 2014.