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Review by Emma Burridge
The first book in a dystopian young-adult trilogy by New York Times’ best-selling author Alexandra Bracken, The Darkest Minds depicts an America where a mysterious illness has killed the majority of the nation’s children. The survivors are met with suspicion and incarceration for, as is quickly revealed, surviving the disease which has left them with strange abilities that they cannot control. Scared for their children, parents pack them off to “rehabilitation camps” which claim to help adolescents develop restraint. It will come as little surprise to anyone who has ever read a dystopian novel that these government-run camps have their own agenda.
The story is told via the perspective of Ruby, beginning on the day she witnessed a classmate die from Everhart’s Disease or IAAN (Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration). Readers are introduced to the aftermath of this degenerative illness through Ruby’s pre-teen and, later, teenage eyes. This is where my own problems with the novel start – I feel as though I’ve read this story before; the first-person account of a teenager living through a horrific dystopia has now become a well-worn trope.
By the time The Darkest Minds was initially released in 2012, the young-adult dystopian genre had seen Districts of Panem in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, the police state Republic in Marie Lu’s Legend, and post-apocalyptic Chicago’s factions in Veronica Roth’s Divergent. Bracken’s factions are colour-based – when children enter camps they are placed into categories based on what supernatural power they exhibit signs of. This idea of societies reacting to difference by segregating sections of the population isn’t novel, by any means. In fact, as history proves, it also isn’t confined to the pages of fiction.
However, despite the fact that Ruby and her friends are on the run for most of the story, very little actually seems to happen. Instead, clumsy action sequences where the kids have near-fatal encounters with shady adults repeat themselves throughout the narrative, ultimately feeling like filler scenes while Bracken decided where her plot (and characters) were going. I’m not averse to slower-paced novels, or even ones entirely focused on character development to the detriment of any discernable plotline, but, if by 40% of the way through a book, I’m not hooked, then something is amiss with the pacing.
Although the concept at the book’s heart is fascinating, and I was intrigued by a government reacting to IAAN in the way it did, I’m just not personally convinced that a nation of parents would send their offspring to “rehabilitation camps” en-masse. Plot details like this fell flat for me, and meant I couldn’t fully buy into the dystopia Bracken was creating. It is essential that dystopias are built with believability in mind, so that readers can imagine the set of unfortunate circumstances under which their narratives could reasonably take place.
Ultimately, in a market already saturated by successful young-adult dystopias, Alexandra Bracken’s take on it in The Darkest Minds was not my cup of tea. The initial concept was intriguing enough as a base but, for me, pacing issues, plot instability, a lack of character depth, and tropes that were hit (rather than subverted) all added up to a book that, to my lasting regret, I could not even finish.