Book One of The Torch Keeper
By Steven dos Santos
Available now from Flux (Llewelyn)
I like THE CULLING. I am going to read book two of The Torch Keeper series, no question. But I'm not going to recommend it unreservedly. This is a brutal, brutal book. Sympathetic characters have terrible things happen to them, including death, and they do terrible things as well. It's violent, gruesome, and there are references to past rape and child abuse.
THE CULLING is, quite often, not a pleasant read. At the same time, it's a fast-paced thrill ride that doesn't give you much time to dwell on the moral and ethical questions posed by the story. The pleasure that comes from reading a well-crafted action novel can create quite the dissonance with the deliberate unpleasantness of The Establishment and the government's awful recruitment practice.
Lucian "Lucky" Spark is chosen as a Recruit after being betrayed by someone he trusted with his life. Recruits must compete to become part of the military and only one can join the Imposer task force. Failing also means death for two of the Recruit's loved ones - in Lucky's case, his four-year-old brother's life is on the line. But winning means causing the death of others, many of them no older or even younger than Cole.
THE CULLING has been frequently compared to THE HUNGER GAMES. And yes, there are undeniable similarities. But one of the major differences is that much more time is spent getting to know the game's players. None of Lucky's competitors are wholly unsympathetic, even if one of them does end up playing the role of the villain. In fact, they're generally likeable people. And in the case of Digory, Lucky falls in love.
I appreciated that Steven dos Santos didn't try to soften THE CULLING. Even the novel's most obvious antagonist is a traumatized young man who perceives himself as the betrayed one. The Establishment is obviously over-the-top evil, but the characters are wonderfully nuanced. The fight to keep their free will when faced with an ordeal that tries to turn them into emotionless automatons, cogs in a machine.
THE CULLING is a terrific choice for fans of THE HUNGER GAMES looking for something aimed at a slightly older audience. It's also a good choice for any dystopian fans who are looking for a series without a love triangle. (There are potential love triangles in THE CULLING, but the romances is all about Lucky and Digory.) If it's not too brutal for you, it's a good story. And I'm serious, it was almost too much for me. I finished THE CULLING very conflicted between how much I was disgusted by some parts and how much I enjoyed other aspects of the novel.