*Major story spoilers to follow; you’ve been warned.*
Margaret Fortune’s young adult, science fiction debut novel, Nova, opens with a bang – or at least the promise of one. Lia Johansen is sixteen, a refugee, and a human bomb.
Author: Margaret Fortune • Publisher: DAW • Released: 2016
Reading the exposition of Lia’s story, written in close-first person narration, I felt gripped by impending doom. Fortune’s incipit drags me into the story, sits me down in front of this lost, sixteen-year-old girl, and offers me four simple sentences of certainty:
“My name is Lia Johansen, and I was a prisoner of war. Taken when Aurora Colony fell, I lived in an internment camp for two years along with ten thousand other civilian colonists. My parents died in front of me from starvation and sickness. And I wept for them.”
Then she rips that all away: “Or did I?” Lia isn’t even Lia: she’s a genetically human engineered bomb. Everyone is going to die.
I don’t breathe during chapters one through five. The action pulls me forward as an invisible spectator strapped to the girl whose purpose is death by detonation. Lia is forced to act as if nothing is wrong like she is a normal sixteen-year-old girl during her arrival and stay at New Sol Space Station. Except, something is wrong. A prickling fear creeps from the pages as I learn Lia doesn’t remember anything beyond her primary purpose and that she should fear the psychic, “PsyCorps” soldiers. Fortune’s tone of impending doom clouded by confusion and doubt commits me to see Lia’s fate though. I’m hooked before Lia’s internal countdown clock starts ticking, but the moment it starts, my heart rate jumps; there are only 36 hours left!
Can I scream yet?
All this action is set in a clear landscape of the future. The clinical atmosphere Fortune conjures reminds me of traditional science fiction space stations with descriptions of cold metal architecture, seamless technological infusion, and overtones of a militaristic, authoritarian government. Fortune uses plain language when describing New Sol Space Station referring to “docks,” “outposts,” “zones,” and “hubs,” and favoring numbers over names. Excessive use of color to describe setting is absent, casting the world in muted grays, blues, blacks, and whites. Instead, Fortune focuses on structure and movement as seen in her description of Lia’s first experience on the station’s lift gates:
“The platform is surrounded on three sides by waist-high glass walls. The crowd shrinks as the lift bears us up and away. We pass the thick metal divider that serves as both the floor and the ceiling, and then we’re gliding into Level Six, which looks similar to Seven, but without the crowd or roped-off areas.”
The result is a tangible space station I can replicate in my mind and use to track Lia’s movements as she settles into life on New Sol Space Station following her malfunction. I am only pulled out of the immersive setting of Nova when Fortune employs new slang terms in her character’s dialogue that never really deliver. Words like “slag,” “glitch,” and phrases such as “seal your airlock,” feel clunky to read. Etymology changes are tough, and Fortune’s under-researched additions feel ingenuine and pulpy.
Lia’s countdown clock stops at the end of chapter four, early in the novel, due to a malfunction in her settings that causes her clock to stop with only seconds left. Unfortunately, the momentum stops too. The middle half of the book moves away from the action of the beginning and finds a slogging pace as Fortune decides to describe Lia’s struggles with deception and doubt through a manufactured romance dripping with teenage angst. All young adult novels seem to include a romantic interest. Sometimes I wonder if the young adult genre shouldn’t be renamed the “young adult romance genre” as adolescent hormones invade even young adult stories about intergalactic wars and living as a genetically engineered human bomb. Isn’t the prospect of exploding at any moment, killing everyone you’ve met enough drama for one book?
The beginning chapters of Nova make it clear this is a young adult novel first and a speculative novel second. Lia’s increasingly predictable voice swoons early in the story saying:
“Whoever he is. It’s just…I don’t want him to let go of my wrists. I don’t want him to stop looking at me.”
Uh-oh. The “him” in question is Lia’s friend Michael, a childhood buddy she does not remember until much later when her memories reload. Michael’s interest in Lia is simple: they used to play together as children on the playground, and he’s glad to see her again. However, Michael expects Lia to be the exact same girl he played tag with almost ten years ago despite knowing Lia experienced the loss of her parents and just spent years as a prisoner of war. His confusion and coldness when Lia acts differently adds to Lia’s internal struggle that she’s lying to people who care about her: a central theme of the book. I think Michael is a bore and a bully whose feelings get hurt when Lia doesn’t respond the way he wants her to. But he’s cute. So, while Fortune’s leading man never leaves the flat pages, his character arc continues the typical kind but clueless trope of young adult romantic interests.
Lia falls into trope as well. While her initial confusion, uncertainty, and shyness are understood, considering the context of her existence, she experiences little growth. Lia’s voice leaves me disappointed and feeling like I’ve read her story before. Oh wait, I have. Every young adult heroine is plain, uncertain, and waiting for a boy to affirm her identity and confidence. Her personality quirks are tame – how dare we write interesting, flawed women – and Lia’s voice is passive, her reactions those of a secondary character in a nameless mob rather than the heroine the title leads us to believe.
The bulk of Nova follows Lia’s thoughts as she considers and reconsiders the same exhausted themes of deception and doubt and how they affect her relationship with Michael. Lia muses:
“Ever since hearing Teal’s dad refer to me as Michael’s girlfriend, I haven’t been able to think of anything else when I’m around him.”
Nothing else? Not the ticking bomb in her body that can explode at any second, killing everyone she’s come to care about? Apparently, such trivial concerns are secondary to first kisses under starry skies.
I can’t help my disappointment from coloring the rest of Fortune’s story. Real women and girls are strapped to bombs every day by terrorist organizations and used to kill loved ones and innocent people. The emotional and moral complexities of this situation are right there, but Fortune ignores them in favor of tired teenage angst and will-they-or-won’t they clichés. I understand the content constraints of young adult novels, but if adolescents can read stories about Nazi Germany in Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, or grapple with soul-sucking dementors in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, they can absolutely palette the complexities of war crimes. I find the choice to focus the theme of deception on Lia’s relationship with Michael over the deception of living as a human bomb on a space station full of innocent refugees disingenuous to the reader. The novel is not marketed as a young adult romance but as a speculative fiction novel; I feel deceived as a reader.
This brings me to the end. With little warning, the sloshing middle drops out from under me, and in a freefall, it reveals everything: Spectres, conspiracy, and Lia’s true origin, not as a clone or robot, but as living, breathing, consenting Lia. They thrust this dump of information upon me through sloppy “blurting” dialogue that tumbles out all the answers before whisking Lia off to die. She’s not a human bomb, after all, but a message meant to reveal the real threat and hopefully save the world.[With little warning, the sloshing middle drops out from under me, and in a freefall, everything is revealed: Spectres, conspiracy, and Lia’s true origin, not as a clone or robot, but as living, breathing, consenting Lia. This dump of information is thrust upon me through sloppy “blurting” dialogue that tumbles out all the answers before whisking Lia off to die. She’s not a human bomb, after all, but a message meant to reveal the real threat and hopefully save the world.
Lia explodes, but I will be shocked if she doesn’t return in the sequel.
Still, I hold my breath during the ending. I keep waiting for Michael to rush in at the final hour with all the answers. He doesn’t. Fortune’s choices are surprising after the predictable middle, but I still feel empty about Lia. Her bland personality prevents me from forming any lasting attachments, and I cannot see myself returning for the later books in the series.
You should read this book if: you’re a fan of young adult science fiction or young adult romance. The novel is accessible for younger readers, and the content is PG at best. However, Nova might feel a little stale for older readers used to reading speculative fiction that isn’t afraid of tackling difficult topics – or using curse words instead of fluffy new slang. While the premise of Fortune’s novel offers a lot of promise, the middle half fizzles into predictable young adult trope, and the ending isn’t enough to rescue my interest in these characters. When I close the books, it’s hard to feel anything more than relief that the countdown clock is finally done ticking.
For a story about a human bomb, I expected a bigger bang.