Every once in awhile you pick up a book that refuses to let you put it down. New World Rising by Jennifer Wilson is that book.
Knuckles white, holding my breath, I had to remind myself to look up from the harsh, bitter city of Tartarus. The bright walls of my bedroom and gentle vibrations of my purring cat felt strange after running from Ravagers with Phoenix. I thought they had us this time.
Dystopian stories are some of my favorite. However, post-apocalyptic settings have become very popular in recent years. So I was nervous to read Wilson’s novel for fear it would no longer captivate me. A lot of dystopian worlds feel repackaged these days, but I didn’t need to worry. New World Rising is fresh, raw, and enthralling. It sets itself apart from other post-apocalyptic settings because it is so terrifyingly real. Horror is not a suitable word for Wilson’s story because my screams – like Phoenix’s – never left my throat. Suspended, they festered with each harrowing description of destruction. I can see the damned city of Tartarus when I close my eyes; it’s right there, and it could be our future.
Tartarus is every modern city fallen to ruin after an undefined apocalypse. The descriptions of the fallen streets are are haunting, the decaying buildings portraits of hubris that linger as shadows of prosperity past. The contrast of the rotting city next to the gleaming, high-walled Sanctuary burns in my mind, and I cannot help but feel I have been here before. Perhaps only in a nightmare, but the Sanctuary’s mysterious perfection reminds me too much of the community from The Giver. Has Tartarus been lurking outside its walls all along? While the Sanctuary has it’s own story, I feel like I have been waiting for New World Rising even since I first read Lois Lowry’s masterpiece in fourth grade. The messages surrounding their utopia’s are similar: perfection is a myth, and evil is often a result of the choice to chase it.
More terrifying than the remains of a devastated future are the people. Many authors have touched upon the idea that the true terror of an apocalypse is not the bomb, the disease, or the zombie, but the evil that lurks within humankind. Wilson finds a way to capture this evil, slice it into pieces and serve it to the five surface gangs of Tartarus. The book begins by showing the depravity of the Ravager and Scavenger gangs. The heartbreaking, nauseating scene of destruction and death is so vile, I too rose with Phoenix from the sewer grate different and changed. You couldn’t pry the book from my hands after that scene, and whenever the Ravagers, in particular, cross Phoenix’s path, my blood ran cold. I panicked every time Wilson takes us away from one of Phoenix’s safe houses and flings her into the wild of the city, across the tops of buildings. My mind would wander to the demons that lurk in the streets below waiting to devour her and worse. The depraved violence of the gangs is familiar enough that I found myself believing this could be our world.
The survival of Phoenix in this shattered city is what drives the novel forward. Wilson’s writing is sharp and raw as we learn about how Phoenix survives in Tartarus. The complex web of safehouses, her expert navigation of the city from above, her frequent forays into ventilation systems to steal food and supplies are expertly written. Phoenix is a rogue of the future, and her survival is engaging to read. Wilson’s choice to write the story in first person adds to the intimacy of Phoenix’s tale. Our heroine’s wounded but resilient voice details the complications with her damaged past and uncertain future. These are the pages that raced by, that I devoured with a hunger to see what would happen next.
However, the middle of Wilson’s story experiences a dramatic slow down. Phoenix’s journey takes her away from the streets of Tartarus and into the tangled web of politics and revolution.
The allies Phoenix finds during this time lack the vivid definition of the city that surrounds them. Their entrances are strong, but the setting’s dynamic presence overshadows their undefined arcs. I wish Wilson had spent more time on the supporting characters even if it meant splitting her novel in two. Characters like Arden and even Archer are mysteries to me, their presence insubstantial shadows cast in the background of Phoenix’s fight for answers and peace.
These frustrations in character development have an exception: Mouse. This relationship is very well done. The psychological struggle Phoenix experiences as she acknowledges her attachment toward Mouse is both heartwarming and painful. Phoenix wants to protect Mouse because Mouse represents Phoenix’s own lost childhood. Mouse becomes one of the only people who can get past Phoenix’s hardened heart. Their interactions are emotional and genuine, and some of Wilson’s best writing.
The other supporting character who steps from the shadows and slips past Phoenix’s mental defenses is Triven. Yet, unlike her relationship with Mouse, Phoenix loses her unique spunk around Triven. Their romance in Wilson’s novel takes away from the grimness of the plot, and – instead of offering respite from the the horror – cheapens the strength of the main character. While their relationship improves once the valley of the novel passes and pressing action returns to the plot, their interactions always come across as contrived. Triven never feels tangible: he’s too good, too beautiful, too perfect for this world. His lack of scars, both physical and emotional, leave me feeling like he isn’t supposed to be in this book. Was he added as an afterthought because every dystopian novel seems to require romance? Phoenix even comments on Triven’s goodness, but her self-awareness of his monotonous perfection comes across as self-pity. This is not a good look for strong, surviving Phoenix. She never needed a man to save her until Triven came along.
Despite a bumpy middle, Wilson’s novel ends with the same bang it begins with. Bookended by suspense, the rise of the final chapters is steep enough that I forgot the dragging in the middle. I rushed along until the end, breathless again because danger and death lurk at every turn. I am rooting for Phoenix. She’s clever, resilient, and she makes mistakes. But it’s those very flaws that also make her beautiful, because they make real.
Wilson ends the novel with suspense. I turned the last page searching for more, but there was none. Phoenix’s future is left shrouded. I was lucky to have received my copy of New World Rising through my OwlCrate subscription box, and it came with a preview to Wilson’s sequel New World Ashes. I devoured that too. It’s still not enough. I need the next book yesterday. What is going to happen? How does Phoenix’s story end?
You should read this book if you are a fan of coming-of-age, young adult novels, dystopian, post-apocalyptic settings, and gritty, survival horror. I highly recommend Wilson’s novel; it’s one of the most fascinating and riveting books I’ve read in years. I cannot wait to read the rest of her trilogy, and I very much hope Wilson’s work is picked up by Netflix or HBO. Tartarus on screen would be terrifying, but perfect, and perhaps exactly what we need to see right now.