In the world of YA fiction, the paranormal romances Twilight inspired have recently been replaced by an outbreak of dystopian fiction – with Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games leading the way and Scott Westerfield’s Uglies and Ally Condie’s Matched close behind. Catherine Stine’s Fireseed One taps into this trend, although its slightly retro cover signals she is steeped in traditional sci-fi and not just an arriviste to the genre.
Also differentiating it from those other recent hits is the fact that the lead character is male – 18-year old Varik – although he is soon joined by the feisty Marisa Baron. The novel is set in 2089, with the US a lethal ‘Hotzone’ full of ‘refugees’ who the propaganda channel known as ‘the stream’ insists are dangerous. Varik’s father, a marine biologist, has been murdered leaving his son in charge of his sea-farm and valuable seed-banks, which are the world’s main food supply. When he catches Marisa stealing seeds and his crops are struck with the plague, Varik sets off with her on a quest that leads him into the Hotzone to find the ‘fireseed’ his father is rumoured to have created, learning along the way that the lines between good and evil are more blurred than he thought.
The vision of the future Stine creates – of a world divided into have and have-nots by climate change and utterly dependent on GM crops – is convincing. The book has a strong satirical slant, with interesting things to say both about the way the media demonises refugees and how advertising penetrates every corner of our lives – each news update from ‘the stream’ ends with an ironic sponsor’s ad, devastating news of riots being: ‘brought to you by Restavik Chophouse, where the boar is better than home-grilled and the ladies drink free on Saturdays.’
The writing is strong, using the present tense to create freshness and full of vivid verbs. It is the little, specific details that make this world so three-dimensional. In the first few pages we get the horrific, cinematic image of Varik’s father’s corpse (‘famished viperfish had gouged his hands’), along with tender details that really nail the father-son bond (‘I’ll miss our docksides fish fries, our midnight boat rides…our poker games for abalone.) Varik’s trendy friend Audun has a ‘shark-tooth earring’. A firestorm burns the sky with ‘molten arteries of light.’ Stine has also created a believable slang for the teenagers, with Varik exclaiming ‘yummo’, ‘fry me’ and ‘burn it’.
I do think there’s one plot hole – if the entire world is dependent on Agar as a food-source, why would it be left in the hands of one nice, ordinary seeming biologist and then his disinterested 18-year old son? This was, ultimately, a bit unconvincing – especially when Varik leaves the last feeble Agar plant in the hands of his best mate who seems more interested in baking scones. A brutal regime which uses propaganda to stamp out sympathy for the starving would surely be a bit more hands-on about its supply chain!
Along with other touches such as Varik’s pet dolphin Juko and the rather naïve illustrations, this meant that for me, ultimately, this didn’t feel like a fully developed dystopia that I’d recommend to grown-ups. It’s a great young adult book though, with a sweet central romance and lots of inventive thrills.
Reviewed by Evie Glass
Available in Kindle format
Find out more about Catherine Stine here