At long last, I’ve come to my last book of the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC) Semifinals. In front of me is Age of Order by Julian North, a young adult dystopian novel that sliced through any hint of subgenre fatigue to garner one of the top positions from its first round judges.
Age of Order stars Daniela Machado, a track star from Bronx City who receives a generous scholarship to attend an elite Manhattan private school—one whose first-class research laboratories may provide her the opportunity to study the mysterious illness that threatens her brother’s life. But while she expected the scorn from classes full of wealthy designer babies, her transfer puts her right in the thick of dangers far more insidious than she could’ve dreamed.
If you’ve read a few YA dystopias, you can probably read that plot summary and know pretty well what to expect. It’s a subgenre that’s been well-trod over the last decade or so, and Age of Order isn’t here to reinvent the wheel. But not seeking to transform the subgenre doesn’t mean that it can’t do excellent work within it, and Age of Order does just that.
We open with the elements you’d expect—a uniquely talented girl from an underprivileged background who finds herself rubbing shoulders with the elite—but presented in a way that draws the reader into the story. We see firsthand the results of aggressive policing and the way that the residents of Bronx City are walled off from so many resources. They aren’t even allowed in Manhattan without special approval! We see the ideals that animate her revolutionary brother, but also the dangers he faces from the existing power structure and from his own body. And all of it is told in a compelling style that brings the reader to sympathize with the lead.
And then she transfers, and the injustice of the world is joined by the mysteries of why she was chosen, what the headmaster expects from her, and whether she can really trust the small group of outsides—albeit quite rich ones—seeking to befriend her. And all of it is well-told. Again, there’s nothing really transformative here, but if you’re looking for a quality YA dystopia, you get one. Veteran readers won’t have much trouble predicting a few of the plot twists, but there are others that aren’t quite so telegraphed, and every single development is expertly set up by the story that came before.
There are a few things that prevented me from totally falling in love with the story, but a lot of them just come with the territory. Some of the frankness in the discussion of what should be done with the lower classes is extremely over-the-top, and I might prefer villains who are do a better job convincing themselves and others that they’re acting for the good—though at the same time, it does highlight just how much dehumanization has already happened. The main protagonist is more than a bit overpowered, but that also comes with the territory in this sort of story. My biggest complaint that isn’t just about the subgenre is that the main villain just seems more flat than some of the secondary antagonists, and it leads to a climax that feels perfunctory after the impressive power of what came before. That and the pop culture references that can just be a hair too much at times.
But while my complaints may hold Age of Order out of five-star territory, they sure didn’t prevent me from enjoying the read. It’s an engaging, easy-to-read story with a likable protagonist, humanizing (if unsubtle) social commentary, and some real power in the finish, especially in the penultimate climax. I know a lot of readers are tired of young adult dystopias, but if you enjoy the subgenre, this should be a winner.
Recommended if you like: dystopian young adult SFF.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s Self-Published and features Family Matters and a Revolution or Rebellion.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.
SPSFC Score: 7.5/10 for my personal score. We will await results from the other judges before announcing an official team score.