Glow (2011) adds a touch of the interstellar to the young adult post apocalypse meme. Two colony ships float through space on the way to New Earth. Old Earth (which doesn't make an appearance) is years behind, one ship, Empyrean, has a completely new generation of children - ones that have never been planet-side.
The two oldest of these children are Kieran and Waverley. At the ripe old age of almost-sixteen, these two are the heirs apparent to the ship. Waverley (beautiful, thoughtful, etc) is close to everyone's heart. Kieran (handsome, square-jawed, etc) is training to be the next Captain. More importantly, they're both post-pubescent and can feel the beady eyes of the entire ship staring at them, waiting for them to spawn the next generation of starbabies.
The book begins with the two in romantic bliss, absorbed in the quantum fickle/intense love that only teenagers can properly generate. However, their predestined/doomed relationship is interrupted by New Horizon, the other starship. New Horizon should be years away, but is suddenly looming alongside Empyrean. Apprehension turns to distrust and, eventually, fear. The crew of New Horizon storm Empyrean and steal all the female children. Waverley and Kieran are separated and each faced with their own challenges.
Waverley discovers that New Horizon is a very different atmosphere. As opposed to the relatively free-wheeling Empyrean, Waverley's new home is anachronistically theocratic. She feels a bit like Kevin Bacon's character from Footloose, with the added frisson of being kidnapped at gunpoint. The (attractive, resourceful, etc) Waverley sets about scheming her way home. With no rescue in sight, she needs to save the rest of the children and get back.
Meanwhile, back on Empyrean, Kieran and the other male children are dealing with a very different set of problems. The adults are all gone - either killed in the attack or off a-rescuin'. So the boys begin their own little society, with Kieran in the command role, trying to keep things ticking over.
For both sides of the story, Ms. Ryan slowly adds in elements of uncertainty. Waverley (beautiful, kidnapped) is clearly the victim, but as she pokes around New Horizon, she learns that her captors aren't all the monsters she assumed they were. Kieran's power struggles back on Empyrean become equally complex. As another boy, Seth, rises as Kieran's rival, our hero (handsome, committed) is forced into unconventional - and possibly unscrupulous - behaviour.
With most of the major questions, the author keeps the conclusions open-ended. As the first book in a trilogy, Glow only hints at some of the major plot points, including the mysterious fate of Old Earth and the eventual direction of New Earth. Kieran also undergoes a shocking transformation as well. The impact of this change is set to be a major plot thread for the rest of the series.
Within this book, however, Ms. Ryan disappointingly backs away from the ambiguity ledge in several places. Clear villains are identified, but then become conflicted or empathetic characters. This forces Kieran or Waverley into more difficult decisions. However, once one of our heroes commits to their path, the villain reverts to form. His or her momentary selflessness abruptly disappears and the villain bounds around like a gibbon, frothing at the mouth to boot. Although the book's major message is an appreciation of subjectivity, the megalomaniac villains do their best to undermine that at every turn. It is hard to appreciate the comparative merits of different communities when many turn out to be wrong.
Kieran is initially the less interesting character. He's so square-jawed that it is easy to understand his rival's distaste for him. He's an unquestioning little golden boy and such an obvious hero that the immediate response is to loathe him. However, by the end of the book, Kieran outshines Waverley - not in heroism, but in actual development. For better or for worse, Kieran changes. Waverley, on the other hand, begins the book beautiful, mature and all the other die-cut YA standards. And, unlike Kieran, she never reveals any flaws at all - except a sudden case of contrived gullibility in the book's final pages.
Glow is a strong - if not outstanding - example of the latest wave in thought-provoking young adult literature. It uses science fiction tropes to create improbably and dramatic scenarios, all based around testing the moral fiber of the protagonists. If the book doesn't achieve every shade of grey, it does still succeed in creating discussion - clearly one of its goals from the outset. Although currently more Space Camp than Lord of the Flies, Glow does commit to a few brave and intriguing developments, setting up the possibility that it shine much more brightly in its sequels.
By Jared (@pornokitsch) who secretly enjoyed the many descriptions of food