Sanctuary by Caryn Lix

5/10 A jail with alien braille and an attractive male

While super powers have never been a favourite plot device of mine, I have always been up for a bit of space opera and dystopia, and the idea of a novel set on a prison in space with one of its guards as a protagonist was certainly one that got my attention.

The story is told entirely from the first person perspective of 17 year old Kenzie Cord; a junior prison guard on the space station Sanctuary. Like her parents, Kenzie has always been a loyal citizen of Omnistellar Concepts, the corporation which controls most of the world’s law enforcement, after all she knows that being a corporate citizen provides her and her family wealth, status and luxury way beyond what is available to government citizens in their crime ridden, run down government cities. 50 years ago the probes came, imbuing the next generation with various special abilities, and Sanctuary serves as a prison for some of the most dangerous, teenage criminals with super powers. Fortunately, with usual corporate efficiency, the station is so heavily controlled by one AI, that it can be staffed with only six human guards including Kenzie and her parents, after all each prisoner has a chip to suppress their powers and the AI’s control of the prison’s routine is absolute. During a standard drill however, Kenzie finds herself unexpectedly taken hostage by a group of prisoners bent on escape. Though she is initially calm, having faith in Omnistellar and the efficiency of the system, Kenzie quickly finds her faith being shaken, particularly when it turns out the prisoners are far from the monsters she expected them to be. Real monsters however are on the way, savage alien creatures with a horrifying agender of their own, forcing Kenzie to band together with the former prisoners in order to survive.

One of the most interesting things about Sanctuary, is that it explores its dystopian setting with reference to a protagonist who is both quite naïve, and yet almost entirely unlikable. While Kenzie’s company loyalty is understandable given the intensively “patriotic” upbringing she had from her parents, at the same time, her smug claims about how good it was to be a corporate citizen rather than a government citizen, and her total lack of concern for the unfairness of the world she lived in as well as her patriotism towards a corporation, were nicely shocking.

That being said, Lix social commentary here about our own world was a little too obvious, from corporate control and lack of concern for human life or poverty, to data protection and surveillance, even Bradbury gets a nod in the mention of Omnistellar having a “banned books list”, which includes works that portray corporations in a bad light.

While I approve of Lix’s social conscience, at the same time, the world building did feel more like simply listing modern concerns, rather than actually extrapolating from those concerns in an interesting or unique way. This unfortunately was contributed to by the book’s writing style.

Lix style is brief to the point of bare bones, often simply telling us what goes on in plain, unornamented prose without a nod for atmosphere. While this does make for a fast pace and makes the book very readable, at the same time, it often cheapens a lot of the more social concerns and likely contributed to Kenzie being slightly more self-obsessed than Lix possibly intended.

Lix style also provided problems for character, in that it was possible to see what elements of the plot or which characters would be important simply by virtue of how much they were described, indeed, the fact that the first character we receive any physical description of is a handsome, shirtless Taiwanese boy prisoner Kenzie is ogling through a security camera was almost a little worrying.

On the other hand, when Kenzie meets up with the prisoners, their back story and details do provide a more nuanced picture of the world, and Lix was able to add a little depth to some of the characters, such as the violent and troubled Mia, or the scared telepath Tyler. In particular Rune, said Taiwanese boy’s sister was incredibly likable, indeed rather nicer than Kenzie herself.

Unfortunately, with such a brief writing style, Kenzie’s redemption from the sway of complete corporate loyalty is so quick as to make Kenzie appear more than a little fickle, and that even before Lix starts giving overly obvious reasons for Kenzie to mistrust Omnistellar concepts, such as finding a scared ten year old girl in one of the prison blocks or hearing about some not so surprisingly nasty company actions.

This was a shame, since the relationship between Kenzie as a confused hostage and her mother as station commander and eternally loyal to the company could’ve been an interesting one to explore, if Lix hadn’t ensured that by the time the prisoners are in negotiation Kenzie was already well and truly Stockholm syndromed.

Fortunately, the second half of the book moves almost abruptly away from the corporate loyalty angle and straight into horror territory, with nasty beasties and lots of unexpected action.

I was pleased here that Lix didn’t take the easy way  around with reference to super powers, indeed I rather appreciated the fact that several of the powers, such as Mia’s invisibility were pretty useless (the aliens being blind). Here was also where several of the characters were able to go beyond their relatively standard roles, with Mia showing she had a lot of depths other than being a violently mean girl, and the Russian giant Alexei giving a little more personality than just being strong and silent. The book even features one of those rare creatures , a basically nice guy, though sadly Kenzie’s love interest Cage doesn’t really go beyond being an amazingly charismatic leader and awesome bad boy thief; he even has tattoos, indeed I am a little sorry the relationship between Cage and his sister Rune wasn’t explored a little more as it was the thing that made Cage more human and likable despite Kenzie’s obsession with his lean muscular body.

Then again, I will give Lix credit for the fact that it seemed Cage and Kenzie got on as friends and had the potential to like each other rather than being yet another romance based on love at first snide, there was even a bit of cuddling which might have been pleasant to read about if I were a bit more invested in the characters. Indeed, in many ways I was more interested in the relationships of the secondary cast (particularly the kindly Rune), than I was in Kenzie’s.

The horror progression was carried at a good pace, with nasty screams, cliff-hangers bookending each chapter, unseen aliens, and information revealed slowly. In particular I was rather amused that since the aliens were sightless, they had some quite interesting technology, such as a computer which had the supposedly strange alien function to display information in raised braille like letters that (shock horror), shifted and changed to show different things like visual letters on a screen. Rather odd considering my lady (who is herself blind), has a braille display device for her own computer upstairs, but of course she might just be an alien.

I also appreciated that for the most part superpowers were used sparingly, though I did have to wince slightly when speedster Cage was able to carry Kenzie in his manly arms on several occasions. Indeed, one plotline concerning powers, a plotline I guessed at the start of the book took quite an unexpected direction.

The problem however is once again Lix’s ever brief writing style got in the way of things truly developing beyond a surface level. Having a chapter end with an alien crashing through the door is definitely a way to keep a reader’s interest, however there needs to be a little more by way of atmosphere than just telling us that an alien crashed through the door, which Lix does on many occasions. Even in lean young adult books like the Hunger Games, there were some clever turns of phrase, occasional notes to horror and some attempts at making us feel, rather than just see the action. Sadly, with no time spared on the atmosphere, alien attacks, attempts at tension and flesh creeping revelations were simply tramped through at standard pace.

This also unfortunately made Kenzie seem a little flaky, especially with her thoughts tending to be fluffy feelings for her sudden group of new friends (with the exception of Mia), and her attraction to the ever gorgeous Cage. Indeed Kenzie seems to take the invasion of alien predators pretty much as calmly as she did the previous prisoner escape, which doesn’t particularly encourage us to worry about them either.

Where Lix did succeed in my concern for situations of horror was usually through the lens of other characters, particularly those like Rune, Tyler and Mia who seemed more actually bothered by the situation than Kenzie.

In fairness Lix (or Kenzie), does acknowledge that her and Cage’s instant attraction is a little incongruous, much as she also comments how odd it is to go from happy corporate citizen to girl on the run in less than a day, however noting inequities in plotting or character motivation isn’t the same as smoothing them out.

Where Lix did manage to make me feel something was more through the reactions of the secondary characters, indeed in a lot of ways I feel closer to Rune, since she was generally far more compassionate and less self-obsessed than Kenzie, plus she seemed more affected by what went on around her.

The book didn’t exactly feature a major conclusion, though several fatalities did take me by surprise, albeit its attempt at a moral quandary was undercut rather rapidly. Then again, I got the strong idea that this wasn’t so much a first volume as a first chapter and so wasn’t exactly intended to have a full climax, just to lead on to the next book.

Unfortunately, my overbearing feeling about Sanctuary is simply meh. Take a lot of expected elements in a YA novel. A naïve but tough female protagonist, social commentary through a heavily corporate dystopia, mentions of manga, gaming and data protection, a group of teens with their individual superpowers in an isolated location and a tattooed bad boy love interest.

This isn’t bad in itself, but with no stylistic grace Lix undercut any possibly interesting feelings or developments before they happened, including way under using the horror setting.

This is not to say Sanctuary was entirely terrible, in many ways it was comfortable, easy going and nice for a bit of random action and romance. The problem is, novels like The Maze Runner have perhaps taught me to expect a little more even from the YA genre. Still, I will likely be going on to the second volume, if nothing else because I know it’ll be a pleasant trip into space perhaps with more homicidal aliens.

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