A friend of mine recently lent me Partials by Dan Wells, and it was a book I was rather eager to try. Not only because I had enjoyed the only other book I'd read by Dan Wells, the wonderfully silly gothic farce Night of Blacker Darkness, but also because the world and setting of Partials intrigued me as a very unique take on apocalyptic dystopia. A society of the last 20,000 people in America (or possibly the world), survivors of a war with genetically created soldiers living together on Long Island where all women were required by law to be pregnant, but where all babies die a few minutes after birth due to the Rm virus.
I find that while straight off apocalyptic fiction doesn't interest me as much nowadays as it did when I was once captivated by John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (since after all there are only so many things you can do with humans fighting for food and shelter or being munched by the zombie hoard), I find this sort of post apocalypse dystopian setting much more interesting, seeing the world a few years after the disaster, what efforts have been made with respect to recovery or not, what new societies and customs arise and what sort of people inhabit it.
Though I was aware Partials was nominally aimed at a young adult audience I was still therefore expecting something thoughtful to a degree, and something which showed a little of the creative style Wells had shown in his other work.
When I began the book, I was therefore not disappointed. The first scene is a shocking infant death and distraught mother (a scene that rather made me feel for the friend who'd lent me the book given she read it while expecting a baby herself). We then learn more details of this tense, empty world, like the fact that nobody has to worry about clothing since there is more than enough loot to go around, the wonderful mix of technology and skills from wood cooking fires to ultra-advanced music players and the strange social setup where nobody lives with their biological parents, and where the youngest person in the world is 14.
As the book progressed however, I found myself becoming ever less satisfied. The plot moves extremely slowly, and though intriguing details are introduced, Wells shies away from showing the real implications. For example, though we are told all women must be pregnant by law (possibly artificially), only one character in the entire book is actually pregnant, and indeed even with her Wells steers clear of describing any of her experiences of pregnancy beyond her fear for losing her baby to the virus. Indeed my friend actually wondered how much Wells really knew about pregnancy given that a world where most of the female population are pregnant most of the time should by rights be a decidedly dysfunctional one.
Likewise, while we are introduced to the idea of terrorist (or possibly freedom fighter) factions among the humans who disagree with the government's draconian measures, they are only explored in a very cursory way.
The major problem with the book however is in its characters and pacing. Wells seems to interpret a young adult novel as to mean that all his characters should be 16-17. The problem however is this creates a wild imbalance. Firstly by the fact that all of his major characters are pretty much one note affairs, the aggressive girl, the pregnant one, the stubborn boyfriend, the pig headed idealistic one, the girly manipulative one, but also that this entire society comes across as rather stupid just to make Kira, the book's protagonist, seemingly more awesome despite the amount of rather stat teenaged angst she goes through. For example, the way that in a society of supposedly 20,000 people Kira and her friends are all able to get instant access to the people in government is quite astounding. Even Kira's supposedly brilliant ideas and biochemical genius never to me particularly felt special, mostly through a combination of Wells total lack of understanding of biochemistry (not to mention his extremely simplistic explanations of same), his use of advanced technology which makes hunting for viruses more like looking for items in a computer game, and the fact that Kira’s supposed brainwave in the book, of looking for the virus solution by examining the Partials, is one which really should've occurred to someone before this given that supposedly the worlds' top scientists were looking at the problem for the previous 15 years.
I will say in Wells' favour there are several moments he promises a far darker, less simplistic story. I loved the debate about whether in fact the government's draconian laws were right, and Kira's actual decision to experiment on a living Partial, particularly interesting given that when we first meet one of the Partials they do come across as rather scary and not exactly human. The problem however is that after proposing these sorts of complex moral decisions, Wells instantly goes down the path of least resistance, instantly changing all his shades of grey into black and white, a very disappointing move for a setup which really should be emphasising real human interactions with its emphasis on such basic human experiences as pregnancy.
Wells prose is also rather disappointing, meaning that scenes and landscapes which should by rights have been evocative, such as a jungle swamped New York city or the first tense meeting with a platoon of Partials are simply plodded through with no allusion, rhythm or ornament, indeed "plodding" describes the pace of much of the novel and I found myself frequently wishing we could dispense with the wanderings through ruins and clunky dialogue to get on with revealing more of the wider world, since the few hints we get such as what is happening to the Partials really sound intriguing, indeed it is for this reason that I do intend to read the other books in the series since even though getting there was a slog Wells does manage to end the book on a distinct note of mystery, and promise more intriguing revelations of the world.
With a rather flat protagonist and characters, a clunky, arrhythmic style, a plodding pace and a failure to deliver any sort of dramatic tension on its humanistic questions or dilemmas, Partials over all I found disappointing, indeed it is quite a contrast with the only other book I’ve ever seen which deals with a future world vastly affected by a change in birth rate, P D James dark and quietly grim Children of Men. What however saves it from being entirely negative are those times which Wells actually does devote attention to the world he has created, since if nothing else Wells concept is truly unique and I only hope later in the series he's able to explore it more completely than he does here.
The human race is all but extinct after a war with Partials—engineered organic beings identical to humans—has decimated the population. Reduced to only tens of thousands by RM, a weaponized virus to which only a fraction of humanity is immune, the survivors in North America have huddled together on Long Island while the Partials have mysteriously retreated. The threat of the Partials is still imminent, but, worse, no baby has been born immune to RM in more than a decade. Our time is running out.
Dan Wells is probably not the household name he should be. Yet. I have recently finished his John Cleaver series (where I handed out my first perfect score), and this series has convinced me to read anything and everything by Wells without reservation. In his latest outing, Wells has decided to tackle Young Adult Dystopia with Partials, the first book of the Partials Sequence. This book is quite different to his John Cleaver series, it is very slow to start with, but it is a book that rewards perseverance.
Partials is set in a post apocalyptic world, the United States having built an army of self aware androids known as Partials to win their "Isolation" war. Sick of taking horrendous losses under the oppressive human command, the Partials rebelled, creating a genetic virus to wipe out the world's human population. The human race is barely surviving, all babies die within minutes of being born, the threat of the Partials coming to finish them off is wearing everyone down, the community is starting to fracture.
The story follows Kira, a young girl almost of birthing age, who has seen too many babies die and will stop at nothing to cure this virus. All research avenues have been exhausted long ago, but Kira has a brainwave - the Partials are immune! But Kira is young, the Partials are dangerous, and the government will not support an act of aggression that may lead to another war with the Partials.
I really liked this story, and the bleak background it was set against. Wells has gone to a lot of effort and research to get the science right, and it more than pays off throughout the story. The writing allows you to understand the plight of these people, to feel for them, to root for them in their attempt to find a cure that will end their agony. Layered onto this is the breakdown of the community in factions, the threat of civil war between these factions and the government, and the threat of the Partials deciding to finish the extermination they started years ago.
Wells takes advantage of his world building to craft a well plotted, straight forward medical mystery. Well, straight forward until Wells starts to layer after layer of twists and turns, turning this story into an action adventure, conspiracy theory, medical mystery. Things are quite slow in the first third of this book, Wells taking a lot of care crafting this world and explaining the science, but once everything is established Wells starts to build momentum almost effortlessly, the pages melting away on the back of some clever action sequences and some cool "a ha!" moments where I figured out some big revelations just a few lines before Wells revealed them.
While the plot and setting were well crafted, I really struggled to connect with the characters. They were all very well constructed, they all had layers of complexity, motivations that made sense, but I just didn't like their personalities. I normally like a stubborn and unreliable protagonist like Kira, but she came across as a whiny caricature of a stereotypical modern teenage girl, made to look strong when contrasted against the stupid adults in the community. This is a personal thing, and it's probably because I'm not in the target audience, so if you are able to connect with these characters you will absolutely love them.
Partials is an accomplished addition to the YA dystopia genre. This is a complex world full of sciency goodness, and Wells communicates it in a clear and accurate way so that he can build momentum towards an electric conclusion. This should be an enjoyable challenge for the young adult audience, while for adults, if you are able to connect with these characters, you will have a great time reading this book.
Ryan Lawler, 8.3/10
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