Balzer & Bray, 472 pp., $17.99, ages 14 and older
Blame Suzanne Collins if you will. But the dystopian trend in young adult fiction isn't going away. If anything, it's growing even stronger in the run-up to the movie based on her book "The Hunger Games" as publishers rush in with their Next Big Things.
Readers who enjoy headstrong feminist leads making their way through post-apocalyptic incarnations of major U.S. cities set in the not-too-distant future will find plenty to like in "Partials," the kickoff to a new young adult series from Dan Wells. Sixteen-year-old Kira Walker is living in the city of East Meadow, which readers eventually realize is Long Island, N.Y. — minus about 8 million inhabitants.
Walker is among the 40,000 survivors of the Break, an event in which a group of genetically engineered semi-humans known as Partials unleashed a virus that killed most of the human population and left survivors able to bear only children who die within 56 hours of birth. Teen pregnancy isn't just promoted in East Meadow: It's the law that women 18 and older must bear as many children as possible in the hopes that one of their babies will resist the virus and offer a cure. So far, that hasn't happened. Of the 5,000 or so babies born, none has survived.
Already, Kira understands the search for a cure isn't working. She also fears that the survivor government will soon affect her directly by lowering the enforced pregnancy age to 16 — and when her best friend finds herself with child, Kira is even more determined to figure out how to save her people. As one character says, "Curing [the virus] is the realm of magical pixies.…It's impossible."
But Kira, who works as a medic, is determined. Leveraging her access to a medical lab, she pores over available data and conducts virus research on her own. Eventually, Kira realizes that human subjects aren't enough. What she really needs is to study a Partial, so she sets out to catch one.
If there's any thread to the expanding dystopian canon, it's authors' inventiveness in characterizing America's degraded future. In "Partials," transportation is via horse or electric car. Electricity is scarce and solar-generated. There's an abundance of places to live, clothing to wear and vehicles to drive, though much of it bears evidence of the Break. Cars are abandoned in the middle of streets, their skeletonized drivers still behind the wheel.
When the action moves to Manhattan, the details are even more shocking. The city is rigged with explosives the humans set up after the war to keep away the Partials, so it's empty. Panthers are more common than people, and kudzu is creeping up the high-rises.
There is a lot of military maneuvering and bloodshed in "Partials," and Wells' writing is detailed and action-oriented as groups of soldiers and medics go on various missions. Much to her boyfriend's chagrin, Kira successfully captures a Partial. She also befriends him and learns more than she bargained for about the Partials, herself and her government.
Reading "Partials" requires especially careful attention. There are a lot of characters to memorize and so many factions vying for power that it's sometimes difficult to keep their motives straight. There are humans like Kira and her friends trying to secure a future. But there's also the East Meadow government, which wants order; the Voice, a group of humans who want to overthrow the government; Partials, who may or may not want peace; and random renegades just trying to survive.
Partials may be the enemy, but they are also a metaphor for living between states of absolute knowing, where allegiances are constantly shifting. The book ends with a cliffhanger that sets up the next installment, which will probably explore the emerging love triangle between Kira, her boyfriend and the Partial, as well as the evil doings of ParaGen — the corporation that invented Partials. Complicated but intriguing, "Partials" is a solid story about loyalty, trust and the interdependence of species that sparks enough curiosity that readers will probably want to see this series through to its end.