September 20, 2011

Turning Pages: TANKBORN by Karen Sandler

When he said nothing, Kayla pressed her point. "Then when?" she asked. "When is the dividing line? When is the DNA surely human? When is it not?"

Time for a truly fabulous entry into the Turning Pages compendium.

Y'know, here at the Wonderland Tree, we are big time supporters of both Lee & Low Multicultural Books, and their fabbity new imprint for multicultural science fiction and fantasy, Tu Books. We were there for the Kickstart, when Tu Books was Tu Publishing, all on its own, and are taking a lot of joy and pride in reading and reviewing their first releases on NetGalley (this is from whence we received our .pdf ARC, FCC, thank you). It's a privilege to read fantasy and science fiction which incorporates characters with brown skin -- and intelligent and complex hard science fiction/dystopia with multicultural characters and intricate worldbuilding? Oh, yes, please. Tankborn is a mesmerizing, gulp-it-in-one-sitting-then-sit-stunned, deftly characterized, multilayered novel which has a lot to say. I imagine that teen readers will savor it.

Reader Gut Reaction: Beautiful cover? Check. Intricate storyline? Check. High stakes, romance, intrigue, and bittersweet ending? Check, check, check. Arresting and nuanced, this novel can easily crossover for adult audiences. The depth of concepts presented in story will provide brain stimulation for the thinky -- plus: romance! While I wasn't as interested in the romance bit -- I was all about the science -- it is well done, and will add just that extra bit of a hook for readers who love that sort of thing.

Look, nothing I say will convince you as fully as reading this that the novel is worthy of your time. So, go on already!

Concerning Character: While the Trueborn paid their way from a hurricane flood ravaged Earth, the lowborn were indentured and worked for their passage on the ships from Earth to Loka. It was only when the Tankborn were removed from their artificial wombs that the lowborn's debts were canceled. They the lowborn choose how to live their lives, who to marry, what to do with their time, and where to work. Yet for the Tankborn there is no such reprieve. They exist in eternal servitude, nurturing the children given to them or remaining childless, going where they are sent, away from nurturing family units and friends.

Under the scrutiny of the Trueborn, Tankborn do what they're told until their bodies give out -- or else. Because, the Tankborn are GENs - genetically modified humans, who have fewer rights and no privacy. With her muddy brown hair and skin and the intricate dermal-interface tattoo adoring the side of her face, it's easily apparent what Kayla is -- and her brother Jal, and her nuturemother, too. They live on the GEN side of the city, rely on both an annexed brain and a "bare" one, and, despite the law of the Humane Edicts, are monitored through their sub-neural circuitry by the Trueborn -- whose children are given land and status, and really, anything they want. Even the lowborn have more than the GENs -- they might be poor and landless, but they're not treated as slaves.

"Work makes you safe," Kayla is taught in the Doctrine (eerily and I'm sure deliberately close to the words on the walls at Auschwitz, "Arbeit macht frei" - work creates freedom). As she awaits receiving the Assignment which will direct her life's path, Kayla hopes that this is true, that faithful service will indeed see her, and her best friend Mishalla, safe in the Infinite's hands. Kayla knows that the Tankborn must know their place, and stick to it. But, what if you feel you're more than the Doctrine tells you that you are? Then where do you belong?

When a Trueborn saves Kayla and Jal from being hassled by another highborn boy, it's only the first time their paths are destined to cross. As she spends more and more time with Devak, she feels a pull toward him that both worries and angers her. He's a privileged, clueless Trueborn -- no tattoo, no monitoring, and anything he wants at his fingertips. He acts as if she should be glad he's around. But, why should she? Indeed, why is she?? It's not in the Infinite's plan for them to have anything to do with each other... is it?

Kayla's liturgy, Doctrine, and understanding of her place in the Infinite's plan stands on shaky ground when she catches a glimpse beyond her eternal servitude, and sees that all is not as she was taught. Something horrible is happening - children of the lowborn are disappearing. The brutality of the Brigade is escalating, and somehow, Devak and his ailing grandfather, Zul, is involved. What happens if Kayla's life is not at all a divine plan... but man-made? What happens if there's truly a choice? Is there a way for love to win?

Themes & Things: Echoing the privations of the British poor, African slaves of the Victorian era, and the lower-caste of South Asia in the early 19th century, written communication between the Tankborn is illegal. The Tankborn can be monitored on the Grid at any time, and if they are outside of their radius or legally allowed territory, they can and will be taken up by the Brigade, and reset -- their minds wiped, and a new sket, or skill set applied to the flesh of the rebellious body, so as not to waste resources. If a GEN dies, the Brigade is also on hand to harvest their organs, muscles and skin into stem cells, useful for the creation of other artificial embryos to be stuck in the tank and grown.

The Tankborn are links in a chain, and part of the vast machinery that fuels the world of the Trueborn on the Svarga Continent -- but not because of the color of their skin, or the region of their birth -- but because their blood is mixed with that of elephants or dolphins or gorillas, which was supposed to make them "better." But maybe it's just because the Trueborn have created these "jiks," with tremendous strength and nurturing and speed and balance -- and have become afraid.

Themes of personal and racial freedoms are HUGE in this book - rights to privacy, data monitoring, and other modern concepts are tumbled in with the older themes of slavery, class, and racial -- the Human race -- identity.

As the story closes, these concepts will echo in your brain:
What is it that makes us human?
What happens when we apply the one-drop rule to genetic modification?
Does someone with a pacemaker still count as fully human, or partially automaton? How many ways will the upper classes use to justify creating a servant class?

And is it already happening?

AVAILABLE NOW: You can find TANKBORN at an independent bookstore near you!


Yat-Yee said...

Wow. I don't know if I remember another time when you had such unreserved praise for a book. Must read now.

Go Tu!

Sarah Stevenson said...

This one really sounds amazing. I remember being intrigued when I first heard about it, but your review has me convinced for sure.

I was hoping to get to do a joint book signing with the author at a B&N in Sacramento, but sadly, it was yet another case of B&N having it in for me...bleh.

tanita✿davis said...

Y2: TRULY, a good book. I rarely review without a few reservations - and tried to think of some. For me, the romance element of the story was not MY particular hook - that's the only halfway critical thing I can think of to say. I was really hooked.

While the questions of class, privacy, ethnic and racial heritage and human-ness brought up more questions than they answered, I LIKE HAVING NO ANSWERS. I love that younger readers are going to be going, "Oooh," and pondering. My thinky-head is happy.

AF: I'm bummed at B&N on your behalf. It's taken me a long time to get in with them -- next book you'll be there.