FIRST OF ALL: Thank you so much to Stevie at Gollancz for sending this book to me! Sarah Pinborough is an awesome writer and I was really excited about reading this book. It’s YA and a kind of dystopian romance, following the story of Toby, who lives in the Death House, which is on an uninhabited island and is where children who’ve tested positive as Defectives are sent before they start to show symptoms of a mysterious disease and are sent to a sanatorium, never to be seen again.
First and foremost: I liked this book a lot. I thought that Toby’s voice was warm and well-written, and I liked all the other characters. The whole concept of the story was well introduced and I thought the flashbacks were great. I’ve seen reviews that were slightly critical about how much the reader’s told about the world that the characters are in, but I enjoyed that slight vagueness. One thing that a lot of dystopian novels get wrong is that the characters ruminate too much on their world and tell the readers more than they naturally would – these characters just lived in their world and took it for granted and I thought that worked well. I liked the small glimpses that we got of the outside world – the Black Suits and the lack of snow, for example. I would have liked to know more about it but at the same time it wasn’t necessary to the story and would possibly have felt clumsy if it had been shoehorned in. There are things that I wanted more of, though: why didn’t Toby try to explore the sanatorium? That could have been fantastic.
I liked Toby’s relationship with his dorm mates and I thought that Louis and Will’s friendship was extremely adorable. I also liked the way that Toby and Josh found a sort of tentative truce through the book – character development, what’s upppppp. I had a lot of affection for Tom and wanted better for him. I also liked the way that faith was brought into the book – in dire circumstances, people do find these things to hold onto. Another thing that I really enjoyed was the ambiguity of to what extent Matron was straight up murdering them all – were the pills making them worse? Was she meant to be evil? Did she actually kill The Nice Nurse? Who knows what the fuck was up but I liked that we didn’t have to know – it felt as though I as a reader was fully in this world, which meant that not everything was tied up neatly. I liked Will’s plot arc a lot – the way that he and Louis were written was really charming and lovely, and it definitely made me pretty emotional.
My only real problem was with the central romance, and I’m absolutely willing to accept that it’s because I’m a hundred years old and extremely cranky, as opposed to any defects in the book. I felt as though Clara wasn’t the best of characters – I could see why Toby would fall in love with her but she definitely seemed like a bit of a manic pixie dream girl. She sometimes felt like more of a character than a person, and in a novel full of well drawn people, she stuck out like a sore thumb. Still, it was sweet to watch the love story play out until – UNTIL!! – the end, which frustrated the crap out of me. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but Toby made the World’s Most Stupid Decision and it pissed me off hugely. I get that for teenagers Love Rules All but I am an adult woman and even looking at it through the lens of ‘ahh well, maybe it’s supposed to be clear to adult readers that he’s making a dumbass decision’, I was not okay with it. The deep infatuation that he finds with Clara (I’m not going to say ‘love’, because in a word: nah), was sweet but it was also supposed to be a healthy relationship until he made the Most Unhealthy Decision Of All Time. I liked what happened to Louis at the end, but God. GOD. FUCK. IT COULD HAVE BEEN SO MUCH BETTER. And another plot decision could have been ten times more emotional and heartbreaking! It would have been like “Toby is strong and Clara is sacrificing the last minutes of their togetherness and Toby is striking out to make the world a better place” and instead it was just full of poor decisions and frustrating shit.
I MEAN! WHATEVER! I’M SURE THAT TONS OF PEOPLE LOVED THE ENDING! I’M NOT AT ALL EMBITTERED! But the story that came before this ending was wonderful and deserved so much more. I really enjoyed this book up until my irritation at the last page. The lives that these characters led were interesting and sad and the world felt very whole and well-created. I liked the mermaid imagery throughout the book, I liked the coldness and emptiness and the friendships that were formed between the characters. If the ending hadn’t left a sour taste in my mouth, this would be a solid four star book instead of three.