Dystopia is not what it appears to be, and yet it satisfies in all the ways you want a novel to satisfy. I’d thoroughly recommend it for young readers, along with all you YA fans out there.
This first novel in what is bound to be a strong series explores the mystery of the Hangman Ghost, and mixes in elements of real history, and the geography of London. It’s actually made me want to visit some London attractions which, as a past Londoner, I never had an interest in. And it manages to do all this educational stuff whilst holding together a fast-paced adventure which doesn’t shy away from grisly and horrific scenes.
The biggest surprise for me was that the book is not strictly a dystopian story, despite its title. A dystopian society is one in which the socio-political elements, which should be oppressive or undesirable, are the focus of the novel. Although this book has elements of that in its allusions to how the UK is now structured, with curfews, restrictions and suchlike, it is only the backdrop upon which the supernatural drama is played, rather than being the focus. It’s a lead-in to the paranormal world that’s lurking beneath the surface, and this sense of paranormal revelation gives the novel a Gaiman sort of feel, á là Neverwhere. It’s refreshing having the book subvert any preconceptions the reader might have, because it forces the reader to accept the storyline before their eyes rather than approach it with expectations. So for me, this was one of the things that won me over.
At points some turns of phrase seemed a bit cliché, but others really stood out. The morning dew settling like sweat over the domed head of St Paul’s Cathedral is perhaps my favourite, but I’ll leave the rest for you to discover.
Another thing that makes me very happy about this book is that Ergo is excellent at writing from the point-of-view of teenage heroine Sasha. It’s pretty believable characterisation – I can contest that many of her thoughts are exactly what a teenage girl might be thinking – and in addition he manages to make Sasha not very stereotypical at all. She also has asthma, which adversely impacts her during the story, and quirky superstitious beliefs. She’s not an action girl, and she’s not sweet and sugary. You really get the impression she’s a bit of an outcast, but not in a cool way. And yet her friends help her to see herself as someone beautiful and strong by the end of the story.
It’s a nice touch that those with paranormal powers often have to live with disabilities as trade-offs for their powers too. This is something that isn’t normally included in your typical fantasy / sci-fi / superhero stories, and usually when it is included it’s not a disability that seriously impacts the character’s ability to continue the adventure. But in this story Sasha has asthma and it actually impacts the story in a serious way. And while her close companions don’t have anything as severe, you do hear about others with serious conditions.
Teenage issues are included, and they mix in with the plethora of adventure, history, geography and horror in a way that makes each element not too overwhelming. It all ties in nicely, and bottom line is, if you like fast-paced, urban supernatural fantasy, this would be a good choice!
At LFCC I met Ergo promoting Dystopia along with an EP by his band, Signed in Crimson. The EP featured songs which relate to the novel, and playing it alongside reading led to a more interactive experience. It’s female-fronted rock, with metal and post-hardcore influences (a bit of Evanescence, a bit of My Chemical Romance, a bit of Coheed and Cambria), and is pretty solid and heavy, which really brought me back to my own teenage days. Definitely a winner with the themes of the book!
The question of exactly what Dystopia Day is remains, presumably to be uncovered in a later book. The sequel Hysteria is out on October 31st, perfect timing for its spooky theme, and I must say, I’m looking forward to it!
To find out more, go to the official Dystopia website.
main image and Dystopia logo © Anthony Ergo