Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The year is AE3, 3 years after the Event. Within the walls of Meritropolis, 50,000 inhabitants live in fear, ruled by the brutal System that assigns each citizen a merit score that dictates whether they live or die. Those with the highest scores thrive, while those with the lowest are subject to the most unforgiving punishment–to be thrust outside the city gates, thrown to the terrifying hybrid creatures that exist beyond.
But for one High Score, conforming to the System just isn’t an option. Seventeen-year-old Charley has a brother to avenge. And nothing–not even a totalitarian military or dangerous science–is going to stop him.
Where humankind has pushed nature and morals to the extreme, Charley is amongst the chosen few tasked with exploring the boundaries, forcing him to look deep into his very being to discern right from wrong. But as he and his friends learn more about the frightening forces that threaten destruction both without and within the gates, Meritropolis reveals complexities they couldn’t possibly have bargained for…
Thoughts: This was one of those books that drew me to it out of rage-induced curiosity. The idea that on a weekly basis, people would be evaluated for their use to society, assigned a number based on that, and if they were deemed to be too useless, their score would be ‘zeroed’ and they were be turned out beyond the city’s protective walls, left to the mercy of the elements and the dangerous beasts that roamed at night. This brutal regime is the only way to keep the city’s population in check with their limited resources. It was an idea that hit home due to the sheer number of times I’ve felt that I’m utterly replaceable. I do no job that couldn’t really be done by anyone else. I have made no real contributions to society. I’ve affected nobody in a really significant way. I probably would have been zeroed long ago, if the world I live in worked in such a way. So I had to take a look and see what the book was all about.
Unfortunately, there were a few questions that didn’t really get answered that made me think the system was full of holes. First off, use is relative; a baby is utterly useless within those terms, especially if there’s a population problem, so enforced sterility would have worked better for controlling things. Most children are similarly useless. The system did have a bit of a sliding scale, allowing children to be graded on a bit of a curve relative to their peers and developmental milestones, but there was a case of a young girl who developed mobility problems, who was zeroed because of them. The system was painfully ablist, unless there are literally no useful jobs a person could do while sitting or lying down, this girl could still have had a use. No real mention was made of training outside of what High Scores get; many people feel pretty useless until they find something that really resonates with them and they get the training in it, and then they go on to be amazing.
All of that could be argued against by saying that there was no merit to wasting time and resources on someone who might grow up to be useful to society later, and the reveal at the end shows that the whole thing was meant to be a short-lived project anyway, but therein lies my second problem. Short-lived regimes like that don’t work without every inhabitant being brutally beaten down or given no other choice. The first generation to really be born and raised in Meritropolis (for that’s the city’s actual name) is just coming to age as the book takes place, which requires adults of many ages to have willingly and without a fuss consented to the whole system in the first place. I see this problem a lot in near-future dystopias, the idea that such a regime could crop up almost overnight and go entirely without a hitch until the protagonist comes along. People may have felt forced into Meritropolis because they didn’t think they had anywhere else to go, but that doesn’t mean they would have just lain down and accepted every single rule without question. People don’t even do that now and here, and the laws we live by here are much more permissive!
As for the protagonist, Charley, well, he’s a golden boy, the kind of do-no-wrong character that gets himself into all the right kinds of trouble in the name of justice. Disgusted with the system for zeroing his brother, he aims to get his revenge, to stand up for the wronged, and in doing so catches the attention of the city’s ruler and highest-scoring citizen, Commander Orson. Orson decides to fast-track Charley and put him in a dangerous position, raising his Score in doing so, as a sort of back-handed reward. Charley excels at this (further proving my point that some people may seem useless until put into the right situation or given the right training), and without any real experience with fighting, manages to do things like pole-vaulting over the head of a charging boar-hybrid, as well as seeing his Score skyrocket until he, not Orson, is the highest Score in the city. If mistakes happened, things would always come out perfectly in the end. He may drop his toast, but it will always land butter side up.
I found the characters to be fairly flat and uninspired. Charley is a hothead with little regard for consequence, which makes him a surprisingly boring protagonist to ride on the shoulder of as the story progresses. Meritropolis’s criminal kingpin, Chappy, shows more foresight and restraint and ability to plan than Charley does, and when the criminals are doing it better than the revolutionary hero, there’s a problem. Charley gets random spots of info from Orson’s incredibly attractive girlfriend, who gets said secret intel from Orson without problem and then, because it makes her unhappy, she just must tell someone and it just happens to be the person trying to overthrow the system. So few characters played major roles but had sparse motivation, or were just straight-up caricatures of humanity.
I think, when all is said and done, that the ideas explored in this book were fantastic and compelling but suffered from poor delivery. Too many unanswered questions and too few explored motivations made a lot of the story ring hollow, and it felt a lot like every event was set up just so Charley could show off how awesome he was destined to be. It was a hero story, a story of triumph against all odds, but an unrealistic one, and I feel that there were numerous missed opportunities for character development. The foundation on which the whole story was built was complex but ultimately unstable.
A lot of people really seem to enjoy this book. It’s been getting a lot of positive reviews, so this may simply be a case of Your Mileage May Vary. For my part, Charley was a rather unappealing character. Others who enjoy seeing someone act the hero and ignore consequences in his pursuit of personal justice may resonate better with him and find fewer problems with the story because of it. But it’s not a series I plan to continue with, because all the problems mounted up by the end and even the initial interest I had fizzled away after Meritropolis fell, so there’s not much for me to feel compelled to go back to.
(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)