Essence, by Lisa Ann O’Kane

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Publication date – June 3, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Autumn escaped a cult, but now she realizes she’s fallen into another.

Growing up in San Francisco’s Centrist Movement, sixteen year-old Autumn Grace has always believed emotions—adrenaline, endorphins, even happiness—drain your Essence and lead to an early death. But her younger brother’s passing and a run-in with a group of Outsiders casts her faith into question.

Ryder Stone, the sexy, rebellious leader of the Outsiders, claims Essence drain is nothing more than a Centrist scare tactic — and he can prove it.

Autumn follows Ryder to his Community of adrenaline junkies and free spirits in Yosemite National Park, and they introduce her to a life of adventure, romance, sex, drugs and freedom. But as she discovers dark secrets beneath the Community’s perfect exterior, she realizes the more she risks in search of the perfect rush, the further she has to fall.

Thoughts: I have conflicting feelings about this novel. On one hand, it makes some very good commentary about cults, human tendencies to extremes, flawed methods of thinking, and it exposes its intended audience to the idea that a person can drink alcohol and try drugs and have sex and not actually be a terrible person for it. On the other hand, so very little actually happens in this book, and most of the time it feels like the very interesting setting and situation was just put on hold in order to be a backdrop to a typical teenage romance between an uncertain girl and a bad boy. Which is a real shame because there’s so much that this book says that’s worth saying and worth hearing, but it just gets overshadowed so much by the less-than-interesting romantic subplot.

The story starts with Autumn, a teenager who is part of the Centrist movement that emphasizes neutrality of emotion and lifestyle as the key to a long life. Autumn has just lost her little brother to an accident, and her grief and dissatisfaction makes her lash out and eventually choose to leave the movement, especially after a chance meeting with teens outside the movement who tell her that the rest of the world is full of adventure and fun and the ability to actually deal with things instead of suppressing them. She and a few others decide to go with the group and experience the Community, which seems to be less of a cohesive community so much as it’s an anti-Centrist group, run by a man who used to be a Centrist but now has dedicated his life to proving it wrong and damaging. Which doesn’t sound so bad on the surface, until it becomes clear that the way most people there approach this is to do dangerous and wild things, to avoid moderation at all cost. The Community has a darker side to it, too, one that’s considerably less well-meaning than rescuing people from a cult, and its leader will stop at nothing to defend his own ideologies.

It’s not hard to see where the brilliant social commentary comes in to play. Most of the book goes by before Autumn realizes the dangers of blindly following the Community way instead of the Centrist way, but the reader figures it out long before. And Autumn is not a stupid character; she puts things together fairly quickly, is insightful, but just gets lost in a fast-paced world that offers an endorphin rush that she’s never experienced before. It’s a heady trip to come down from. Which is one of the things that I found so impressive about Essence. While most YA novels will, at some point, deal with lust, few actually go further and state that the protagonist had sex. Unless, of course, it’s true love and they’ve been together for a while. Fewer still will have the protagonist experiment with drugs like ecstasy, unless the novel is an attempt to show drug culture and the whole point is to show the wild side of the world and how much it can mess a person up even though it’s fun. And yes, Essence does have that message, that focusing on having a wild time isn’t always the best idea, but it also shows that someone can experiment a time or two and not end up as a junkie. It’s rare for me to see that in YA speculative fiction, even now when society is getting more permissive with both sex and drugs. So I have to give O’Kane thanks for including those scenes in the way she did.

The romantic aspect of this novel is understandable, but rather dull. There’s an early triangle set up as Autumn feels attracted both to Ryder (the Community leader’s son) and Javi (a boy who left the Centrist movement with Autumn), but Javi quickly falls out of favour as Autumn gets deeper in with the crowd that likes pushing their limits. And while there is more to Ryder than just the classic bad boy with a heart of gold, I just couldn’t get into his character. I can see Autumn felt drawn to him, but it was as though the adrenaline rush was the driving force behind their relationship, and that just didn’t interest me. Which is problematic when much of the book is devoted to exploring said relationship’s development with a much more compelling story going on all around and behind them.

The idea of Essence in the novel is an interesting one that was played with on both sides of the Centrist/Community divide. The idea is that every person is born with a finite amount of an immeasurable thing called Essence, and that when it runs out, your time is up. You die. You get sick, or have an accident, but either way it’s the universe’s way of telling you that you’re out of time. There’s no way of knowing when this can happen, because nobody knows how much Essence they have. The Centrists believe that neutrality and moderation are the keys to conserving Essence, and avoid situations that might make them emotional, excited, or even happy about the taste of delicious food because that can be a drain on a person’s Essence and cause them to creep closer to death that much more quickly. The Community approach says that there’s no such thing and Essence, and their leader carefully monitors the heart rates and hormone levels of its members to prove that there’s no correlation between excitation and Essence drain.

And what gets me is that nobody notices the flaw in this argument. Autumn comes close when she points out that a death in the Community could have been caused by that person’s Essence running out, because there’s no way of proving how much they had, but that line of questioning is shut down quickly because look, this person went out and did fun stuff and got excited sometimes, and that didn’t do anything to hurt her, so the whole Essence thing must be BS after all. But it would have been so easy to point out that because there’s no way of measuring Essence, there’s thus absolutely no way of proving that a lack of neutrality doesn’t make it drain more quickly. A person’s Essence could have run out and they can die in an accident, but with a lack of conclusive proof on either side, someone clinging to the Centrist argument could readily say that the person could have lived longer if they hadn’t done all the emotional things they did. But that side of the argument never once gets raised, at least not once Autumn has left the movement. It’s taken for granted that proving someone can raise their heart rate a few times and not die will disprove that Essence exists at all. I can see that thought process being discouraged, but for nobody to even debate it idly, or for it to never be mentioned seemed like a bit of denial being forced upon the reader. I can think of a handful of characters who were likely to bring that point up but who never did. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone.

Essence is an unusual novel in that it doesn’t really fit into any of the typical categorizations for SFF. The near-future society in which the story takes place has its differences from our own, and on small scales it could be perhaps be called pseudo-dystopian, but unlike much dystopian fiction, so little emphasis is placed on the society and an escape from it that the book seems awkward when compared to many others. Not all YA SFF novels have to contain world-shattering events, but there’s almost no difference between Essence and many contemporary YA novels except for the setting. Which would be fine, but as I mentioned earlier, the setting was the most interesting part and it got overshadowed by a lackluster romance, and I felt that much of the novel’s potential went undeveloped as a result. O’Kane’s writing style, at least, was quite smooth and descriptive, her pacing even, and her ability to write about controversial things without making them seem controversial or like the reader is getting beaten about the head with a moral message ought to be praised. I’m a bit curious to see where the story will go in the future, but seeing as how it was stated pretty explicitly that both the Centrists and the Community were pocket groups and not indicative of worldwide religious movements or ideologies, I can’t see too many places that it could go that don’t involve people bringing the police into things and breaking up at least the Community cult. I think I’ll wait to see what other reviews say of any sequels before making the decision to read them; there’s always the chance that greater development will happen and things will occur that could surprise me, but I think it would involve some suspension of disbelief to really take off.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)