Friday Night Visits: February 27
Books Read in February 2009

Zenith: Julie Bertagna

Book: Zenith
Author: Julie Bertagna (blog, not a blog)
Pages: 352
Age Range: Young adult


Background: Regular readers of this blog know that I have an insatiable appetite for dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, especially when the protagonists are children or young adults. There's something about the quest for human survival against difficult odds, and the clean slate of having a large portion of the population gone, that endlessly fascinates me. I re-read Stephen King's The Stand every couple of years, even though it's quite long, and I know the miniseries (with Gary Sinese, Rob Lowe, and Molly Ringwald) pretty much by heart.

My special favorites within the post-apocalypse genre are books that offer peeks at artifacts from our own society. I still remember a scene from John Christopher's Tripods trilogy in which young hero Will Parker, raised in a rural, backwards community, explores a crumbling city. I like the rediscovery of innovations that have fallen by the wayside during the apocalypse, like eyeglasses and watches. I enjoy figuring out what that mysterious silver box that the character finds might be, in today's vocabulary.

While I'll read pretty much anything in this genre, I of course favor books with strong characters, eloquent writing, suspenseful plotting, and a strong sense of place. Julie Bertagna's Exodus (reviewed here) was such a book for me. It takes place in a future world in which global warming has led to rising oceans and the collapse of most civilizations. I've been eagerly awaiting the second book in Bertagna's trilogy, Zenith. And I'm pleased to report that, if anything, it's better than the first book.

Review: Julie Bertagna's Zenith picks up right where Exodus (the first book of this planned trilogy) left off. (It will be impossible to review Zenith without including spoilers for Exodus, so please stop here if you haven't read Exodus, and just go get it. Amazon has a bargain edition of the hardcover right now for $4.99.) Zenith begins with teenage leader Mara and her band of refugees headed north on a stolen ship. Their hope is to find that Greenland, after being freed of ice by global warming, offers land that they can live on. Meanwhile, Mara's lover, Fox, has remained in the shadow of the elevated city of New Mungo. He hopes to find a way to rescue the city of his birth from corruption, using his hacker skills to teach New Mungo's sheltered citizens about the suffering going on in the outside world. A third character, Tuck, is introduced in Zenith. Tuck lives as a scavenging thief on a floating city of interconnected boats, an outcast in an unforgiving society of Gypseas. Zenith follows the intersecting stories of Mara, Fox, and Tuck, (especially Mara) as they each struggle for survival, and to live with the consequences of their own choices.

I thought that Zenith had the perfect combination of page-turning suspense and beautiful, descriptive prose. I read quickly, because I had to find out what happened to the characters, but I also stopped often to flag particular passages. Tuck's voice is particularly strong. He's a boy who has never lived on or even seen land, and all of his mental imagery centers around the sea. For example:

"Great at fooling herself, is Ma. Her mind shuts snap-hard as an oyster shell if there's something she doesn't want to know. It's not the deaths that make her like that; it's just the way she is. But she never used to guzzle a glugget of sea-grape bitterbeer every night." (Page 26)

Tuck does have hints about what life was like before, memories of stories related by his grandfather, who lived in pre-flood civilization. These hints lend pathos to Tuck's already sad story. I also found it striking how quickly people like Tuck were able to shed generations of societal knowledge. Tuck, living in a water-filled world, can't read, and doesn't know what a camera is when he runs across one. He's far from perfect, an irrepentant and ungrateful thief, but I found his character and perspective compelling. Here's one more example of Tuck's thinking:

"Tuck never could get his head around the idea of Earth. A world steady underfoot? That didn't shift to the dance of the ocean? Even the word "Earth" is odd. It always made him snigger when Grumpa said it, all proud and defiant, because Tuck couldn't think of it as anything other than a curse." (Page 34)

In showing Mara's perspective, Bertagna walks a finer line. Mara was educated on her island home, before becoming a refugee. She has her cyberwizz, a virtual reality tool that lets her browse the remains of a crumbling computer web. She understands the value of knowledge, and she learns bits and pieces about what happened to cause the old society to devolve into the ruins in which she lives now. I think it was a tricky thing to convey Mara's understanding of these things, without making the book feel message-y. But I think that Julie Bertagna pulled it off. Mara is horrified when she learns that people knew about global warming, and didn't stop it. But her horror is tied in to her immediate physical state, and the result feels like a personal response, not a Moral (though the dangers of global warming certainly come across throughout the series). 

Scenes related through Mara's perspective are the most poetic of the book. For example:

"It's as if the world is a wrecked ship and all that is left is the flotsam of the past." (Page 210)

"... they gather together and Gorbals reads from A Tale of Two Cities ... or he unwraps a poem or story from his own head and warms it by the fire. The ache of their empty stomachs fades a little as they fly on the wings of the words, escaping their entombment... They fall asleep with the story infused in their dreams." (Page 230, ellipses to avoid spoilers)

All in all, I thought that Zenith more than lived up to the promise of Exodus. This is the best kind of dystopian fiction, a novel in which prose, plot, and characters aren't neglected for the sake of the premise. It's not a particularly happy book. Difficult things happen, and people suffer. But it's a beautiful story nevertheless (and with an appropriately beautiful cover). Highly recommended. I can't wait for the conclusion to this trilogy.

Publisher: Walker Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: March 17, 2009
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Bookwitch

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.