In a world ravaged by war, disease, and mistrust, she was saved from certain death by the Prophet. The price: in exchange for the antidote to the deadly virus, her memory would be wiped clean and her life would be dedicated to the Prophet, the City of Iris and its inhabitants. Every day, she wakes up, she eats, trains and hunts. She roams the wastelands, the ruins of a once prosperous city, and scavenges for supplies to sustain the civilization that took her in. Yet, her debt is one that cannot be repaid. Although alive, she’s enslaved far underground in order to ensure the continued prosperity and survival of Iris and its inhabitants. This is the life that she was given in exchange for the cure. She has no name. She has no memory of her family or her life before the cure. She is 736.
That’s the backdrop against which the dystopia novel Aletheia by Megan Tennant takes place. Back in May, I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in Megan’s beta reader program, allowing me to get an early glimpse of the story (this review is based on the beta read edition).
Aletheia is, as alluded to above, set in what I’d call a post-apocalyptic dystopian setting. Humans are scattered and divided, the fortunate ones sheltering in large, walled cities where no-one is allowed to enter. Those less fortunate roam the ruins of a civilization long gone in their desperate attempts to survive the virus that has wiped out the society they once knew and threatens to doom them all.
Yet, the existence of the more fortunate comes on the shoulders of the less fortunate. Rescued from the outside, 736 is a young woman who finds that her existence consists of the same thing day in and day out. Take care of the basic physical needs. Train to ensure her own survival and the best possible living conditions in the underground facility in which she lives. Then work to sustain the civilization that only cares for her as long as she can be of use to them. Together with hundreds of other nameless, her life is supposed to be void of physical possessions, love, family. It’s all about serving the greater good, from which she gains nothing than her life, a reward conditional on her continued usefulness.
Piece by piece, she encounters fragments of a life left behind, of a world greater than what her masters let on. She discovers that her world is not as portrayed by the Prophet. As she is thrown into a series of events that will challenge everything she knows, including the relationships she has formed with the other nameless. As outside forces demand her loyalty and affection, she finds herself torn between what her life is and what it could be, between loyalty to protect what little they have and the chance to give everyone a better life. Could the taste of freedom she has been offered lead to freedom or just a different kind of bondage, the result of hollow promises uttered by others that seek to use the nameless for their own selfish purposes?
The quest for 736 to discover the truth takes her on an exciting journey that is the novel Aletheia.
Aletheia is an intriguing book and touches on a number of different aspects of life that I think many can identify with in one way or an other. 736 is, to a large degree, driven by her own guilt. Choices she has made in her past affects every action she takes. She knows that if she makes the wrong choice in the wrong place, she may not necessarily suffer but those that she cares about will. It’s a life of constant fear and suspicion.
As the story goes on and new relationships are formed, 736 is on multiple occasions confronted with who to side with. Should her loyalty remain with those she has known or should she favor those she just met? Can she even trust these new individuals to truly deliver on the promises they so easily share? The author does an excellent job by positioning these conflicting loyalties against each other and lets us experience the associated agony as 736 tries to figure out the best path forward.
736 also struggles with her own past. Who is she really? Where did she come from? What was her life like before she was rescued? Flashbacks of her life are scattered throughout the book and we slowly learn more about her and her past. But, in the end, 736 is a complex young woman, very emotional yet very strong. This is another strong aspect of the story. The inner conflicts of 736 feel very real. She struggles not only with the conflicting loyalties and her own past but also emotional attachments to those around her. Really, we get to know her quite well through her struggles and as I read through the book, I found myself wanting her to succeed.
The rest of the main characters in the book are also well defined, for the most part. You understand their background, their motivations, what they want. Or, you think they do. There are a few exceptions. For example, the leaders of one of the factions outside of Iris is portrayed in one way by a close associate of his but seems very different when 736 meets him in person. His actions are also very contrary to what I expected, his reasons odd and contradictory. Likewise, an associate of the Prophet’s, although an important character because of his association to the Prophet, feels a little bland and his purpose, beyond supporting the Prophet, unclear. However, these are exceptions to an otherwise great story and did not detract from my overall enjoyment of the story.
Besides the characters, the overall setting of the story is also very well described through the adventures of the characters in the book. You really get a sense of how desperate it is for the nameless, how creepy the ruins are and the unashamed luxury of the citizens of the City of Iris. These are great contrasts and in some ways remind me of the differences between the districts and the capital in The Hunger Games.
Although 736 is clearly a young woman, this is not a book for young adults. Far from it. Although some elements may be suitable for young adults and the main characters are clearly young adults, it is ama book written for adults. The horror of a dystopian society is very well described by the author, from the horrors of deadly hand to hand combat to the torture imposed on unwilling subjects. In fact, it is likely that some sections could be too much to stomach for some people. Yet, as strange as it sounds, these descriptions also make the book so good. You can really tell that a lot of time and effort was put in to making the story believable, without compromising of the horror that is completely fitting to the setting of the story.
If you’re looking for a dystopian story that doesn’t hold its punches portraying the horrors that the inhabitants of its world experiences, Aletheia is a must. It’s a well-written story that will draw you in and keep you at the edge of your chair until you get to the end.
Aletheia will be available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and others on September 7th. Preorder it on Amazon today. While you wait for it to be released, check out the excellent trailer below.