________________ CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 8 . . . . October 23, 2015


Astra. (The Gala Chronicles, Book One).

Naomi Foyle.
New York, NY: Joe Fletcher (Distributed in Canada by Hachette Canada), 2015.
416 pp., hardcover, $22.99.
ISBN 978-1-62365-405-4.

Subject Headings:
Imaginary societies-Fiction.
Science fiction.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Kim Aippersbach.

*** /4



Paperbark groves were rare, hidden places the Pioneers had planted far from paths so that people could worship Gaia alone in them. Astra could see why. Sunlight sashayed through the leaves and the white peeling trunks were so smooth and delicate she wanted to stop and rub her cheek against each one.

But she had to keep up with Lil. "We learned the Code for paperbarks at school this week," she said. "The original edition wouldn't grow well in a dry forest, but the Pioneers especially wanted to have them in Is-Land so they were the first trees to be Gaianised."

Lil yawned. "My dad said school was for mules."

"Mules?" Astra had studied them in Code class: if you cross-Coded species, you risked creating a genetic dead end. But she didn't see the connection with school.

"Yeah. He said you go in as prancing foals and you come out half-donkey, with your Gaia Power sterilized."

That was
ridiculous. "We learn tons about Gaia Power at school," Astra informed Lil. "In fact, we're taking Gaia-play lessons right now."

Astra is the first book in a dystopian series about a closed, rigidly controlled, technologically advanced society that worships Gaia and genetically manipulates plants and animals, including humans. Described from the point of view of seven-year-old Astra, Is-Land appears to be a paradise. The town of Or is a small nudist, vegan community living in Earthships surrounded by a lush forest. Family relationships are complicated, each child having potentially Code parents, a Birth mother, and Shelter parents, but the children feel loved and well-cared for, and they have their Tablettes as constant companions/pets/confidantes.

      Astra's Shelter mother, Hokma, challenges Astra's view of the world by suggesting that she not get the Security Serum that all seven-year-olds get to make them stronger and smarter. Hokma says it will also make them "less sensitive and more willing to follow orders. These are good qualities in constables, but not so good in scientists." Since Astra wants to be a scientist and help Hokma raise the Owleon chicks (owls crossed with pigeons, used for secret IMBOD missions), she agrees. This means she has to spend the rest of her life lying to everyone else and pretending that she took the serum. She particularly can't say or write anything about it on her Tablette because IMBOD monitors them.

      For Astra, controlling her temper is the biggest problem in pretending to be like the SecGen kids, the ones who had the shot. This becomes more difficult when she is 13 and Lil, an orphaned girl who had been living wild in the woods, comes to stay with Hokma. Lil has crazy ideas about everything Astra has been taught. She claims that the Non-Landers, who Astra believes to be dangerous terrorists wanting to destroy Gaia, are really suffering refugees whose land has been stolen from them. Thinking Lil might be mentally ill, Astra dismisses Lil's words, but she is fascinated by the wild girl and envious of her freedom. Lil is the first person Astra tries "Gaia-play"—sex—with, but their relationship is tumultuous. Lil blackmails Astra into revealing her secret to Ahn, Hokma's Gaia-bonded partner. Ahn is furious with Hokma and ends their relationship, but he promises not to tell anyone else that Astra didn't get the serum. For five years, Astra lives with the possibility that Ahn will tell on Hokma and Astra.

      When Astra is 17, Hokma is arrested and charged with treason because, for years, she has been secretly sharing her scientific discoveries with Non-Landers. Because Astra is assumed to be an innocent victim of Hokma's dissident activities, she is sent to a "memory reordering" centre, but her three-month treatment doesn't change her loyalty to Hokma. When Hokma dies in custody, Astra is convinced she was killed by IMBOD. Astra finds out that her Code father is a Non-Lander. Knowing she has no place in Is-Land anymore, Astra chooses to be exiled.

      Astra is a richly-textured story set in a fascinating, complicated world. The writing is beautiful, dense and poetic. Foyle creates a believable futuristic society that combines high-tech environmentalism with non-traditional gender and family customs.

      Astra's character is convincingly-drawn; her behavior, thought-processes and attitudes are those of a seven-year-old in part 1, a 13-year-old in part 2, and a 17-year-old in part 3. Telling the story from her limited perspective means that, although the reader is immersed in the setting, many aspects of the world remain unexplained; it creates an interesting tension between Astra's innocent belief in the rightness of her society and the reader's growing realization that something is seriously wrong.

      When Astra participates in a horrific coming-of-age ceremony at 13, where she and hundreds of other 13-year-olds en mass have their genitals branded (for no reason that is explained), the true nature of their society is revealed. Yet, because Astra and all the adults around her (including Hokma) take everything for granted, we get no explanation, no understanding of why IMBOD is genetically, psychologically and physically manipulating Is-Land's children. Astra and her peers are brought up looking forward to their service defending the Border, but there are hints that more is going on than simply creating better soldiers.

      Astra is the first book in a series, and, as such, it introduces a world and characters and raises questions that it doesn't answer. The plot is slow, with little action; this is a book of detailed exposition and backstory. The central conflict of the series is hinted at but not developed because Astra doesn't yet know what the true political-military situation is. The book ends in a frustrating place, with Astra about to leave Is-Land and—presumably—find out what's really going on. Most books that end on this sort of cliff-hanger at least have a bigger reveal at the end so the reader understands the conflict and the stakes. Here, we're left to put together the hints we've been given.

      The character of Astra is both the strength and weakness of this book. She is a realistic child with temper tantrums and petty jealousies, so she is often hard to engage with. Teen readers in particular will probably dislike reading about a character so strident and immature. The difference between Astra and the SecGen children is shown mostly by Astra's strong emotions; we don't see her being more curious or analytical. The risk Hokma convinced her to take does not seem to have produced any positive results. Certainly Astra doesn't question her increasingly disturbing-sounding society. It's realistic for her to be preoccupied with "Gaia-play," but her willful blindness gets tiresome.

      Because there are no voices within the novel that we can trust to tell us what is good and bad about Is-Land, Astra floats a number of thought-provoking contradictions: utter respect for life, to the point that Astra can't kill a worm to feed an Owleon, combined with excitement about serving in an active military; devotion to protecting the environment combined with extensive genetic experimentation; an apparently rational and open approach to body image and sex education combined with genital mutilation. Without understanding the goals of Is-Land, the reader is left wondering if aspects of the society that seem admirable are, in fact, sinister. Can good intentions be twisted to evil results?

      Astra is not a book for younger readers. The plot moves too slowly, and the background is complicated and confusing; chances are a pre- or early teen will self-censor and stop reading before getting to the fairly detailed descriptions of sex and the very disturbing initiation ceremony. Older teens may be patient and sophisticated enough readers to follow the slow development of tension and the ambiguity between utopia/dystopia, but they may be turned off by the seven-year-old narrator. Teens will also find it hard to take seriously the descriptions of naked bodies with genitals called "Gaia plows" and "Gaia gardens.

      I recommend this book to adults who are interested in environmental dystopias and speculative fiction dealing with issues of gender, sexuality and family dynamics. A teacher or librarian should read the book before deciding to recommend it to a teen.

Recommended with Reservations.

Kim Aippersbach is a writer, editor and mother of three in Vancouver, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

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