DUALED by Elsie Chapman
Disclaimer: Received an e-ARC from publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Am also Twitter acquaintances with Elsie Chapman.
|This cover is kind of perfect. Love the shadow.|
CONS: World-building that's not quite enough - logic holes that are sort of covered but also sort of not / raise more questions; shallow larger theme exploration
Intellectual Rating: 5/6 out of 10
Emotional Grade: B
Book Blurb (from goodreads): You or your Alt? Only one will survive.
The city of Kersh is a safe haven, but the price of safety is high. Everyone has a genetic Alternate—a twin raised by another family—and citizens must prove their worth by eliminating their Alts before their twentieth birthday. Survival means advanced schooling, a good job, marriage—life.
Fifteen-year-old West Grayer has trained as a fighter, preparing for the day when her assignment arrives and she will have one month to hunt down and kill her Alt. But then a tragic misstep shakes West’s confidence. Stricken with grief and guilt, she’s no longer certain that she’s the best version of herself, the version worthy of a future. If she is to have any chance of winning, she must stop running not only from her Alt, but also from love . . . though both have the power to destroy her.
Elsie Chapman's suspenseful YA debut weaves unexpected romance into a novel full of fast-paced action and thought-provoking philosophy. When the story ends, discussions will begin about this future society where every adult is a murderer and every child knows there is another out there who just might be better.
Oh Dualed, where do I start with you? I suppose it’s a little fitting that my feelings towards this book are divided. Let’s start with the good though, shall we?
Dualed has a very hooky premise, a society where every person has an Alt - an identical twin - that they must kill in order to earn their place in the walled city of Kersh. The Kersh motto is “Be the one, be worthy” and this plays out in the extreme in that the ideology behind the Alt who lives is that that is the Alt who deserves to live. So thematically, the set-up is very interesting. You have instant conflict and questions raised about identity and how decisions can shape who we are, morality versus survival, and what makes someone more worthy of life than another person. And to an extent these themes are touched upon and explored.
The Main Character
The main character West has to make a decision about these issues when she gets her assignment and becomes Active, meaning she and her Alt have a month to find and try to kill each other. This struggle is further complicated by the fact that West is pretty much alone in the world - save a childhood friend who is determined to help her stay alive - and that makes her truly question her worthiness as well as the validity of Kersh’s vetting system. This leads her to take an unusual path to make herself strong enough to be worthy. Things are a little shallow in the beginning, but once West receives her assignment and has to begin the hunt for her Alt, I found her character arc engaging and thoughtful. She struggles, she doubts, she takes a few wrong turns, but it’s clear this is a girl in crisis, someone trying to make sense of her personal tragedies and the brutality of a society that masquerades as civilized.
I think Elsie Chapman nailed West’s voice because I found her captivating, even if I’m not sure I like her all that much (kind of similar to how I feel about Divergent’s Tris). She was frustrating and often distant, not wholly like-able, and a little too self-pitying and indecisive for too long, but... There is something about West that pushes the story forward, even over the gaping worldbuilding logic-holes (but I’ll get to that in a bit).
The opening is a little generic in its hooky-ness; it's interesting enough but I don’t think I was invested in the story until West became Active. Then, the tension of the chase comes into play. On top of that, Chapman writes some of the more fluid and natural action scenes I’ve read in my recent YA reads. The sequences aren’t too long or too vague. They don't feel superfluous or read confusingly, and they keep the story moving, the tension up. Chapman also draws the various districts of Kersh well. I enjoyed the logical division of the districts and how each section has its own purpose and character. I thought the hustle and grit of the Grid was vivid and wonderfully lively.
But here’s where I have to get to the gaping worldbuilding logic-holes I mentioned earlier. The settings are well-wrought and the personal-level worldbuilding is acceptable, but I had such a hard time with the larger worldbuilding of Kersh and West’s society. While I’m willing to buy the extreme premise of Alt vs. Alt, it’s hard to see why the Board (the ruling entity of Kersh) thought this would be the best way to produce an ideal or battle-ready society.
The logic is that they only want the Best version of people within the walled city, what with resources being limited and Kersh being way better than the war-torn world outside and therefore a desirable place to live, but to have doubles of everybody seems inefficient and kind of wasteful. Additionally, there is no follow-through on the Alt who wins staying the Best version of that person. For example, at one point, West notices an older Complete (someone who has killed their Alt) who isn’t physically fit and she thinks, ‘Well, he may have been capable of killing someone in the past, but you can’t tell by looking at him now.’ If the point of Alts is to have a society of ready soldiers, then the existence of a Complete like that seems counter to that. The introduction of Strikers makes me further question the system because not only do Strikers act as a cheat to the system, they don't seem to be harshly checked. Seems weird for the Board to not want to buckle down on something like this.
Then there’s the fact that this supposedly “safe” and desirable place is actually breeding a society and lifestyle of extreme violence. Actives are allowed to hunt and confront their Alts basically anywhere in the city. So people are killing people all the time, even in public places and it’s treated as normal. And I guess no one thinks this is weird because this is what they've always known, but it's weird to me that there's apparently no noticeable psychological effects on the populace as a whole. This society of violence thing relates back to my comment about inefficiency too because with all the random and sudden violence that could happen, other people - Completes and Inactives alike - are constantly in danger of accidental death. Isn't it a waste if a Complete dies in the crossfire of two Alts? Also, doesn't this constant violence disrupt commerce/transportation/social activities/etc.?
For the first quarter or so of the book, all these little holes and inconsistencies bothered me so much, I had a hard time getting into the actual story. At points it was almost like the more I learned about Kersh's society, the more the worldbuilding fell apart - and people, I am by no means even half as perceptive, picky, or questioning as Alz. I tend to read with blinders on for total immersion, but even I had questions popping up in my head unbidden.
So there are some themes that I thought and would have liked to have been explored, given this world and premise, but they were only touched upon. This disappointed me a bit at first because I wanted more depth, but then I came to realize that maybe that had more to do with my expectations than the book itself.
Because here’s the thing about Dualed; it’s likely NOT the book you think it is. If you’re expecting something along the lines of the popular YA dystopian, you’ll be disappointed. If you think West is going to start questioning the legitimacy of her dystopian government and start entertaining plans for rebellion and Mockingjays, you’ll be mostly disappointed. Dualed is NOT a girl-against-the-world take-down-the-government kind of book. Dualed is a very single-plotline focused novel set on a personal stage. This is West’s story of survival, her existential crisis, her harsh coming-of-age. And that’s it.
I was expecting something like Divergent where the character, plot, and thematic arcs are closely tied on the micro and macro levels, but Dualed is not that book. Dualed has its major themes and plot all pinpoint focused on the personal, and at that level, I think Chapman does an admirable job because ultimately, when I pushed aside my expectations and ignored my gripes with the bigger-picture worldbuilding, I enjoyed the ground level, personal stuff - the character arc, settings, and cat-and-mouse chase.
Conclusion: I think Alz and I might have mentioned a year or two ago that we’d be interested to see a dystopian where the plot doesn’t inevitably focus on the take-down of the dystopian society. Dualed basically fills this space, and if you’re not expecting that, it can be a bit disorienting, so be prepared. Another plus is that this is a Book 1 that can actually be a standalone.
So adjust your expectations and just enjoy the ride because Dualed is a pretty good one - very readable and action-y. Recommended (with some reservations).