Last year, fans of the Young Adult genre were in search of “The Next Twilight.” As it turned out, the next Twilight, in terms of sales and profit potential, turned out not to be a vampire love story but a dark, dystopian trilogy called The Hunger Games.
So it follows that, this year, a new pile of YA books are being hailed as “The Next Hunger Games,” and Glow, the first in a new dystopia-in-space series by Amy Kathleen Ryan, is one of them.
So, first things first: Glow is not the “The Next Hunger Games.” At least not yet.
What it is, however, is an extremely ambitious YA book that advances (thankfully) far beyond much of the teen angst in this genre. There will be those who criticize Glow because it’s basically a science fiction tale whose characters just happen to be teens, but, frankly, it was nice to escape the “strange new boy in school” trope for a while. This book has no sparkling paranormal characters, no mushy love stuff, remarkably little angst and whining, and an actual plot maybe too much so. But we’ll get to that.
Here’s the setup: Glow tells the stories of Waverly, a 15-year-old girl who doesn’t yet know what she wants out of life, and her boyfriend Kieran, a 16-year-old with aspirations of someday taking command of their space ship, Empyrean. Along with the New Horizon, the Empyrean, filled with people and plants and technology, set out from a destroyed Earth more than a generation ago, so that Waverly and Kieran only know Earth from videos and textbooks. (Exactly what happened on Earth is never really explained.) The two floating space colonies are headed toward a planet called New Earth, where the people from the two ships will meet up and colonize.
Except something went wrong aboard New Horizon, and its childless people wage a hostile takeover of Empyrean in deep space, killing all of the ship’s officers and many others, and kidnapping all the female children including Waverly, the oldest to use them as baby-makers.
The bulk of the book is 1.) Waverly’s attempt to escape the New Horizon, find her parents, and get herself and her fellow girls back to the Empyrean; and 2.) Kieran’s struggle to take command of the suddenly leaderless, boy-filled Empyrean.
The whole story takes on a bizarre kind of Jonestown/Jim Jones/anti-Christian vibe when the leader of the New Horizon turns out to be a charismatic religious fanatic who wants the Empyrean girls as baby-makers, and most of the adult males in charge of Empyrean turn out to have been dirty old pervs hiding behind their power.
And therein lies the biggest problem with Glow. It’s a good read, with Waverly making a worthy heroine and lots of action to keep a reader moving through the story. Beyond Waverly, however, the ambitious plot far outweighs the characters, hurtling them along so fast that there’s little time to make them three-dimensional characters we care about.
I can’t help wondering if Glow wouldn’t have gone from good to great had it been less about setting up book two of the series and more about fully developing its supporting cast and their individual stories and motivations. Even Kieran, the other protagonist in the book, is strangely unformed and unfocused through most of the book, his character vascillating between clueless weakness (despite, we’re told, that he’s the smart leader type) and pouting defiance. His rival, Seth, has flashes of brilliance as the abused son of an Empyrean widower, but the story rocks along so fast there’s no chance for him to develop.
Religious fanaticism, in this hurry-up plot, becomes an oversimplified “villain.” There are flashes of insight that try to distinguish between good people of faith and bad religious leaders, but mostly, in a hurry to rush to the next phase of the story, it’s glossed over and left behind. Another good idea sacrificed to the god of page count.
So, all the way to its cliffhanger ending, Glow is a setup, albeit an enjoyable one, for the second book, with lots of questions and very few answers: Will Kieran develop a spine, cave beneath the weight of expectations, or cave to the evils of religion? What happened on Earth? Did the captain of the Empyrean really do evil things to the people of the New Horizon? Will the stranded Empyrean adults be rescued? Will Waverly get tired of males devoid of personality and turn to Seth, who at least shows a glimmer of one? Will Waverly’s eighteen children live and thrive?
Did that last sentence grab your attention enough to make you read the book, or make you want to run for the hills?
In the end, I enjoyed Glow and will read the second book just to see if it lives up to its potential. I wish the first book had been either twice as long or half as ambitious, so that its characters and themes could have been better developed and more richly explored. Had that happened, it might not need to progress to a second book before seeing it if could claim its “Next Hunger Games” title.
Suzanne Johnson is an urban fantasy author whose New Orleans-based series kicks off in April 2012 with Royal Street, from Tor Books. When she isn’t writing or agonizing over SEC football, you can find her wasting time on Twitter.