Previously, in the Article 5 series:
After a horrendous war which devastated the United States and left most of its major cities in ruins, an oppressive new government, one formed on a “One Whole Country, One Whole Family” platform, has taken over. Ember Miller, a young woman who never knew her father, was arrested for the crime of coming from a broken family. She promptly escaped from prison with the help of Chase Jennings, her old crush. Together, they vanished into the underground resistance, where they strive to help others terrorized by the increasingly ruthless Federal Bureau of Reformation. And as we pick up the narrative in Breaking Point, things seem to be getting worse….
Ember and Chase have several goals: avenge the loss of their loved ones, and rescue whatever friends and family they still can, ultimately conveying them to the rumored safe houses that still exists in various parts of the country. Unfortunately, it’s hard to do this when they don’t even know who to trust. The resistance has secrets upon secrets, hidden agendas, and seems to be taking a lot of risks. When the local cell takes in someone both Ember and Chase consider an enemy, they question their own priorities, and wonder if it’s time to take a chance out on their own once again.
However, there’s an even bigger problem: a sniper has been taking out FBR soldiers, and everyone’s convinced that Ember’s to blame. In fact, she’s on the Most Wanted list, under a shoot to kill order. So it’s more dangerous than ever for her to be out in public.
When an unexpected attack makes their safe house in Knoxville unfeasible, Ember and Chase risk everything, first returning home to investigate news regarding Ember’s supposedly dead mother, then pushing on to Chicago to find a lost friend. Along the way, they try to hash out their complicated, long-simmering relationship, hampered by the constant danger, complex emotions, and volatile histories together. But it looks like their future includes heartbreak and tragedy when Chicago springs some surprises on them.
When I covered Article 5, I went on at some length about the dystopian setting and the nightmarish system of Moral Statutes which replaced the Constitution. I called it a “provocative, terrifying, frustrating book,” and wasn’t sure just how I ultimately felt about it. Now that I’ve read this installment in the series, and gotten a better idea of where Simmons is going, I’m…still not sure.
Most of the book deals with Ember and Chase as they try to find a home in the resistance, which means they end up either hiding underground (figuratively and literally) a lot, or on the run from the authorities. He tends to masquerade as an FBR soldier (one of the so-called Moral Militia) while she dresses as a Sister of Salvation (“the MM’s answer to women’s liberation”) which grants them at least a little anonymity in public. They get a good look at what’s happened to the country and therein lies the problem.
So we learn that America was essentially torn apart by a group known as the Insurgents, domestic terrorists who bombed every major city on both coasts, and some down the middle. “And when it was done, nobody was rich, and nobody trusted anyone.” In the wake of that, a guy named Scarboro became President, promptly dissolving the military branches and instituting the Moral Statutes (which, as you may recall, took away women’s rights, abolished divorce, made children out of wedlock illegal, and mandated that families equal one man, one woman, and children.)
You know, even a year ago, I might have said that this sort of extremist behavior was balderdash or malarkey, except we’ve seen far too many headlines of late that make this line of reasoning hit close to home. I’m willing to concede that Simmon’s dystopia is, quite frankly, not so far from the realm of possibility. So when it’s suggested in the text that Scarboro and his people might actually have been connected to the Insurgents (tear down the country, take it over), all I could do is nod and allow as how yup, stands to reason. What evil dystopian government doesn’t destroy the country it wants to take over?
And now I’m depressed. Because as Ember and Chase make their way across what’s left of the country, things get pretty dark. Without spoiling things too badly, let’s just say that there’s a pretty hefty body count among people we might consider sympathetic. The government has a long reach, and is proven to be manipulative, secretive, paranoid, vicious, and relentless. Even as Ember essentially becomes a celebrity for her continued defiance (and her reputation as the suspected sniper) it becomes increasingly hard to believe she can keep getting away with the things she does. Cheating death, infiltrating and escaping prisons and hospitals, avoiding capture time and again…the girl’s got some mad skills. A chance encounter with an old friend gives both readers and Ember herself the chance to see how much she’s changed and grown in her short time on the run.
When I started this review, I thought I knew where I was going. I was going to blast this book for being dark and disturbing, another grim example of the ever-so-popular dystopian sub-genre. I was going to point out that while the setting remains the same as before, the focus on the impact made by the Moral Statutes has been replaced by the impact made by the grim reality of day-to-day existence in this world. I’m sure I had something profound to say about the faceless minions of the unseen government, and how the grand plan seems to be “oppress everyone in creatively mean ways until everyone is starving and hopeless and either married or dead.” I was going to point out the wasteful unfeasibility of an evil government that destroys so much of what it wants to control, and wonder if it’s really worth it to be President of a ruined country, a guy who supposedly travels in secret, constantly on the move, so he can’t be found or targeted.
And then I remembered I was thinking with real person logic.
And then I realized that this is book two of a trilogy, and we’re basically in the “Han gets frozen in carbonite and the Rebel base gets destroyed and Luke loses a hand and things get dark before they get better” part of the story.
And that means that in the third book, we’re totally going to see Ember and Chase rise to the forefront of the revolution and take back the country.
There I go, digressing again. I’m sorry. It’s been a while since I’ve found the energy to do one of these, and boy, do I have some pent-up words. Breaking Point is not a book you can call “mediocre” or “forgettable” by any stretch. I’m not sure if I like it, but it’s certainly given me some food for thought. So let’s see if I can express a few more thoughts.
Religion: The only religion in this book is the Church of America, which seems to be a bastardized form of Christianity, albeit one with very little fleshing out. At one point, Ember is given a small medal of Saint Michael, and she has absolutely no idea who Saint Michael is, as he was never mentioned in the mandatory Church of America services, which espouse things like “Redemption can only be found through rehabilitation.” As we saw last book, every other faith has been stomped on pretty hard. So I have to wonder just what sort of faith this Church of America is at heart. It might be Christian, but what flavor?
Race: Pretty much irrelevant. The only character of color I can recall after scouring the text is a supporting character who appears only briefly at one of the safe houses. Other than that, it’s a pretty white bread dystopia, unless I missed some subtext along the way.
Sexuality: Obviously, the Moral Statutes place a heavy emphasis on heterosexuality and marriage. “One Whole Family,” after all. So where are all the queer people? (In this case, I use the term extremely loosely.) Why isn’t the resistance populated by the gays and lesbians and transgender and so on, who have the most to lose in a society bent on imprisoning or killing them? Instead, we get a fairly standard romance between Ember and Chase, while a secondary character, Sean, looks for his imprisoned girlfriend Rebecca. There’s one very brief flashback involving Ember’s mother standing up for what might be a gay couple trying to get food rations, and Ember has an extremely quick encounter with a man wearing a girl’s summer dress (but I suspect it was more a case of wearing something out of desperation, than a random wandering cross-dresser.) I’m not saying that the story—has—to include queer characters, but it strikes me as a wasted opportunity not to give them a chance to fight back against the system.
So what’s the bottom line? Breaking Point is a dystopia inspired by the scariest of the ultra-conservative political nut jobs, which carries enough seeds of truth to make it a really disturbing possibility. However, Simmons doesn’t use the setting to its full potential, delivering a fairly standard story of rebellion against the totalitarian system. (Or, to put it in the crassest of terms, two heterosexual white teens fight a system that just wants them to get married and behave themselves, and under better circumstances, that’s probably just what they’d have done.) If I’m being unduly harsh, it’s just because I can see so much potential for the world as Simmons has portrayed it, and it falls short. Instead of taking some risks, she’s gone for the safer story. It’s well-written and compelling at times, with a constant underlying sense of danger and paranoia, and Simmons maintains an intriguing level of mystery regarding the ultimate motives of a number of characters, but it could have been so much more.
I’ll be interested to see where the story goes in the third and presumably final volume, but Simmons has certainly set her characters up for a huge fight against an almost insurmountable enemy. I hope she can pull it off.
For those interested, a full description of the Moral Statutes can be found here.
Breaking Point is published by Tor Teen. It is available February 12.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. He is the editor of the recently-released anthology, Scheherazade’s Façade. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.