It all starts when teenager Charley Crowder is snatched out of her ordinary life by a mysterious portal. She’s deposited, naked and confused, in the middle of nowhere on what turns out to be an island not located on any map or chart. Rather than lay down and die, she struggles to survive, and after several weeks, she discovers, much to her surprise, that she’s not alone.
She’s quickly integrated into a community of fellow castaways, other teens stolen from around the world. She’s informed that the island has a name—Nil—and that the only way off is through a portal such as the one that brought her there in the first place. And while Nil, which seems to be at least partially sentient and somewhere between capricious and malevolent, has many rules for survival, the big one is this: if you don’t find your way home within a year, you die. Simple as that. Suddenly, the clock is ticking.
It’s not all bad: apart from the chance of sudden death and random animal attacks, Nil is pretty much a paradise, providing just enough in the flora and fauna for the teens to eke out a survival while they hunt their gates home. And Charley swiftly falls for Thad, a handsome Canadian snowboarder, whose own deadline is fast approaching. Love in the face of death, what could be more romantic?
But as the days pass, and people come and go, tensions rise. Not everyone wants to be a team player and abide by the collective decisions which grant seniority and priority to those with the least time left. Not everyone is content with the current leadership. And as long as Nil remains unpredictable and volatile, there’s always the chance that even the most alert will miss their way home. That is, until Charley starts to look closely at Nil’s landmarks and mysteries, and finds a long-hidden pattern. But will it be enough to get her home? And what about Thad? Can their newfound love survive, when survival must come first?
Nil marks the debut for Matson, and it’s an impressive and auspicious beginning. The best way I can describe this book is “perfect for the CW network.” The small screen appeal is immediately visible and undeniable. Here you have a cast of athletic, attractive teens, who run around a tropical setting in skimpy outfits. In between working to stay alive, they enjoy beach volleyball, arts and crafts, and the occasional luau. There’s a healthy dose of young romance and adolescent lust in the air. There’s the ticking deadline attached to every character, with a built-in protocol for removing old people and introducing new ones on a constant basis. There’s internal tension and inter-character strife, selfishness and selfless acts. And of course there’s an ongoing mystery. Obviously, this book begs to be compared to Lost, and I can easily see this being a television series. Matson further embraces this potential with her lush descriptions of the setting and the complicated dynamics between the sprawling cast. Heck, Nil is as much a character as any of the humans.
And yes, these are all reasons why I liked Nil. In between the moments of terror and relief, there’s that constant underlying tension, never letting you forget that it’s “escape or die” for our heroes. And you never know who’s going to make it, and who’s going to end up as a bleached skeleton. As concepts go, it has plenty of familiar elements, but with some new and interesting twists. I’m fascinated by the mystery and mythology, and frustrated by the lack of definite answers we get.
I really like Charley. For some reason, she stands out as a dynamic character. Tall, athletic (a volleyball player), highly resourceful and capable, and given that honey-smooth Southern accent which drives some people wild, she’s memorable and strong. Nil is populated with characters you can root for.
But while Nil kidnaps teens from all over the world, leading to a culturally and racially diverse cast, it falls short on all other areas. Unless I missed something in the reading, there are no queer kids, no trans kids, no one with serious health issues or disabilities (save for one with bad eyesight.) It’s never explained how Nil works, how and why it steals teens for its private amusement, so perhaps the island simply weeds out those who wouldn’t stand a fighting chance at survival, but still…with a cast this large and the opportunity to grab people from anywhere in the world, it would have been the perfect way to introduce atypical characters. So I’m slightly disappointed by this failure to take full advantage of the possibilities.
And the strengths listed above can also feel like weaknesses. It feels a little too pretty and polished, a little too much like Survivor without the camera crew. Even after Nil’s taken its toll, the main characters tend to stand out as beautiful, strong, and ready for their slow-motion sweaty shirtless close-ups before the commercial break. It’s as though reality doesn’t quite intrude on the treacherous island paradise, where you can hunt for wild boar, before going surfing or hang gliding. And the mystery is a little too pervasive; this is clearly the first in a series, and Nil doesn’t give up its true nature easily or willingly. Far too much of the book seems to be wrapped around the core romantic storyline between Charley and Thad, who fall for each other with astounding speed even as they wax poetically about their impending deadlines and desire for an ice-cold soda.
If anything, the island plays things safely. Deaths mostly happen off screen, quietly. The stakes are high but almost ephemeral. (When it boils down to “go home or die mysteriously” it feels a little harder to grasp than the more visceral struggle of The Hunger Games, for instance.) It’s entirely possible that later on, we’ll discover that Nil is entertainment for aliens or something. It almost makes sense.
But for all the minor flaws and disappointment, I still really enjoyed this book. The story is solid, the premise is fascinating, and Matson keeps you guessing. If you have to have a Lost for the YA market that’s constructed like a television show, this is perfect, and pretty entertaining. I’m definitely curious to see what will happen next.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Southwest VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who translates Geek-to-Mundane for him. He is the self-proclaimed High Pornomancer of the Golden Horde, and the editor of Scheherazade’s Façade. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.