A thriller-like prose set in a near-dystopian America tells the familiar story of a controlling government, social unrest and technology which has been used to segregate society. In this world, genetic markers are used to identify young boys who have a predisposition to crime and are therefore transformed into wards of the State, separated from society into an institution known as Goodhouse. Somewhat like a prison, but also doubling as an educational institution, life is rough at the Ione Goodhouse, where this novel is set.
The protagonist is James, a 17 year old male with no idea as to his real name or birthplace. A transfer to Ione, he originally was held at Goodhouse La Pine, before it was destroyed by the religious insurgents (The Zeros), a group whose radical faith impresses upon them the need to purify the earth of the criminal element of children with genetic markers of crime. It is through Ione that James meets Bethany, the daughter of a Goodhouse doctor who has a penchant for misbehavior.
The book begins in a sort of disjointed fashion, skipping between time-frames and using flashbacks to portray James' psychological unrest as a result of his experience at La Pine. Although this gives good background and setting, it can often (at least at first) disrupt the flow and sequence of the story. This is a common theme throughout the book, where fast paced action often fails to deliver the understanding of setting and emotional attachment for the reader.
The characters are generally well developed - James is neither a hero nor a villain, which I particularly enjoyed. He is clearly a flawed character, but his grappling with morality and social norms along with his inner psychological turmoil make him a likable figure in a book with many sinister ones. Although his choices are somewhat predictable, it conveys the themes of redemption by love and the struggle against an unfair social system well. Owen, James' roommate, is at first contrived and unlikable, but is further developed into an understandable and sympathetic character. Other figures such as Creighton and Davis represent the stereotypical school-bully types which may seem artificial, if not for the darker element of the book which gives them a bit more credibility as tyrannical characters.
The artificiality of some parts of the book is really what contributed to my lack of appreciation here. The way in which Bethany and James meet up in various ways throughout the book seems generic and not very imaginative; sometimes dipping into the realm of plain unbelievable. The story line of the Mule Creek prisoners seems largely forgotten for a good half of the book, and only reappears really to tie up loose ends in the last couple of chapters. The background story of the Zeros and their history is largely ignored, which gives them a lack of authenticity.
Despite these flaws, the book is somewhat easy to read. It does tie up things nicely at the end, yet leaves a sense of future development for characters. If you like thrillers and young adult fiction, you may find this enjoyable. However, if you prefer a deeper prose with real emotional attachment and intricately detailed action, this one isn't for you.