It’s 2059 and following the Great Floods half the world’s land is under water. Only the central part of Old Britain, the Territory, is fit for human habitation, and there’s just not enough room there. As the Ministry says, ‘limited space requires limited numbers’ so all children have to sit an exam in their fifteenth year. Those who fail this Territorial Allocation Assessment (TAA) are sent to almost-certain death in the disease-infested Wetlands. The brightest people must survive so they can solve all the problems.
One problem that has been solved is how to ensure children pass the TAA. Those who are rich or well connected enough now breed Childes in womb pods. These Childes have Nodes that, from the age of 9, they plug into Ports to upload information directly into their brains. With the TAA heavily weighted towards factual knowledge, they have a huge advantage over Norms like Noa and her friends who have to study the old-fashioned way. Exams have never been so stressful! Noa’s mother works for the Ministry so her parents could have had a Childe but they chose not to. They were obviously aware of the downsides – uploading stifles creativity and individualism. Luckily Noa is super bright and studious so she’s likely to pass the TAA anyway, but that’s not the case with her best friends, the artistic Jack and boy-mad Daisy. The Childes look down on the Norms and the Norms look down on the ‘freakoids’ as they call them. But then Raf arrives at school. He’s a freakoid, but he doesn’t behave like one, and Noa soon falls for him – which upsets the intensely jealous Jack. But Noa is a robust girl, and nothing gets her down for long, whether it’s the demise of a friend, finding out the truth about her mother, or behaving in ways that have fairly dire consequences for other people.
The book’s told in the first person by Noa, whose language is very much that of a contemporary teenager. The winner of The Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Prize, it’s an enjoyable, fast-paced read, and raises some interesting questions about how you would behave in difficult situations, as well as being a clear indictment of the UK education system. It’s the first in a trilogy and I’ll be interested to see how the story progresses.