Author: Shaun Young
Publisher: Harmony Ink Press
Cover Artist: Anna Sikorska
Rating: 5 of 5 Stars
Publication Date: 06/30/2016
Length: Novel (~ 50K-100K)
Genre: Gay, Gay Fiction, Science Fiction, Young Adult
James Fisher’s memories of Earth are distant, replaced by the harsh realities of life on the planet Castor. As a “Half-Adapt,” James is one of many who were biologically engineered to survive conditions on Castor—and to labor for the benefit of the ruling class. Indentured to servitude, James has no way to defy or escape the severe caste system… until he meets Vidal Centa, his master’s nephew. The draw they feel toward each other is instant, powerful, and maybe even enough to move beyond the unyielding regulations of their society.
But not everyone blindly accepts the absolute power of the oligarchy. The Independence Society fights for freedom and equality, and since James shares in their ideals, he joins their ranks. Soon he’s faced with an impossible decision: continue the fight against the oppressors or choose the love of the young man who embodies everything the Society loathes. With a looming conflict threatening to tear the planet apart, James fears he cannot continue to fight if he wants to keep his relationship with Vidal.
I requested this book from PBA because it’s by a male author I’ve not heard of, and because the premise—a young man working as an indentured servant on a distant planet in some unspecified future—was really interesting. Frankly, I was dubious, because this seems to be the author’s first book.
Well, I’m not dubious any more. This substantial novel works on several levels: as YA fiction, as LGBT fiction, and as science-fiction literature. It worked its way into my brain, and I gradually came to care profoundly about the protagonist, James Fisher, an Earth-born teenager, shipped off to the planet Castor as a small child. He awakes after years in stasis to find himself both orphaned and indentured with a thirty-year bond of servitude on an isolated wheat plantation. Somehow, in Young’s spare prose, he manages to evoke both Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” and John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” (although I confess I haven’t read that since high school in the 1970s). James (a plain, anglo name, which takes on its own significance in the course of the narrative) is in a bleak place and lives a life that is equally austere. He finds small pleasures for himself as the apprentice gardener in Dr. Niels’ sprawling experimental gardens, where he grows plants that have been genetically adapted to Castor’s peculiar atmosphere and soil.
The garden, and James’ tending of it, brings to mind another celebrated literary nugget: “Il faut cultiver notre jardin,” from Voltaire’s epic “Candide” (which I read, in French, in university). “We must cultivate our own garden” was Voltaire’s exhortation to find your own joy in a world full of injustice and misery. James embodies this notion in “Castor,” and ultimately the garden and the importance of plants takes its place as the most powerful central metaphor for the novel.
Young’s prose is not particularly elegant or self-consciously literary. It is clean and precise and reflects the age and position of the narrator without seeming juvenile at all. “Castor” is written without extensive explanation; the world-building sneaks up on your bit by bit, until you have a very clear image of not only the planet Castor, but the world on Earth that Castor’s inhabitants left behind.
Possibly the most subversive aspect of James’ character is revealed in a single statement he makes halfway through the book: “I don’t want to die, and I don’t want to kill anybody.” In a polarized world (not unlike our own) he refuses to take sides when that choice requires him to do something he knows to be unjust—even to someone he might consider his enemy. He is labeled a coward (and calls himself this) because he refuses to follow the rules (literary or political) of unthinking self-sacrifice that fuel action novels and romances alike. In short, James is a complex, profound, and sometimes disturbing character, because he refuses to do or feel what is expected if it is not true to the self he knows.
This is a surprisingly dark book for a YA audience, and yet ultimately it is about humble nobility and the triumph of idealism in an unlikely setting.
I would like to thank the publisher for providing me with the eARC of this title in exchange for my honest opinion.
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