I LOVED THIS BOOK.
This is not going to be a detached, professional review, because I'm too excited about this book for that. It was amazing, and really exceeded my expectations. I was in a hurry looking for a book to read on the bus from Dublin to Cork and a friend of a friend pointed this one out so I bought it, and I sure am glad I did because despite the fact that it's a YA dystopia and that market has been saturated for years, it was fabulous.
The blurb it comes with really doesn't do it justice, so here's my description of it:
Thousands of years ago, the Irish pushed the fairy race Sídhe out of their Many-Coloured Land and banished them to the Grey Land. Now, the Sídhe are back for revenge, determined to wipe out Ireland. 25 years ago, they cut the country off from the rest of the world by crashing planes out of the sky and destroying ships and communications; now every Irish teenager gets a Call at some point in their adolescence, spiriting them to the Grey Land where they have to outlast a day running from the Sídhe who are very powerful and want to torture, twist up and murder them and contort them into strange pitiful shapes. School has been replaced by training, where everyone practises becoming as fit and strong as possible and studies the Sídhe to have the best chance of surviving and continuing their race. Still, in twenty-five years the survival rate has increased only from 1% to 10%.
Into this world comes Nessa, cursed by polio with twisted, useless legs she can hardly walk on, never mind run. When she is sent to the school aged 10, everyone knows she's a goner - but Nessa is determined not to be. With no medicine or means to fix her legs, she builds up arm strength and uses her intelligence to come up with ingenious ways to overcome her disability and diligently studies the Sídhe. But in a world where 90% of even trained teenagers will die, will it be enough?
The character creation and development in this book is brilliant. I adore Nessa, and I haven't been as emotionally invested in a character in a long time. I love strong characters who never give up despite the difficulties they face, who are smart and brave and hardworking and proactive, and Nessa meets all those criteria in spades. I really liked her on a personal level too - we both rely on our brains.
The secondary characters are also well-developed, and we get a very interesting insight into everyone when they're at their most vulnerable, in life-or-death situations with the Sídhe. Conor, a power-hungry egomaniacal fellow student, has a cool (and suspenseful) arc, I liked the subtlety of Nessa and Anto's fledgling forbidden romance because it never came near overpowering the plot since both were very aware of the stakes, and Megan and Nessa's friendship was nice. I liked the different alliances and enmities among the children -- it's an interesting exploration of what happens when you put a bunch of children with likely PTSD from seeing their siblings mangled by the Sídhe into an environment where they are constantly thinking about the Sídhe, speaking in Sídhe and competing to be in the surviving 10%.
Stakes & Suspense
The overall stakes are exquisitely clear in this book - the Irish are a dying race, and the fate of the entire country rests on the shoulders of these teenagers who must survive a day with the murderous Sídhe. Towards the end of the book it gets very interesting, as some surprising stakes are uncovered and certain actions turn out to have unexpected but foreshadowed and resonant consequences that only serve to make the book more gripping. The Call is difficult to put down, especially near the end.
I didn't really notice much about the writing style, to be honest, because I was so immersed in the story. Which means this is an actual good story instead of some annoying pontificating literary fiction. At the start of the book, the writing annoyed me because it was very on the nose, but once I got swept up I stopped noticing the writing. All I can say is that it's effective and occasionally memorable. It's sharp, direct and does the job, so for that I say it's well-written. It's perfect for this story because it avoids bogging down the action and doesn't slow down the thrill.
There's a two-girl couple, which isn't made a big deal of, which is nice. I have no idea what the characters look like (probably because I have aphantasia), except that Nessa is described as beautiful from the waist up, so I can't say much else on that.
Ending (No Spoilers!)
I mostly liked the ending, and it was one of those nailbiters where I looked at the number of pages and wondered how the plot could possibly get wrapped up in that few pages. I can't say much because of spoilers, but the book is left open enough for a sequel. That said, most of the threads are wrapped up. I took off half a star for leaving it open for a series and I'm sick of YA doing that.
Sorry to compare something to The Hunger Games, but this is like that except more horror, a school dynamic and more fleshed-out characters. Similar in other ways.
I have aphantasia, which means I can't visualise at all except sometimes when I'm asleep. I can't remember images or generate them, and when I'm reading a book, even if it's very visually descriptive, I see nothing.
Here's a link about aphantasia, and here's a relevant excerpt from it:
So basically, books that are heavy on visual imagery are very boring to me because i can't remember or benefit from any of it (or have to do work in remembering the specific words) but I love books that are thought-provoking and suspenseful and have interesting issues I can mull over. I've heard that about 2% of people have aphantasia, so writers, remember that world-building is not just about the visuals of the world. I do not care at all about the landscape, but give me some fascinating world systems and I'll love you.
Anyway, I'll be doing a whole post or two about aphantasia soon, so back to The Call. The Call is very gory, and I'm kinda glad I couldn't actually visualise any of the ripped up faces, but I still got to enjoy the suspense and workings of the world and figuring out the plots and issues I could think about like who was to blame, the Irish or the Sídhe, and the group dynamics of the teenagers.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who ever enjoyed YA dystopia, and also to fans of YA and Irish folklore, and fantasy.
The book has a pretty grim subject, but I think the amazing characters, gripping plot and high concept definitely make it worth reading. One of the most enjoyable books I've read this year.