There is no denying that this is a golden time for dystopian young-adult fiction, and author Catherine Knutsson’s debut novel fits nicely into the genre while offering up a unique twist.
It is 200 years in the future, and 16-year-old Cassandra Mercredi is living with her twin brother, Paul, and their father on the outskirts of the Corridor, home to the general population. Because of their aboriginal heritage (they come from a Métis background), the Mercredis are among the few who are immune to Plague, a disease that poses a constant threat and causes slow and painful death. Antigens in aboriginal blood offer protection, making it highly sought after.
When a new strain of Plague breaks out, the Mercredis avoid blood-harvesting government searchers by fleeing to the Island, where a boundary created by spirits keeps out non-aboriginals. There, they embark on a new life – Paul begins to learn the ancient ways of the Band (a group of aboriginal leaders on the Island), while Cassandra, a seer who has had unexplained visions her whole life, becomes the apprentice of Madda, the village healer. When the boundary is compromised, Cassandra is suddenly tasked with protecting her people and must navigate the dangerous spirit world alone.
Only Cassandra is privy to visions that suggest what is to come and what path should be taken. Despite having escaped the dangers of the Corridor, she discovers that the Island brings its own problems. Upon arriving, Cassandra spots a raven, a recurring symbol in the book, which tugs an oyster out from under a rock and drops it to its death. Given the Haida tribe’s creation legend, in which a raven discovers the first of mankind trapped within a clamshell, the oyster’s demise is obviously a bad omen. Add to that the mysterious lake creature that seems to be stalking her, and Cassandra has a lot to deal with.
The story is filled with references to aboriginal myths and traditions, creating a rich, inviting world, inspired in part by Knutsson’s own recently discovered Métis roots. The novel also throws in a healthy number of allusions to Arthurian and Greek legends.
To Knutsson’s credit, she has created a female protagonist who, like The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, is defined not by her gender, but rather by her ambition, talent, and selflessness in the face of great danger. When Cassandra’s family first moves to the Island, she is disappointed that there is no formal schooling available, and fears she will have no options beyond being a wife and homemaker. But she soon discovers that her healing skills and spirit visions are essential to her community’s survival, and she embraces a future she never before imagined, seizing the respect of others even as the Elders try to dismiss her. And, yes, there is a romantic plotline – Cassandra wins the heart of Bran Eagleson, the Band chief’s son – but her crush doesn’t cloud her view of the big picture.
There are times when readers might feel impatient for the mysteries to unfold – what do Cassandra’s prophetic dreams mean? what does that all-important trickster raven have in store for her? – but, for the most part, the enigmatic visions and trips into the cryptic spirit world, plentiful as they may be, are interspersed with enough plot-driving incidents and character interaction to keep things moving along.
Certain plot devices in the book could be considered clichéd, but they work so well that one forgives their predictability. The main one here is a dead mother, who killed herself after coming down with Plague when Cassandra and Paul were very young (their mother was not aboriginal, and therefore susceptible). However, the close-knit trio of Cassandra, Paul, and their father turns out to be heartwarming. When a natural disaster strikes and Paul disappears, his sudden absence from the narrative is felt as keenly by the reader as by Cassandra and her father.
One of Knutsson’s strengths is her ability to create fleshed-out characters that rarely fall into the simple categories of hero or villain. Several of the characters who come off as untrustworthy or dangerous prove to be sympathetic, or at least have the potential to redeem themselves. There’s a feeling that much more is lurking beneath the surface of this novel, one reason to hope it is the beginning of an ongoing series. There are plenty of untrodden paths left to explore in Knutsson’s exciting universe.