I had wanted to read The Culling since Brodie of Eleusinian Mysteries mentioned it in a Waiting on Wednesday post. When I saw it available on NetGalley, I requested it straight away and was reminded that the protagonist is gay. I just knew I had to review it for LGBTQ YA Month, and I'm so glad I did! This book is AMAZING!
Lucian "Lucky" Spark lives in a dystopian police state, where, once teenagers reach the age of 16, they are entered into the ballot to become one of five recruits to take part in the trials to become an elite military Imposer. Only one makes it through. Those who fail at any of the trials have to choose which of their two Incentives - their loved ones - will die for their failure. On the day of Recruitment, Lucky's name is picked. Thrust into training he wants no part of, Lucky must do all he can to keep his four-year-old brother Cole and his surrogate mother Mrs. Bledsoe alive - knowing that means the other Recruits will have to have to die, along with their loved ones. Being a recruit becomes increasingly harder as he strikes up tentative friendships with his fellow Recruits, and finds he has feelings for one of them, Digory.
Oh my god, this book is incredible! I can't even begin to tell you how much! At times The Culling reminded me of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Divergent by Veronica Roth, but it's a very different story altogether. The Culling is probably the harshest on the characters of the three (if we're considering only the first book in the series) both physically and psychologically.
At first I worried that I wasn't going to be the biggest fan, as the weeks of training went by so quickly. I wanted to see more of what actually went into the training, rather than just be told about various parts of it in summary. The three missions they had while in training were the main focus, and were fascinating, but while I was reading, I wished there was more covering the training generally. I worried the Trials would be similarly glossed over, but fortunately I was wrong.
Having now read the whole book, I understand now why we weren't given as much when it came to the training, because the Trials are intense. Seriously, so much goes on in them, and they're absolutely horrific. The Trials themselves are bad enough; they're so dangerous, with a high probability that the Recruits may lose their lives, but it's not just their lives that are on the line. If you fail, not only do you have to chose which of your two Incentives die, but all Recruits have to watch. These aren't pretty merciful deaths either. The Hunger Games is kind of tame in comparison, in my opinion. Really. The deaths are violent and very descriptive. And it's not just reading about the deaths, but knowing the characters chose that person to die, and now have to watch it happen, and seeing how they react... oh my god, it's just awful! Imagine having to choose, choose, which of two people you fiercely love will die. Knowing that if you don't choose, all three of you will die. It's just horrendous. And sometimes, the Recruits have to choose how their Incentive dies. It's unbelievable. More than once I was rocked to my core because of just what the characters have to go through.
The one good thing that can be said about this dystopian world is that it doesn't bat an eyelid at homosexuality. Homosexuality nor the word "gay" are ever mentioned. It's a dystopian novel with a romantic subplot, and that's it. Just a romance. A romance that just so happens to be between two guys. This is also the first book I've read for the Month to include same-sex marriage. And no-one raises an eyebrow. It's just awesome! It's such a complete non-issue. How it really should be
However, I wasn't too keen on the romance. Almost everything else was perfect, but I couldn't quite get behind the romance. I loved both Lucky and Digory, but their relationship just felt a little cheesy to me, like it wanted to be an epic romance, but didn't quite make it. It just didn't work for me, but I still found the twists surrounding it really intriguing.
There were certain things within the story that were only touched on a little, and then not mentioned again, that I was surprised about - especially in the third training mission. Hopefully there will be more on those things in future books, but it seemed odd to me that there wasn't any discussion of certain things seen and experienced by the characters after the fact.
But overall, an incredible dystopian novel! I am so excited for the second novel in The Torch Keeper series when it comes out next year. This is one debut novel that will blow your mind and knock you for six over and over again. Absolutely amazing! Steven dos Santos is definitely one to watch!
Thank you to Flux via NetGalley for the eGalley.