One of Us

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 23 Aug 2019

Member Reviews

One of Us is not for the faint of heart. That said, it's an incredibly powerful book that leaves an indelible mark, despite being really hard to take at times.

In One of Us, something has happened to human genetics. A sexually-transmitted bacterium that causes genetic mutations has spread like wildfire. By 1970, one in three births is teratogenic -- the babies are born with inhuman features, some resembling animals, others mostly human but distorted, such as the boy whose face is upside down.

Prenatal testing has become mandatory, with mandatory abortion of abnormal babies. High school students' most serious class is health education, where they learn the risks of the bacterium and where abstinence is promoted as the only way to be sure not to pass it along. And the teratogenic babies are never, ever kept by their parents -- instead, they're deposited in homes, where the children are raised in abysmal conditions, watched over, controlled, and kept separate from the "normal" population.

As the book opens, it's 1984, and the first generation of plague children is in their teens. The question looms -- what will happen when then become adults? Do they have rights? What sort of future might await them? Complicating matters further is the discovery that some of the plague children seem to have special powers -- like Goof, the boy with the upside-down face, whose funny ability to finish other people's sentences is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his telepathic abilities.

The plague children are well aware of how the rest of the world views them -- and for some, it's time to demand more. Do they rise up and overthrow their masters? Is non-violent protest the way forward, or is the only way to tear down an unjust world to burn it down completely and rebuild it themselves?

The characters in One of Us are remarkable and unforgettable. Enoch is known to his friends as Dog (Enoch being his "slave name", according to the group's intellectual leader, Brain). Dog has the facial characteristics of a dog, but he has the soul of a boy who just wants friendship and freedom and a happy life. Brain is described as looking like a mix between a gorilla and a lion, and his intelligence is off the charts. Then there's Edward, known as Wallee, who is described as looking like a bowling pin with a face, moving on a mass of roots/tentacles. The plague children's appearances may be frightening, but inside, they're still children, and they live life on a daily basis knowing that they're hated, feared, and shunned.

It's a powder keg, and yes, it does explode. The build-up makes it clear that violence is inevitable, even as we see all the places along the way where different actions or decisions might have led to different outcomes.

There's so much to One of Us. It's an exploration of societal injustice and divisions, and what happens when unreasoning hatred takes the lead. It illustrates the terrible outcomes of an "us vs them" mentality, where a middle ground is never an option. And it's also just a flat-out terrifying, deeply engrossing story of genetics run amok and what such a world might look like.

As I mentioned earlier, this is not a book for the squeamish -- there are some scenes with very high ick factors, so trust me and stay away if you can't stomach such things.

That aside, I wholeheartedly recommend One of Us. It's disturbing and awful, and also an incredibly powerful read.
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Some books linger long after being read, some books make you uncomfortable by illuminating the dark side of humanity, and some books are allegories for the relevant social and political issues of today. And some books, like One of Us by Craig DiLouie, cross all of these topics and themes.

The book starts out with a common science fiction premise – human mutation. An STD has caused a string of pregnancies that result in “plague kids” being born, kids that are considered physically repugnant to “Normals.” They might be covered in fur, for example, or have an upside-down face, or be superhumanly smart but with an apelike appearance.

The kids both have legal names given to them at birth and names given to them by their fellow plague kids, based on their appearance/abilities. This aspect of the story seems similar to a favorite comic series of mine, X-Men. However, where the X-Men have amazingly useful powers and great physical attractiveness, many of the plague kids have characteristics that may seem useless, rather than useful, and “ugly” appearances.

This latest generation of infected kids were separated from their families at birth (often willingly on the families’ parts, who saw their offspring as undesirable and a social black mark against them) and stuck into Homes: places run by the mentally unstable and criminals who abuse and sometimes kill their charges. Nominally under government supervision, these Homes are terrible places in remote locations far away from Normals, so both Normals and plague kids grow up mostly separate from each other.

There is a whole cast of characters on both sides of the equation, and each one has a variety of motivations. For example, there’s the plague kid Dog, who wants to believe the best about Normals and their intentions despite evidence to the contrary. Then there’s Brain, who prophesizes that a revolution is coming as soon as the plague kids grow up and realize they deserve more than the short end of the stick.

On the Normal side, there’s teenager Sally, who sympathizes with the plight of the plague kids, and her friend Jake, who is trying to lead a revolution to teach people to treat the kids as human beings. At the same time, Jake’s father is leading the charge to condemn them. There’s also Gaines, one of the teachers at the Home, who sees both plague kids and women as subhuman and treats them accordingly.

Most of the plague kids are in their early teens, just past/starting puberty. When puberty hits, that’s when strange things start to happen that strike a match to the powder keg of us versus them.

The reason for the change is that plague kids aren’t just ugly Normals. Many of them develop amazing powers once past childhood. And if Normals can’t learn to start treating them as human, the kids might become the monsters that Normals always feared them to be.

This book has coming-of-age elements and a dystopian outlook, although I wouldn’t call it a complete dystopia. It touches upon issues of race and class, the haves and have-nots, and the religious and moral implications of how humanity can be defined. It does a good job of creating parallels to relevant social, political, and cultural issues of today, including both positive and negative examples of bias and behavior.

If there’s one criticism I might have about the premise, it’s that the culture of the book seems to have more of a 1950s feel than 1984, when the book is supposed to be set. The explanation of why – financial and cultural stagnation from dropping birth rates after the plague hits – comes later in the story, and perhaps could have been mentioned a bit earlier. I felt a bit of a disconnect each time the 1980s references were mentioned, when the characters behaved as if time had stopped a couple of decades earlier.

But that’s a minor detail and wouldn’t bother most readers. The writing itself is intriguing, the voice of the narrative and dialogue compelling, and the story unfolds with both heartbreaking and emotional inevitability.

The plot is as complex as the characters, and there are tales of love and humor, wish fulfillment and broken dreams, heartbreak and redemption. This book gives nods to classical tales from which the author might have drawn inspiration – books like Lord of the Flies, 1984, Of Mice and Men, The Metamorphosis, and most probably a slew of others.

This novel feels thematic and important to the times we live in by drawing on popular culture, classic literature, and today’s social and political issues. I’d definitely recommend it – you’ll be thinking about this twisted and complex world and its characters long after you put the book down.
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This is a book I’m going to remember for a very long time and I’m going to drop everything to pick the next book up. I was hanging on the edge through the entire last half of this book and I read it one sitting because I couldn’t put it down once it got its hooks into me.

This is unlike any other urban fantasy I’ve read. Although on the shorter side, this is not a light read. It covers a lot of difficult topics and will likely leave you thinking on it for a while after you’re done.

In this world, there was a virus that struck the globe without warning in the 1970’s. Children were being born with never seen before mutations – babies with tentacles, horns, claws, fur all over their bodies, etc. Those kids are shipped off and kept secluded from polite society. Since this virus is sexually transmitted, extreme rules are going into place when birth rates of mutants hit 1/3 births. Anyone who wants to have sex has to get tested for the virus, and if someone tests positive for the virus and is pregnant, an abortion is mandatory. However, since those rules took decades to go into effect, there are now over 1 million mutant children being housed throughout the country in barbaric conditions. They are essentially being used as slave labor and no one knows what’s going to happen when they reach adulthood, which is just around the corner for the oldest of the mutant children. The world is becoming more and more tense and in some countries the mutant kids are hunted down and killed, not just imprisoned. What no one knows, because the ‘disease’ is so new, is that these mutant kids develop super human powers as they age and hit puberty. There are those that can create fire, control peoples minds, and blow holes through flesh more effectively than bullets.

This story follows a group of mutant kids growing up on the outskirts of society in a small rural town down south, while simultaneously following a group of ‘normal’ kids growing up not far away, but living entirely different lives. There are also a bunch of pov’s from the adults in the town that I found equally immersive. It’s extremely difficult to describe the overall plot because there are so many moving pieces and so many characters with their own motivations that pull the story along – but suffice it to say that this is a story of ‘us vs them’ and the worst consequences that can bring. When two sides demonize each other to the point of a powder keg explosion, there’s not much that can stop it once the fuse is lit.

There are a ton of POV’s but it’s not confusing, and I genuinely found all of the characters to be highly engaging. Whether I was rooting for them, disgusted by them, or had mixed feelings about them – each and every one of them held my attention. When the POV’s switched I was eager to see what the other characters had been up to. I found them all to be thoroughly fleshed out, and even when I hated them I understood their motivations. It made everything feel all too real, to be honest. I think that’s why this book will stick with me, the characters could do monstrous things, and I hated some of them, but I still always knew why they were doing what they were doing.

This book made me feel every emotion there is to feel, and those emotions lingered long after I had finished. It’s been a long time since a fantasy book has done that to me, and I’m so glad I picked this one up. It pulls no punches, so be warned this is not a light happy book.


Audience:

urban fantasy
multi pov
xmen like mutants
darker stories
those who like emotional rollercoasters

Ratings:

Plot: 14/15
Characters: 15/15
World Building: 14/15
Writing: 14/15
Pacing: 14/15
Originality: 14/15
Personal Enjoyment: 10/10
Final Score: 95/100 – 5 stars, can not recommend it enough
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One of Us is a classic example of a book that should not be judged by its cover, even though I initially was guilty of this very mistake: when looking at this title on the Orbit newsletter, the cover appeared so bland to my eyes that I was not even tempted to read the book’s synopsis. My bad.  Luckily for me, some of my fellow book bloggers possess a more open mind and a keener curiosity, and through their reviews I learned that I was missing out on a very intriguing story, so I rushed to correct my error.

I knew, going in, that I would find myself in the midst of a dark, harsh tale, one that would push several of my buttons, but when all is said and done I don’t regret having read it despite the anguish and rage and frustration that it engendered: this novel is like a mirror into mankind’s soul, and once we look at ourselves through it, what stares back at us is something we should try to grow up from if we want to keep calling ourselves ‘human’. 

The story is set in an alternate 1984 (a curiously apt choice at that…): fourteen years before a teratogenic virus spread all over the world causing the birth of mutated babies, and while many did not survive long after birth, a good number of them made it through. Rejected by their families, they were confined in the Homes, virtual prisons where the “monsters” would grow up out of sight and out of mind, while the world community, in a rush of puritanical zeal, implemented a strict regime of screening and control on sexual intercourse, especially where young people were concerned, to avoid further spreading of the plague.

In the rural community of Huntsville, Georgia, one of the Homes lies on the outskirts of town, the kids it holds employed as cheap labor in the surrounding farms, while their scant education is geared toward destroying their sense of worth and implementing blind obedience: the “plague children”, as they are called, are nothing but slaves, living in squalid conditions that would make Dickensian tales pale in comparison, most of their “teachers” little better than the dregs of society, taking on the job for lack of worthier opportunities.   Yet something is changing, because with the onset of puberty many of the Home’s inmates start showing peculiar abilities, like reading or influencing minds, starting fires, flying, and so forth; a few of them are spirited away in secret installations where they are employed by the military or the intelligence services, but the rest of them, on the advice of Brain, try to keep their powers hidden.  Brain is one of the more feral looking children of the Huntsville home, and the one who possesses the keener intellect: the acute awareness he was born with made him understand that one day the showdown between the “normals” and the “monsters” would come, and he wants them to be ready to fight back – for themselves and their right to exist.   Once the conflict does erupt, the fury and resentment that have been long simmering under the surface – on both sides – flare up into a bloody climax fueled by mindless violence and carnage of apocalyptic proportions.

The first question that comes to mind while reading One of Us is the one about the definition of ‘monster’: does being born with a dog’s head and paws, or an upside-down face, or looking like a cross between a lion and a gorilla make you a monster? Or should the label apply to those who confine these hapless creatures into internment camps, literally (and gleefully) torturing them for the slightest deviation from the imposed discipline?  Humanity does not show its best in the sliver of society represented by the Huntsville community, one where the fear and loathing for the plague children comes out of the kind of blind ignorance that is proud of itself, which refuses even to consider an alternative to the illiterate narrow-mindedness that many wear like a badge of honor.  

I was deeply distressed while reading about the children’s treatment in the Home, where constant abuse, filthy living conditions and abominable food were everyday occurrences, to the point that when one of them is incarcerated on a false accusation, he considers the jail cell – with its bare-bones cot and waste disposal facility – like an unhoped-for luxury: that simple thought, one that does not even touch upon the fact that the boy is being unjustly held, was both chilling and heartbreaking, moving me to unexpected tears.  That’s why I felt even more profoundly the anger that possessed me once the false premise of wrongdoing by one of the plague children drives the oh-so-good, law-abiding citizens of Huntsville toward a hate-fueled pogrom.   By that point, all concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ fly out of the window, with acts of cruelty (and a few exceptions of mercy) being performed by citizens and children alike.

The reason this story can hit so close to home comes from the realization that humankind can be cruel toward those it perceives as ‘different’, and it becomes even more so when its own well-being is threatened in some way, be it physical or economical: that’s the moment when the need for a scapegoat becomes undeniable, when the compulsion to heap the mounting frustration on the nearest available target reduces our better angels to silence.  The fact that this novel is set in our past – or an alternative version of it – does not make it any less actual, or help us dismiss the story as simple fiction, because we only need to turn to any news channel to see a version of it play out under our eyes.

As I said, One of Us is a dark, brutal read that might not be for everyone, but still I would recommend it, if nothing else because of its ability to make us think, to take a good look at ourselves and wonder if we can do better, or if we want to.  My only complaint with the book comes from the ending that seems to be fizzling out somewhat after the huge, well-crafted buildup: but it’s a minor complaint indeed, considering that this story will remain with me for a long, long time….
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Published by Orbit on July 17, 2018

One of Us is an alternate history, set in Georgia in the 1980s. But One of Us is also an allegory. “Folks don’t care about the truth,” one of the characters thinks. “Not when it interfered with a comforting narrative.” And that pretty much sums up America today, a country divided between people who care about the truth and people who dismiss facts as “fake news” because it gets in the way of how they want to perceive the world.

In One of Us, Reagan is president and the B-52s are on the radio, although their songs are a bit different from the ones we know. A plague has infected children. Don’t worry, it isn’t a zombie plague, but it does turn some kids into monsters. At least, that’s what normal people call them. People in the novel who define themselves as normal are white, not well educated, and happy to exploit the plague kids when it comes time to harvest the cotton.

The plague is sexually transmitted. At school, Amy Green is taught the importance of abstinence and safe sex. She’s taught how to get a mandatory abortion if a plague kid makes her pregnant. She’s taught that it’s illegal for someone who carries the plague to have sex, and that it is illegal for anyone to have sex until they’re tested. That saddens Amy because, unbeknownst to all the other kids in her school, she carries the plague germ. So much for Amy’s sex life.

Enoch Bryant is known to the other kids as Dog. He looks kind of like a wolf, with long skinny arms like hairy pipe cleaners. He lives in the Homes as a ward of the state. A million plague kids have been abandoned to the Homes. Some are starting to show special abilities. Some kids who exhibit abilities (like Goof, who finishes other people’s sentences before they’re spoken) are taken away from the Homes to assist government agencies. Dog’s friend George (a/k/a Brain) is a genius, but he hides it. Brain is a born leader, and he intends to lead a revolution.

I view the story is an allegory of racial, ethnic, and religious oppression mixed with an allegory of discrimination against AIDS victims. The older generation praises progressive American values for segregating plague kids in Homes, rather than making them live in the woods or hunting them down like the less civilized European countries, but really the plague kids are slave labor for Georgia farms.

The younger (normal) generation is divided about the plague kids. Some agree with their parents, who benefit from exploiting the kids and see it as part of the natural order. Kids who are naturally rebellious empathize with the plague kids. They don’t view having the plague as a reason to lose freedom or dignity.

Judging from the dialog, pretty much everyone in the novel is a dumb Southern hick, including the teachers. This alternate history is even worse than our current reality, but it may be unfairly heavy-handed in its failure to give a voice to any “normal” adults who might be expected to resist the exploitation and mistreatment of children. Another strike is that the story plods at times, as young characters deal with their relationship angst. I kept wondering, “Is Brain’s revolution ever going to happen, or what?” When the story finally reaches a climax, it feels like an anticlimax.

Still, I like the novel’s message, which builds on Nietzsche’s warning that those who fight monsters must be careful not to become monsters. That’s particularly true when society defines monsters as anyone who happens to belong to a different group. One of Us does a nice job of reminding us that those who claim to be fighting monsters often make the monsters scapegoats for problems of their own making.

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Who defines what a monster is? Is it the child who doesn't look “normal”, or the adult who locks that child away in a home with other children, who are beaten, not educated, and forced to work in the fields? Which of these is truly the monster? If the "monster" eventually turns on its human "masters", was it because he was always a monster and it was right to keep him locked away? Or is it because he *became* a monster upon realizing the truth of his existence? In One of Us, these questions are explored, using a mutation that happens in the early 80’s. Babies are born that come out as “monsters”, and their horrified and terrified parents give them up to the government Homes. It’s in one of these homes that we meet Dog, Brain, Tiny, and a variety of others – all of whom are coming of age and realizing their lot in life. Things are not made any easier by those “normal” folks living in town, either – most of whom are angry that government resources, during a recession, should be “wasted” on monsters that should have been killed in the first place. 

 As is always the case, it’s the kids dealing with the consequences of the actions of their parents, their neighbors, and friends – but without realizing and understanding how those consequences fit into their everyday lives. The kids who are raised to fear real “monsters”, the monsters who are raised to feel less-than.  There are heavy themes in this book, and timely ones, too. So many similarities to the state of our country right now, with “other” being cruelly mocked or tormented or beaten – sometimes even killed – simply for not being what someone else expected. I’m not sure if this was in the author’s mind during the crafting of this novel, but it’s certainly present. Having said that, the story is well-written and a compulsive read, but it is dark, and I'm not ashamed to say I shed a few tears in places. There are lessons here that can be seen – or the book can just be read as the story that it is, depending on the reader.

Basically - come for the story. You may or may not get the deeper themes that I did, but the story is worth reading. And if you sense even a small bit of that darkness in the underlying message, it will make you think all the harder about those questions - and what the answers may say about the book, the world around you, and even you.

(The full review will appear on vampirebookclub.net)
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