Review of The Farmed
The Farmed by Lisa Caskey is a dystopian science-fantasy novel set in the late 21st century in the remnants of San Francisco. I categorize this as having a fantasy element because there is telepathy, while not being magic, it is a speculative metapower outside the realms of science and technology. This is the first book in a trilogy, the second book is The Mutated.
The story opens with teen protagonist Winifred Kimball awaking strapped to a table in prison (reformatory), she has no memory of how she got there or why. As Winnie’s recollections return, the world and conspiracy are unveiled, leading to her soon-to-be role in the conflict between the totalitarian Council and insurrectionist underground (The Enterprise). If this setup sounds familiar, it should, two successful franchises, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth’s Divergent follow powered teens battling the corrupt establishment. Those are just well known examples, there are several other similar movies in the works (and a couple that already flopped). With all that energy being spent I can only assume there’s an audience for it.
Winifred eventually escapes the reformatory with the assistance of Eric, but not before learning her mother is also a captive. In the process, Winnie learns that she has special abilities. She gets to the underground where the insurrectionists live better than than the downtrodden people trapped in the Loin. She is introduced to the resistance leader (the Captain) and his security adviser (Joe) and one of the Captain’s many children, Rose. It turns out her rescuer Eric is also one of the leader’s children.
Things start out well, but take a turn for the worse when she expresses a desire to go after a journal bequeathed by her recently deceased grandmother. The underground won’t let her do anything that risks the Council recapturing her. Essentially, she’s simply become a prisoner to a different group.
There are some twists and turns as she learns more about her origins and legacy, about her abilities and such. Most of this occurs after she recovers her grandfather’s journal (the entries of which are interleaved chapters through the course of the book). After some maneuvering, relationship upheaval and trust issues, Winnie pushes matters to create a final showdown situation with the council leader Chancellor Valentina Travieso.
Execution : 3.4-4.0 — The initial presentation of the story is fragmented, partly I assume to emulate Winnie’s fragmented consciousness. As a writer myself, I can see this to a degree, but I wonder if the effect is worth the cost in reader orientation. Add to this, blocks of exposition that slow things down and you have technique hampering the story-telling. Show not tell is a mantra I follow and I look for it in a book I’m reading. I’m on-board with Author Caskey’s concept, but I cringe when characters ‘find themselves’ doing ‘something’. The hidden-ability trope is well-established, so there are many good examples to steal (uh emulate). The use of physical registers and sensory is key to raising narratives to the next level. There is also a certain amount of bathos in this where the diction isn’t keeping pace with the action.
My last comment is just the handling of telepathy. I find doing it with italics and no quotes a cumbersome and jarring mechanism. For my own writing I use < > for telepathic exchanges, and I surround electronic communication (phones, radios, etc.) with asterisks. This way when a character sends a telepathic message, <Are you there?> she asked in her thoughts. It becomes a visual que. This way punctuation and attribution rules can be also be applied the same as regular dialogue.
Setting : 3.4 — The world-building in The Farmed is inconsistent to me. Add to it that this type of world has been depicted numerous times going back to the now deemed classic 1960’s novel A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. It’s almost to the point now that nuclear Armageddon has become passe in favor of the zombie apocalypse. That aside, a more earnest attempt to explain how the mutually assured destruction deadlock ended up broken. Today, except for a few tiny island nations led by kooks and whack-jobs, nobody actually believes a nuclear exchange can be survived. It is unlikely that any of these smaller actors have enough warheads to get through the nets of the major players. Anyone who believes the U.S. has actually given up all it’s anti-ICBM technology is naive. Further, with San Francisco being a major port it would be a target of interest behind the naval/aerospace installations at San Diego. It’s not hard to get my buy-in, I just need more specific effort spent on the sequence of events that makes it possible.
The other obstacle is what sequence of events removes the scourge of governmental blockers opposed to any and all stem research (just because). The anti-intellectual pro-creation conservative zombies continue to hinder and reconstruct opposition to genetic research regardless of it’s potential good. How did we get rid of them?
Lastly, radiation and mutation– I’ll leave it at– not so much.
Character :3.65 — Overall, author Caskey does a decent job of portraying Winifred, her youth and inexperience. As a picky reader, I would have liked more ‘showing’ and less telling. At times, it felt a bit melodramatic and forced to me. In this, I mean characters getting worked up by something when worse things and possibilities have already happened. Causes and effects of things didn’t always track for me. Visually speaking, character tags were needed, and the visual details of the supporting cast needed reinforcement throughout. Characters like Joe (it would have helped a lot if it had been spelled Jo to help identify female). I really wanted the subordinate characters to be more strongly typed and portrayed, so they acted more like foils than plot and subplot facilitators.
One of the bits I thought needed work was the development of Winifred’s talents. The diction and visuals used to describe her physicality in combat needed to be more vivid, with choreography that matched the character’s ability. Also, it’s a hard sell that a character would be unaware of their strength or speed.
Overall : 4.0 — This is a decent read. I would have liked a little more surprise or twist to the end, but this is part of a series. The characters could use some extra pop which I hope author Caskey will address in the next volume. While the setting/setup is very similar to previous offerings there’s still the potential to do something different with the scenario. I have a weakness for superheroes and if author Caskey is headed that direction, I’m on board.