Naomi Foyle – Astra

naomifoyle-astraLike every child in Is-Land, Astra Ordott is looking forward to her Security shot so she can one day do her IMBOD Service and help defend her Gaian homeland from Non-Lander infiltrators. The one of Astra’s Shelter mothers, the formidable Dr Hokma Blesser, warns her that the shot will limit her chances of being a famous scientist – or helping raise the mysterious data-messenger Owleons that Hokma breeds – and Astra reluctantly agrees to deceive the Is-land authorities and all her family and friends in Or.

Astra grows up increasingly conscious of the differences between her and the other Or-kids – then Lil, an orphaned wild child of the forest, appears in Or and at last she has someone exciting to play with. But Lil’s father taught her some alarming ideas about the world, and Astra is about to learn some devastating truths about Is-Land, Non-Land, the Owleons, and the complex web of adult relationships that surrounds her.

Last year I reviewed Naomi Foyle’s Seoul Survivors and while the book and I didn’t really get along, I was very impressed with Foyle’s writing. And the premise of Astra sounded quite interesting, so I was really looking forward to seeing whether I’d get along better with Foyle’s sophomore effort. And I’m glad to say I did. Astra is just as thought-provoking as Seoul Survivors was, but without the problematic elements and Foyle’s use of language and imagery is just as good, if not better as it was in her previous novel. 

Astra is told from the third-person perspective of its titular main character. When we first meet Astra, she’s seven years old and her voice reflects that. For example, I was bothered by the fact that every time Astra is out in the forest, even if just walking from home to somewhere else, she’s pretending to be on patrol and protecting her village from infiltrators, until I realised that this is exactly what seven-year-olds do—everything is an adventure and they play any chance they get. A lot of the information we get about this dystopian future is filtered through her child-like lens and consequently it is a somewhat unreliable narration; we can never be sure that how Astra understands events is what actually happened. We see Astra at three different ages: seven, thirteen, and at seventeen. In each part of the book, Foyle manages to keep Astra’s voice distinctly her own, but tempered with more experience and as a result Astra’s perception and the narrative become more complex and sophisticated. She’s a fabulous main character and I really enjoyed reading about her.

Is-Land is very much a dystopian society. On the surface it should be a utopia – a return to living in harmony with nature, while retaining some of our modern technological and scientific advances – but in reality it is a suffocating society, bound by rigid rules and laws, often living in small commune-like settlements, that feel somewhat claustrophobic in their high measure of social control. There is an intricate social structure with children having Code, Birth, and Shelter parents in different combinations. So your Code Mother is the one that donated an egg to conceive you, but she doesn’t have to be your Birth Mother, i.e. the one who carries you to term, and neither of them has to be your Shelter Mother, who is the one who raises you. However, they can be a combination of all three. Every child has three Shelter parents, two who they live with and one that is Shared. It’s incredibly complicated to keep all the lines clear, especially as it concerns all the sibling bonds within Or. But it also means that a child is never left alone, there is always someone to care for them, which was an idea that I really liked as it means no child can fall through the cracks. However, it doesn’t mean that all family life is idyllic, as Astra’s troubles with her Shelter Mother Nimma attest.

Gaian politics are all based on the worship and protection of Gaia, Mother Earth. Gaia worship can take the form of meditation, but can also be sexual in nature. In fact the consumption of a Bonded relationship is called Gaia worship. Gaian children are educated in Gaia-playing from as young as thirteen, it’s even a compulsory class for Year Seven’s and there is even a time set aside for them to Gaia-play at school. On the one hand, especially with the rules they’ve been given, it would seem a good way to change rape-culture. At the same time, the thought of children that young being encouraged to experiment, not just alone but with each other, felt wrong to me. However, there is complete acceptance of sexuality, be it male or female, with no shame or judgement attached, which is an equality we are still striving for in today’s world.

One thing that sets Astra apart from the other children her age is the fact she hasn’t had her Security Shot. This means she isn’t a true Sec-Gen, whose emotional and hormonal reaction have been changed to be less extreme and volatile, to make them more prone to peaceful cooperation and obedience. I found it a completely creepy concept, as it takes away much of the individuality of these kids and while it doesn’t turn them into drones, it is a move in that direction. The difference between Astra and her peers is only emphasized by the appearance of Lil, a feral child raised in the forest, who certainly hasn’t had her shot and whose behaviour is closer to Astra’s than Astra’s behaviour is to those of her Sec-Gen siblings.

I enjoyed Astra immensely. The novel’s plot is fascinating, with an intricate web of relationships between Astra and those around them and the adults amongst themselves and some compelling political shenanigans going on in the background, all of it set down in Foyle’s smooth and flowing writing style. Astra is a far slower-paced novel than Foyle’s debut, but this slower pace allows Foyle to build up her world in great detail and create a complicated history and society as a backdrop for Astra’s story to unfold against. The ending of the novel comes at a natural break, with a lot of threads solved, but with new paths opened up to Astra. I’m looking forward to the next instalment of The Gaia Chronicles to follow Astra down her new path.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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