Author: Meagen Spooner
Length: 338 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★
Lark Ainsley lives in the last outpost of human civilization. Everything in her city, from the artificial sun-disc to the agricultural machines outside the city Wall, is powered by the Resource. The mysterious Institute harvests the Resource each year from a new group of children. At sixteen, Lark is relieved that she has finally been selected for a belated Harvesting. Once inside the Institute, however, she realizes that nothing is as it seems. But even if she somehow escapes the city, she will have to face the terrifying, possibly uninhabitable world beyond.
This picture doesn’t do the cover justice. You have to see it in person. It’s just breathtaking.
I liked this one. It wasn’t as good as the last two YA dystopians I read, but it was still a nice romp. The prose was quite pretty, even elegant in places. The story and world-building were not wholly original, but both were solid. The characters were a bit hit-or-miss and, overall, were probably the novel’s weakest point.
Skylark combines ideas from The Giver, The Hunger Games, and probably a bunch of other things to create a more or less coherent world (or really, two worlds). The first exists inside Lark’s domed city. If someone steps out of line, they can be sent outside the wall, or “Adjusted”. The Institute, a secretive governmental organization at the heart of the city, regulates the Resource, the energy source on which everything runs. As far as Lark knows, they are the last bastion of humanity. The remainder of the planet–including most animals and plants–was destroyed in wars more than a century ago. Before these wars, some people were able to regenerate their inherent supply of the Resource. Lark realizes she may also be Renewable when she is finally harvested, with deadly consequences. She is warned to escape and flee to the Iron Wood.
Outside of the wall, meanwhile, the world is bleak but not entirely dead or deformed. Pockets of concentrated magic–after Part 1, Lark only refers to the Resource as magic–are scattered throughout the barren landscape. In one of these, Lark encounters some sort of trapped energy phenomenon that gives readers the best idea of what happened to the planet during the wars:
The clock in the kitchen had stopped ticking.
The youngest girl, who could not have been more than eight, was gazing out the window. “Do you hear that?” she asked.
“Hang on,” said the father, preoccupied.
“No, that buzzing,” said the girl. Her voice suddenly jumped in pitch, to a scream. “Look, the window!”
Driven by the sudden urgency in the girl’s voice, the family turned to look out the window. … Whatever they saw…electrified them. Everyone was shouting, and the mother threw herself on top of the children, barely a second before the windows all shattered inward and the room flashed brighter than the sun.
The scene flashed again and without warning the two girls were back in the kitchen. (128-9)
Pretty terrifying, huh?
These pockets were never explained very well (one of the benefits of first-person narration, I suppose), but they did feel appropriately magical. Some of them are havens for things Lark has only seen in history books, such as honeybees and wildflowers.
Lark believes that no one without magic (i.e., no one who has been harvested) can survive beyond the city. Apart from the “wild boy” she befriends, the only inhabitants of the outside world appear to be wraith-like humanoids that she comes to call the “shadow people” that also seem to answer the question, “What about radiation poisoning?”
So while it was all fascinating and, for me, worked decently well, I was left with a lot of questions–namely, what the hell is the Resource? I had a theory that it was just a form of electricity, since it powers all sorts of machines, but at other times it really does seem like magic. I also wish the fate of the planet were clearer, especially since Lark’s so interested in history.
All that aside, the shadow people and Lark’s perceptions of the totally alien world around her made for pretty tense and absorbing reading. Her continual discovery new things was charming as well:
The meadow was strangely pale, reflecting the violet light and lookling like a sea of purple–
Flowers. Every inch of the meadow was blooming.
I dropped to my knees, spread my arms, and gathered up the blossoms, burying my face in them. They were barely scented, carrying the merest hint of something wild and heady. The blooms were white, reflecting the purple dome overhead and glowing in the twilight. Their petals brushed my cheeks and lips and eyes, growing damp from … the tears clinging to my eyelashes. (186)
I think Part 2 ought to have been longer. It had the best pacing and strongest writing of the novel. Nothing feels rushed, exactly, but there is a lot going on throughout for such a short book.
As for the characters, I kept hoping for a bit more from Lark. She had the potential to be Katniss-level badass, but unfortunately she just…wasn’t. Like most YA fantasy heroines, she’s (sigh) also Special. She wasn’t as self-sufficient as I would have liked, either–she wasn’t helpless but did need to be rescued frequently–and she could be painfully naive. Both could be excused by her background, though: she was raised in a literal bubble. But I will give her props for bravery and for sticking to her principles. I also loved that she was interested in history and wanted to pursue it as a career. Represent, girl!
No one else inside the city is really worth mentioning. Lark’s treacherous brother works for the Institute, as does Dreamboat, who promises to help her even though you can smell the funk on him from the beginning. And Gloriette, the obese lovechild of Dolores Umbridge and President Snow, is in charge of the whole shebang.
Outside of the Wall, Lark teams up with Nix, the mechanical Institute tracker that she reprograms and that develops its own remarkably sassy and entertaining voice; and Oren. It’s hard for me to say much about Oren since he is often deliberately distant and difficult for Lark to read. At first, he’s scarcely more than a shadow. Over time, though, he’s revealed to be savvy, feisty, and fierce. And his devotion to and concern for Lark is pretty adorable, very Tarzan-and-Jane.
I was sad to lose Oren for most of Part 3. Lark isn’t quite strong enough to carry the book on her own, and none of the new characters were all that interesting.
There were some tender scenes between Lark and Oren in Part 2, but not much real romance to speak of except towards the very end when Dreamboat from Part 1 reappears. Fortunately, Lark tells Dreamboat where he can stick it before being reunited with Oren, so there’s not much of a love triangle to speak of. (She occasionally thinks of Dreamboat in Part 2, but only to contrast his well-groomed appearance with Oren’s wild one.)
Unfortunately, there’s a twist that is hinted at throughout Part 2 that complicates their reunion. The little real romance that blossoms between them is, as a result, both delightful and tragic.
“Go,” I croaked.
“I’ll find you,” he said, turning away from me as if the sight of me was enough to remind him of what he was. He rubbed a hand over his face, leaving it clamped over his mouth so that it muffled his next words. “Even in the dark–” And I knew he did not mean nighttime when he said dark–“I can see you. You shine.” (311)
This passage is enough to make me read the next book, to be honest. Just to see.
To sum up: Skylark introduces an intriguing (if frightening) universe and is a well-written beginning to what I hope will become a fully-realized and satisfying trilogy.