Another week, another Young Adult fiction dystopia. This is a genre that I have always enjoyed reading, but now it has burst into the mainstream, is quality going to decline? Will an army of Hunger Games clones be unleashed onto the high street, track down young and impressionable teenagers, before clubbing to death with bad prose and stolen ideas? Well if Gemma Malley’s ‘The Killables’ is anything to go by, we don’t have anything to worry about just yet. Malley is the author of ‘The Declaration’, an understated well-realised dystopian vision. If you enjoyed that, then you’ll love this too.
For the first one hundred pages or so of ‘The Killables’, I wasn’t convinced. Malley’s premise follows the standard dystopia formula of taking one aspect of society, drastically altering it, and examining what effect that would have on the world. In this novel, the population of ‘The City’ have had their ability to be evil removed. Through conditioning and removal of the amygdala (part of the brain that current (real-life) research has shown can be over-active in perpetrators of violent crime), members of The City are programmed only to think ‘good’ thoughts. This measure is in a drastic response to ‘The Horrors’; an unspecified apocalyptic event that saw the indiscriminate slaughter of millions. The City is kept isolated by impregnable walls, outside of which live ‘The Evils’.
Unsurprisingly all is not well in paradise. Clearly some people are less able to shut out evil than others. Everybody is ranked. Either A,B,C or D, with A being the most pure. The City is led by ‘The Brother’ a brainwashing villain worthy of the very best authoritarian regimes. Everything is controlled, jobs and professions are allocated. Entertainment non-existent and marriages and relationships arranged. Evie is a ‘C’ but her prospects are on the up, because she is wanted by an ‘A’; the pure but characterless Lucas. Lucas’ brother is the non-conformist trouble maker Raffy… and you can immediately see where this is going.
It’s your classic dystopian love-triangle under a romantically repressed regime. So far, so formulaic. The City feels all too similar to the setting for Lauren Oliver’s Delirium. Curiously, in one novel hate is removed and in the other it’s love, yet both create the same sterile world. There is a fitting inevitability about this when you stop to think about it, and one that suggests that both writers have their world-building spot on. When talk turns to the possibility of life outside the walls, the novel is pointed so heavily in one direction I started to fear that ‘The Killables’ was going to be a dud. Far from it.
Whilst its storyline never veers too far from conventional, the novel’s strength comes from the quality of Gemma Malley’s writing, and her handle on what makes us human. Malley’s books (or at least the two I’ve read), don’t have the visceral element of many end-of-days novels, but instead offer a calmer examination of abuse of power, and the strength of human character. Her characterisation is splendid, making for a deeply affecting read. The novel’s twists revolve around people rather than plot, which is unusual in this type of fiction and it is a difference that pays dividends. In the novel’s latter stages, the depth of Malley’s vision is laid out, and the true nature of ‘The Evils’ is revealed. This makes ‘The Killables’ a much more involved read than anticipated. One that asks a lot more questions than its opening suggested it might.
After being underwhelmed by the opening third, I ultimately found ‘The Killables’ almost impossible to put down. This is the first book in a trilogy, but is almost complete in itself, whilst remaining tantalisingly open-ended. With two more books to come, I’m pleased to report that in Gemma Malley the genre has found a safe pair of hands.