Review: Tankborn by Karen Sandler

Monday, July 13, 2015
Title: Tankborn
Author: Karen Sandler
Genre: dystopia, science fiction, young-adult
Series: N/A
Pages: 384 (Nook NetGalley ARC edition)
Published: September 2011
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

Best friends Kayla and Mishalla know they will be separated when the time comes for their Assignments. They are GENs, Genetically Engineered Non-humans, and in their strict caste system, GENs are at the bottom rung of society. High-status trueborns and working-class lowborns, born naturally of a mother, are free to choose their own lives. But GENs are gestated in a tank, sequestered in slums, and sent to work as slaves as soon as they reach age fifteen.

When Kayla is Assigned to care for Zul Manel, the patriarch of a trueborn family, she finds a host of secrets and surprises—not least of which is her unexpected friendship with Zul's great-grandson. Meanwhile, the children that Mishalla is Assigned to care for are being stolen in the middle of the night. With the help of an intriguing lowborn boy, Mishalla begins to suspect that something horrible is happening to them.

After weeks of toiling in their Assignments, mystifying circumstances enable Kayla and Mishalla to reunite. Together they hatch a plan with their new friends to save the children who are disappearing. Yet can GENs really trust humans? Both girls must put their lives and hearts at risk to crack open a sinister conspiracy, one that may reveal secrets no one is ready to face.

Tankborn surprised me. What I initially assumed was simply a run-of-the-mill, churn-'em-out-quick young-adult dystopia, Tankborn emerges as a strong novel with compelling adult-ish themes about defining what humanity and beauty mean to every individual. Clocking in at a nice length of almost 400 pages, Karen Sandler creates a distinctive, dark and utterly readable world with her science fiction gem. I would put her indie-published Tankborn up there with The Hunger Games and The Demi-Monde as the best young-adult dystopias I have had the pleasure to read in 2011. Simply and best put: Tankborn is an all-inclusive novel that is not one to miss for any reader that appreciates well-rounded plot, outstanding and three-dimensional characters within an alien but totally interesting location.

The beginning of the novel does suffer a bit from a rushed introduction to a large variety of terms, places, people, scientific ideas. The book very quickly dispenses with needed information and details, and Tankborn is quickly a rewarding and interesting read. This is a standalone novel that doesn't stint on imagination: from vocabulary to flora and fauna, Karen Sandler left no stone unturned in creating her highly-realized and almost tangible Loka (I also wondered if the name "Loka" was a statement that the way of life on the planet was well . . loca. Sorry, I make bad jokes.) With both ominous and interesting-sounding names like sewer-toads, droms, seycats and (eeugh!!) giant spiders known as bhimkay, Loka is a wild tangle of creative, and very original plots and threads that mesh very well together. Over and over, I both felt that this was a book that was crafted so believably and so intricately as well as being very impressed by the effort of the author. It felt probable in a way I had had not anticipated for a youg-adult science fiction novel about gene-spicing and engineered people. It helps that the "science" of the novel is basic and minimal, without missing out on specificity or indulging in ridiculousness.

Kayla, the main character and my personal favorite of the varied lot, is a 14th-year GEN - otherwise known to everyone on the planet of Loka as a Genetically Engineered Non-human. In the 400 years since humans left earth, "gene-splicers" have mixed animal and human DNA, ascribing certain skill sets to each individual GEN. Within her very intricate, detailed and striated society because if this DNA and her tank-origin, Kayla represents the lowest of the low on the entire planet of Loka. Marked with identifying facial tattoos, Kayla's caste is reminiscent of both the "untouchables" of real-world India's infamous social pyramid mixed with the downtrodden Jewish population of  Nazi Germany. I really liked Kayla through the course of her struggles; this is a girl considered less than human, but one that genuinely empathizes and sympathizes with a trueborn even on her worst day. I do wish the novel had shown her with her tanksister and fellow main character Mishalla, but Kayla does not disappoint on her own. It's also refreshing to once again read a character of color, without her skin tone becoming her defining characteristic.

I can't say too much about Kayla's tanksister Mishalla. One of the few issues I had with this delightful read were with this particular character. She lacked initiative and in such a situation as she was in - it just drove me crazy for her to just sit and worry for 250 pages. I also felt her romance with the rarely-seen Eoghan was completely unrealistic. The reader sees them together maybe three times before the ending, and I never bought into their "love". Also - spoiler warning, fairly large, so stop reading this here! - her and her husband adopting the lost children? Also just: Mishalla getting married at about 15!?!?! - so obviously too much about this character didn't work for me. END SPOILERS. Now, lets talk about Kayla's love interest Devak. I liked him infinitely more than Eoghan and Mishalla, and thought his rounded personality of hedged kindness, curiousity and sheer arrogance presented a very real face/name for the readers to root for redemption. He's a bit naive, as is Kayla, in that these two believe so much of what they are told and do not question authority at all. I did like Kayla's and Devak's approach to their "relationship": it was mature, it was giving and especially at the end, it was surprising.

Echoing the earlier Nazi-vibes with the facial tattoos/identification of Kayla and the rest of the GENs, is the party saying, "Work Will Make You Safe" for the lowest of their rigid and regimented society (Nazi's used the infamous "Arbeit macht frei" meaning "works makes us free" above the concentration camp of Aushwitz.)  This omnipresent saying is both a reminder of the GENs own mythology of work ensuring happiness and reward after death from their deity The Infinite and also serves as a subtle threat from the government. The message is simple: the GENs existence is only suffered as a work force. If a GEN doesn't work, it is useless and will be "reset", or "realigned" out of existence. I love the multiple facets of real-world hatred and oppresion were worked into the framework of the soceity within Tankborn. From the allusions to Nazism and the "untouchable" aspect akin to India mentioned earlier, I also felt an echo of the United States slavery and continuing racial issues into the 1960's. Like blacks and whites of Earth before the Civil Rights Act, the GENs of Loka cannot share a water fountain, a seat with a trueborn: immediate action and punishment would follow were they to even try. Human suffering and oppresion are universal, sadly, and Ms. Sandler's sad, but entirely apt homage to that fact only reinforces the solidity of her science fiction creation.

(Warning: Slight spoilers ahead) All that praise written above is not to say I did not have a few quibbles with Tankborn. I sometimes felt that Kayla's neverending search for understanding and answers seemed a tad drawn out... especially when the man with literally ALL THE ANSWERS has both had illicit and seditious coversations with the main character as well as living less than 100 feet away. If a little time had been trimmed off her to-and-fro'ing, it would've been a more seamless (and sensical) read. I also wondered just why the gene-splicers are having issues creating new GENs - if they've had no issues the first 50 years of the experiments, why all of the sudden there is an issue? Still, these are two very minor issues waving in the face of much more win and awesome, so I didn't fixate on the irritations.

With an open ending that manages to both fulfill open-ended questions and leave a possibility for more in this complex world, Tankborn is a win. I will be on the constant lookout for more books from this author, set in this world/series or not. Karen Sandler is most impressive with her science fiction, young-adult dystopia set in a world far far away. It's a relevant and insightful look into racism, young love and burgeoning independence. 

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