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Review: Across The Universe
The Plot: Amy Martin, 17, is frozen and placed on a spaceship with her parents and others. Three hundred years from now, the settlers will be unfrozen to settle a planet. Amy’s parents are important to the mission. Amy is going along because she is 17 and they are her parents.
Elder, 16, was born and raised to become the leader of the ship Godspeed. He’s been raised a bit apart from those on the ship, as the leader Eldest teaches and trains Elder to be the leader teh ship needs. Elder’s generation may one day even see the planet they are headed towards — they are only 50 years from the scheduled landing.
Amy sleeps, Amy dreams, while Elder questions Eldest’s iron rule and grows frustrated at the secrets Eldest keeps. How can Elder become Eldest and rule if he doesn’t know all that Eldest does?
Amy awakens, unplugged and unfrozen before her time. If Elder hadn’t discovered her, she’d be dead from the forced, premature awakening. The world of Godspeed is nothing like Amy knows. It’s strange, it’s new, it’s different, and Amy is convinced there is something wrong. It’s not just the knowledge that she is inside a ship, with no sky or fresh air. It’s not just the genetically created sameness in everyone she meets. It’s the books and learning and history that people aren’t allowed to access, and that no one cares at what they don’t know.
Amy is the first person woken prematurely, but not the last. The next person isn’t as lucky as Amy and dies. There is murderer on board, targeting the frozen settlers. Who would want them dead?
The Good: Talk about world-building! Literally, world building: the ship Godspeed is a world of its own, both as a physical place and as an entirely new culture. While Amy, her parents, and others are sleeping through centuries of travel, others take care of the ship and prepare for the colonization. Amy awakens into this world, a world radically different from the world she (or the reader) knows. She is alone, awake fifty years before she should. It turns out, she cannot be refrozen: instead of waking up with her parents, she will wait, alone, and when they wake she will be older than her parents. Both her mother and father are needed for when the the ship arrives at the planet, so neither can be unfrozen now. Ironically, Amy did not have to go with her parents; she could have stayed back on Earth with family. Instead, she gave up her life as she knew it to stay with her family. Now, Amy doesn’t have them. She is alone; and only Elder offers friendship and understanding.
Using someone new to a culture is a typical way to introduce the world to the reader: here, as Amy learns, so does the reader. Elder, as the second narrator, allows the reader to see the world from the view of an insider. At times the reader believes they understand what Elder means when he says something, only to realize later that words may be the same but have new meanings. It’s clever, because it places the reader in two places: inside and outside, seeing the world through three sets of eyes: Amy, Elder, and reader.
I’m the type of reader who loves this type of brave new world and society and government, especially the details of the ship, the blueprints, how it all works. The strange world Amy finds herself in is not just the result of generations passing, it’s also the result of a disaster. Years before, a Plague killed most of the population, drastic measures were taken to ensure survival, and the ship still hasn’t totally recovered. Part of that survival is a system of government with a benevolent dictator “Eldest” who trains a selected heir, “Elder.” The names are always the same; the selected leader is always older than the generation he’ll lead.
What’s terrific about all this detail is it’s related naturally as part of the mystery, with details unraveling as the mystery unravels. Who unfroze Amy? Who unfroze and killed the others? There is a murderer on board, complicated by Eldest’s total rule and his concern that what is best for the people on the Godspeed is for there to be no murder investigation. Most mysteries involve the reader trying to guess “who did it,” something complicated here because there is so much about the Godspeed’s culture that is different. And that, too, is also a mystery for the reader and Amy to solve: What, exactly, was the Plague? What really happened? What secrets are Eldest keeping from his people and from Elder? All these threads and questions come together in one resolution.
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About Elizabeth Burns
Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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