Catarina Agatta lives in a world very different yet congruent to ours in two different ways: One, an outbreak everyone calls The Wrath has spread in the last two years that not only turns people into zombies that eventually explode like the rats in the third season of Stranger Things, but to survive, you occasionally need to bite into the actual zombies and steal some of their blood, which at a certain stage has them invulnerable from the actual plague. Get it too late and it’s actual poison. Two (wow, that was a big one) is that we’re still humans, and our blood flows with the same basic anatomy of life, but it flows a different way than our beating hearts. It’s instead coded into us. Our bodies are loaded with applications that use code to mess with how our bodies function. It’s like one day someone was able to create living matter with code, like a blob of clay, and gave it a code of sugar, and the ability to move at the sound of the word “Clay” and eventually we evolved the technology enough to create code that doubles as medication for those who need it. The hiccup is Cartaxus, a gargantuan institution that houses and protects citizens from the virus. The downside? They are so restricted on what kinds of code people are allowed to have that if someone wants their services, they go through a system reset that disables independent code, and this independent code is sometimes required to keep someone alive. In other words, they try to get the services, they’re cold dead the second they step through. But they’re keeping it as is. What’s more, they’re out to get anyone who has any ideas of rebellion. Well, a soldier named Cole Franklin has come to tell Cat that her father and her old boyfriend are still alive after two years and have come up with a vaccine, and he has to get her to an old laboratory to begin the process of releasing it. With that, we have a sci-fi road-chase adventure across the desolated dystopian world of code and coded fever medication.
So much of this is extremely smart, especially a strategy on releasing the vaccine that involves it looking like it was stolen out of Cartaxus rather than regally released by the brand would be more trustworthy, seeing as corporations in general just want to make as much money as possible and the people just want to be helped by other people. And the idea of illegal (according to Cartaxus standard) code being prohibited at the corp even if it’s saving lives reminds me of America’s current health care crisis, of simple medicines having prices shot through the roof at the hands of the humongous pharmaceutical companies. There’s a lot here that feels like it would happen in this sort of world. I said similar things in Warcross, but that’s the last time I’ll say that, cause while the setup feels similar, the worlds are quite different. That book involved a future seemingly clean and non-apocalyptic, with an evil sneaking in like a baby leech. This one is as infested with leech as that marsh in Stand By Me, if that marsh was the size of an ocean, and Suvada does a good job of allowing us to picture all of it.
The mystery is not necessarily how the vaccine kills the virus, but more how exactly it is being stored and why Cat is the only one with access to it, and how it will all get messed up. And when these extra characters in distress appear during a stop, they show enough relevance to have some sort of “Aha” later on but we’re not sure.
I was loving most of the book. It went by quickly and the climax I expected came earlier and there are a lot of things on the way preventing this from just being about a road trip across a toxic dump. I never once did not believe this was a world where everyone had a self-induced computer. But some itches come near the end. For starters, the romance towards the reveals gets too sappy. It leads to a twist I never could’ve predicted and makes me think about how this will impact future decisions on Kat’s part, but there’s a lot in here I wish could’ve been saved for the next book. It feels like the characters didn’t go through quite enough to warrant it, and Cat does something that’s completely disregarded, and I wish it could’ve been mentioned and a promise could’ve been made.
Also, there are much more exciting and surprising and groundbreaking cliffhanger twists out there. The book tries to have a cliffhanger like Pierce Brown’s Golden Son, which had me biting my nails and hyperventilating at how it all turned to volcanic ash. Here it’s not as punching. But overall it’s just a lot of fun reading about a world based around the idea a code can manage to be made that exits a computer screen and creates actual matter, which we have used to both better and expose ourselves even further than we already do.