The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Anarchy in the UK (review: Nowhere by Jon Robinson)

Jon Robinson
Penguin 2013

Alyn, Jes, Ryan and Elsa are nowhere.  Confined to a concrete block that serves as a prison to them and ninety-four others they have no idea where they actually are.  They and their fellow inmates are watched around the clock, kept in cells and subjected to endless lectures and treated as criminals.  The thing is, none of them remember committing the crimes they have supposedly been convicted off.   In fact, they don’t even remember being convicted.  What they do remember is being knocked out, kidnapped and waking in a cell, in a concrete block, in the middle of heavy woodland.  Alyn, being there longest, has tried to escape one time too many and is rapidly losing the will to keep fighting; Jes is full of conspiracy theories, desperate to leave but unsure where to start; Elsa is only thirteen, scared yet determined to return to her family while Ryan has only just arrived and is absolutely determined that he won’t be there for long.  In the background lurks Julian, who plays all ends towards the middle and Harlan who has, unknown to the rest, a keener sense of why they might be there than anyone else.

The characters in Nowhere are a mixed bunch. Alyn probably gets the lion’s share of narrative viewpoint and is likable enough.  His slowly ebbing fight is tangible, even as he tries to hide it from Jes and his back story (seen, like the others, in short flashbacks) is pretty interesting.  His story line proves that he has a huge determination to be free but never lets readers forget that he isn't a superhero, just a teenage boy at the mercy of his captors. Jes is interesting in that she is one of the only characters who realises that finding out why they’re imprisoned might be as important as escape but while she has a lot of ideas she doesn't really know where to find the answers. Ryan is full of righteous anger at his imprisonment and refuses to be beaten down, working constantly on a variety of escape plans.  He’s not particularly easy to like but he is easy to root for, especially in his interactions with the younger Elsa who seems to be the only one of the four main characters who not only has done nothing to merit her current imprisonment but also who genuinely doesn't have a background of petty crime and mild delinquency.  The problem with the four leads is that they are only vaguely distinguishable from each other. Ryan comes across as a less beaten down version of Alyn and their rivalry never rings true, while the loquacious Elsa seems like a younger version of conspiracy fueled Jes. None are exactly unlikable but neither are any particularly fully formed.

In fact, it is the lesser characters in Nowhere that create the interest necessary for continued reading.  Head and shoulders about the rest stands Julian.  He’s instantly unlikable but utterly understandable. A clever boy who has the ability to see, understand and manipulate his current situation.  Relying on no-one else, he inveigles his way onto the guard’s good sides, listens carefully to the inmates whispers and works constantly and quietly towards his own ends. While the rest are full of stuff and bluster, Julian exhibits an intelligence and slyness that is oddly admirable and certainly more interesting than the thought processes of any of the other characters. Harlan, also, seems more fully formed than the main four. Again, he’s a quiet thinker but he’s also of interest in that he really has tried to figure out why they are all imprisoned and clearly holds the key to the whole thing, not that he’s entirely sure what it is. It is in these two lesser characters that the author shows a real flair for characterisation and development, something sadly lacking from the core group.

The premise of Nowhere is intriguing – there’s nothing quite like a good mystery. While most of the action takes place within the prison, readers are also treated to some fascinating glimpses into the authorities that are behind it. At the heart of it all is The Pledge, a shady conglomerate of the super rich who appear to have approached the higher echelons of government at a time when the nation is is crisis. Set against an all too familiar back drop of massive unemployment, huge national debt and deep unrest it seems that The Pledge have come up with an idea that will nip an even greater anarchy in the bud before it can take hold. It’s an interesting idea and one that is particularly chilling when you look at the world today. However, we don’t find out much about what the idea actually entails. There are clearly brain-washing shenanigans afoot and a hint that the imprisoned delinquents might have specific potential for influencing others but that’s about it. And this idea, while being Nowhere’s great strength is also its weakness as the whole thing seems a bit underdeveloped. This, combined with the rather weak main characters, leads to the book being a compelling but slightly underwhelming debut. However, the ending is pleasingly ambiguous and the book is clearly intended to be the first in a series.  The ideas floated about in Nowhere are interesting enough that should the second book explore them fully the series as a whole could be pretty good. Certainly, it’s not quite like anything else on the YA shelves and I would certainly recommend this to younger teens but for those used to stories with a bit more meat on their bones I suspect that Nowhere will be a slight and somewhat frustrating disappointment.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Nowhere is published in the UK on July 4th this year. Thank you to the publisher for sending us this title to review.
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