Most of us have watched at least one natural disaster movie. In XIsle, Steve Augarde brings the genre to the young adult book world. Yet this isn’t just another catastrophe story. As one new situation after another presents itself, Augarde raises ethical questions:
- How much brutality would you accept to protect others?
- Is it acceptable to hurt others, if just on orders?
- How much hurt would you inflict would do to survive?
- Is murder ever right?
By asking these questions and in proving himself a master of description, Augarde elevates XIsle above the norm.
When the book opens, Earth has been devastated by floods. Everyone on the “mainland” lives in fear and near starvation, clinging to the hope of being rescued by the crew of the only remaining boat. This crew arrives sporadically to trade food salvaged from submerged supermarkets. The survivors also hope that the boat crew will bring them aboard them, take them to XIsle, and therefore rescue them from their misery. Why there ends up being only one boat left in existence isn’t explained, but simply is stated as a fact to be accepted. Once you embrace this reality, you are ready to immerse yourself in a strange new world.
As I indicated above, XIsle is not just another teen catastrophe story. For one thing, the recruits of XIsle live by three rules:
- Don’t mess with the Eck brothers
- Don’t mess with Steiner or Hutchingson
- Don’t look at Preacher John
If you think this sounds like a dictatorship, you would be right. Unfortunately, Baz breaks one of the rules on his first day. He throws himself in front of another new recruit to protect him from abuse and finds himself kicked in the jaw and placed on a hit list for his efforts. It doesn’t take long for Baz to decide that the key to his survival on XIsle is to look after himself. When he meets earlier recruits, he discovers some of them prefer instead to watch each other’s backs.
Augarde regularly throws such ethical dilemmas at his readers through the situations the “saved” boys face. For example, how would you react if the leaders started talking about some boys being too old to stay and yet you knew that boys kicked off the island never made it home? Or how would you react if Preacher John started declaring the need for living sacrifices? By the book’s end, all the boys have to decide what lengths they will go to escape or to survive–which might end up being the same choice.
Apart from creating a gripping story laced with moral undertones, I most admired Augarde’s descriptions. In his TouchStone trilogy, I appreciated his portrayal of farm life and boarding life. For both of these, he had been able to draw upon childhood experiences. In XIsle, he undertakes more ambitious descriptions. He makes real a futuristic flooded world. In every way, he also shows himself a master of his craft in that the boys, men, and buildings all feel tangible. Even things which some authors might not think to describe, such as Baz’s confusion over how to operate a dingy, Augarde carefully explains. Yet he doesn’t portray them from an adult perspective, but from that of an inexperienced young boy.
I didn’t like everything in XIsle. One of the boys is quickly developed as an eccentric in one chapter and then for no apparent reason commits suicide. The way the boys decide to build a bomb sounds far-fetched, although apparently is credible. Last, the surprise twist at the end seemed unnecessary and so I didn’t care for it.
These flaws however do not detract from an otherwise masterful story. Augarde has captured the world of boys. He has probed the practical and ethical dilemmas that might arise from a flooded world. Best of all, he created a book that was difficult to put down and quick to read. What a fabulous follow-up to his acclaimed trilogy!
My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
How would you rate this book?