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‘Enclave’: Underground dystopian

Courtesy of MacMillian

There’s been a resurgence of interest in young adult dystopian fiction, especially after the recent explosion of “The Hunger Games” onto the literary scene. Any trend will have its hangers-on, of course — just look at all the vampire romances that have hit shelves in the wake of the popular success of “Twilight.” But “Enclave,” by Ann Aguirre, is no such mooch; it’s a fun, compelling, original take on a post-apocalyptic future.

Deuce has just turned 15, which means she has earned the right to a name and a place in her subterranean enclave as either a Builder, a Breeder or a Hunter. She’s a Hunter; she has been training her whole life for the job of venturing out into the underground tunnels and bringing back meat for the group. It’s a dangerous task, as the tunnels are infested with monsters called Freaks, vaguely humanoid carnivores that eat humans. What’s possibly more dangerous is the hunting partner she’s been assigned, a dark, handsome and mysterious boy named Fade.

Fade’s not from the enclave. Nobody quite knows where he came from — it’s common knowledge that no one can survive for very long in the tunnels alone. He grudgingly follows orders and doesn’t really socialize, but he’s good with a knife, and the enclave needs every Hunter it can get, even if it doesn’t know it. The Freaks seem to be getting smarter — more human, even — but the elders won’t listen to Deuce or Fade, and the elders make the rules. Deviation from their laws can lead to exile, which is tantamount to certain death. That is, until Fade shows her that there’s an entire world above ground, which is completely unlike the fire-and-brimstone landscape the elders warned her she would find.

Deuce is a tremendously compelling protagonist; she’s a girl who relies on her wits and her skill with a knife to survive in the grim, gloomy underground. She has just the right mix of independent thought and adherence to duty to be believable. She is not the revolutionary that some of the other characters are; unlike Fade, for instance, she’s never known a world beyond the boundaries defined by enclave elders, so she shouldn’t — and doesn’t — immediately buy into a new and radical set of beliefs — she knows her place. But neither does she blindly believe what she’s told; after being confronted with incontrovertible evidence that everything is not as it seems, she is willing to question the worldview she’s held for 15 years and to do what is right. She makes some difficult choices in this story, and the author handles them very well.

Fade, too, is believable, but this is where the novel starts edging into clichés. Almost as soon as he and Deuce are paired together, the reader can tell that there will be romantic tension. And there is — heaps of it, especially when they encounter a hostile tribe and eventually end up with two more companions: the delicate but tenacious Tegan, and the gruff, bull-headed Stalker. Not every opposite-gender friendship needs to have romantic undertones, but that’s what seems to sell (see “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games”), so authors, including Aguirre, are reluctant to break this particular mold — and it really ought to go.

The world of “Enclave” is very well-illustrated — the level of detail is wonderful — but seems somewhat gimmicky. The intended effect is, undoubtedly, to show just how much human society has regressed in the wake of the preceding disaster, but some of the scenes in which Deuce interacts with technological artifacts and text she can’t read feel contrived, like the author is sharing some inside joke with readers, at the expense of her characters. Used once or twice, the effect is quite potent; sprinkled liberally in every chapter and it grows somewhat tiresome.

The inevitable flaws aside, “Enclave” is a compelling treatment of a familiar and recently popular genre. Throw in a cast of strong, sympathetic protagonists, as Aguirre has done, and it should be no surprise that readers are left waiting eagerly for book two.

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