Thursday, October 27, 2011

Book Review: Tankborn

The girl in the bubble.
I admired Karen Sandler's sci-fi novel Tankborn more than loved it. Tankborn is one of a debut line of novels published by Tu Books, a new publisher specializing in fantasy, sci-fi, and mystery books for kids, devoted to showcasing characters and authors of color. (I'll also be reviewing Tu's Galaxy Games in coming weeks).

And Tankborn foregrounds race matters: The futuristic society on the Earth colony planet Loka is as rigidly stratified as colonial India. The heroine, Kayla, and her best friend Mishalla, come from a lower caste called GENs, genetically engineered, literally untouchable slaves. The upper classes puppeteer the GENs as they please, assigning them to jobs, uploading and downloading data into their annexed brains. Upper class Highborns have light brown skin and black hair; the Lowborns and GENs are a rainbow ranging from very dark to red-haired and green eyed, or, in Kayla's case, piebald.

Sandler: dipping her hoof
into Y/A
High Moral Stakes
Both heroines get their class-consciousness raised, of course, and so does Kayla's Highborn boyfriend.
The book is a well plotted page-turner, and Sandler builds an alienating, dystopian world (an ex-software engineer, Sandler is a prolific adult author; this is her first Y/A). Tankborn deals with vital societal issues: our definition of "human;" the treatment of non-humans; how status symbols and physiology influence our perceptions of others. It points to the potential pitfalls of technology and genetic engineering. And it asks us to consider, by extension, how socially mobile we Americans and Europeans truly are.

A Language Barrier
All excellent questions for young adults to be pondering. Hence, my admiration. Sadly, though, the heroines left me unmoved. I run across this issue fairly often in sci-fi: characters who don't seem real enough to identify with. In Tankborn the problem stems at least partly from language -- the formal (and foreign) diction and vocabulary of this futuristic world has a distancing effect, and in the end, it created an emotional chasm I couldn't cross. Tankborn has been compared to M.T. Anderson's brilliant Y/A novel Feed,; it addresses similar moral questions. The difference, at least for me? Feed's unforgettable characters and their terrible choices seemed utterly, terrifyingly real.


  1. Whilst the plot sounds like one I would really be interested in, characters I can care about is very important to me. Maybe a library pick.

  2. I know what you mean about sci-fi characters not always feeling real. And I can see how a sci-fi writer might spend more time focusing on descriptions and world building than the people occupying that world. Thanks for the balanced review.

  3. Interesting review! I loved FEED and know exactly what you mean about it. I am curious about this one now, I might just have to check it out for myself.

  4. While you were telling about the plot I thought, ooh - that sounds good! But good characters are what novels are really all about. If you can't care about the characters, well... like Sarah said, maybe a library read. I haven't read FEED yet, though, so maybe I'd better add that to my TBR list!

  5. What a cool premise. I like the idea the publisher has put for too.

    Thanks for stopping by. I see you doing NaNoWrMo. Best wishes. I'll be writing too but not official participating this year.

  6. Thanks for the review! The plot does sound fascinating. However...if a reader can't relate to the characters it would make for a distant read, yes. Something to ponder about my OWN (light) sci-fi novel I'm trying to get published. I hope the character is relatable--working on it!

  7. I really enjoyed the authenticity of your review. I too am often not drawn in to care enough about the protagonists in sci fi (though the one I have just read is an exception). I guess I should try FEED, now!

  8. What sci fi novel did you just read that you liked, Joanna?

  9. It is called Open Minds, by Susan Quinn, It releases on Tuesday!

    Gail, I have just memed you on my blog

  10. Oh yes, I know Susan! I haven't read the book yet, but I'm participating in the launch. Good luck to her! And thanks for the meme. : )