My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Length: 464 pages
Release date: 2nd November 2017
Catarina Agatta is a hacker. She can cripple mainframes and crash through firewalls, but that’s not what makes her special. In Cat’s world, people are implanted with technology to recode their DNA, allowing them to change their bodies in any way they want. And Cat happens to be a gene-hacking genius.
That’s no surprise, since Cat’s father is Dr. Lachlan Agatta, a legendary geneticist who may be the last hope for defeating a plague that has brought humanity to the brink of extinction. But during the outbreak, Lachlan was kidnapped by a shadowy organization called Cartaxus, leaving Cat to survive the last two years on her own.
When a Cartaxus soldier, Cole, arrives with news that her father has been killed, Cat’s instincts tell her it’s just another Cartaxus lie. But Cole also brings a message: before Lachlan died, he managed to create a vaccine, and Cole needs Cat’s help to release it and save the human race.
Now Cat must decide who she can trust: The soldier with secrets of his own? The father who made her promise to hide from Cartaxus at all costs? In a world where nature itself can be rewritten, how much can she even trust herself?
‘He twirls his fork in the spaghetti. “Really? I drove past a farm just north of here that looked like it went for miles. Soybeans, vegetables…”
“Um-mh,” I say, through a mouthful of spaghetti. “That’s stuff proprietary. You can’t digest it without their app’s synthetic enzymes. It tastes good going down, but it’ll leave you sick for days. There’s a special place in hell for whoever came up with DRM for food.“‘
As a YA novel, This Mortal Coil ticks all the boxes, going through the tried-and-tested formula of a gifted heroine, a mysterious deuteragonist-turned-love interest, a quest with a ticking time bomb and multiple shadowy organisations in pursuit, a shattering plot twist at the eleventh hour, and a revelation to set up the sequel. None of that detracts from the fact that wow, it’s a clever little gem of a book. Nerdy, angsty and jarringly violent, This Mortal Coil deserves to join the list of the most powerful YA debuts.
Just to get it out of the way first, there really is something to be said for the degree of graphic violence in this book. We’re talking “oops, I just broke my tibia and fibula and now my bone is sticking out of my knee” level of nastiness. A relatively very mild example: “There were holes in my skin, you could see my spine through them.” Ewww. The psychological violence is just as intense, maybe more. Then again, we’re starting off from the premise that over half the world’s population has already been wiped out in less than two years since Patient Zero by a virus that causes you to explode, so I don’t suppose the faint of heart are lining up to read this.
Catarina is quite possibly one of the most unlucky heroines to grace YA, quite an achievement when most of the genre’s protagonists are already armed to the teeth with sob story upbringings. Despite making rational choices at every turn, the plot always finds a way to turn those choices into the catalyst for a bigger catastrophe that she then has to somehow clean up. (Murphy’s Law: fiction’s ultimate fuel.) Catarina is also one of the rare author-proclaimed geniuses in any novel that actually reads like one. Hats off to Emily Suvada, because that is again no small feat. Being a trained mathematician/astrophysicist and data scientist, it makes sense that Suvada of all writers would know what she’s writing about and be able to show rather than tell her protagonist’s intelligence. Yes, This Mortal Coil is built on pseudoscience as befits an apocalyptic plague story, but I as a reader with no advanced biology knowledge found it easy to follow and accept, which is a massive plus.
The plot intrigues adequately for the most part. Some of the plot twists are fairly predictable with enough experience reading similar novels, but there are so many of them in this book that there’s no way you’ll guess them all. Suvada writes off-screen characters splendidly–even after his death, Dr. Lachlan Agatta reads as the plot’s most important character, simply because of his influence he held that pervades every interaction between the people who knew him. This is masterful writing. Jun Bei, too, feels like she has a life of her own despite remaining a mystery for most of the novel, and the solution to that mystery is something I didn’t foresee at all. Quite frankly, it’s brilliant.
In my honest opinion, I doubt we’ll get such a smart YA sci-fi for a good while. I’ve been soundly impressed by what Suvada managed to do with just her series opener and have high hopes for what she’ll do with the sequel. Don’t pass on This Mortal Coil. You won’t regret picking it up.
*Thanks to Penguin Random House UK Children’s and NetGalley for providing this review copy! All opinions represented remain my own.*