by Peador O'Guilan
448 Pages, David Fickling Books
Review by S.F. Winser
The Inferior is Stopmouth. He's a stutterer with a kind, smart and brave big brother. He's inferior in his tribe, inferior in his family... and when a woman from a technologically advanced society falls from the sky, he becomes her inferior too. To her, he's a savage.
And he is. Stopmouth lives in a savage world. His tribe are the only humans in a world of beasts. The beasts come in many species and they all compete to eat each other. Because, while the beasts are intelligent and the humans are intelligent, every single other thing in the world is inedible, if not downright poisonous.
The only way to survive is to kill and eat everyone else.
This is a nasty, nasty book. There are constant murders, cannibalism and eviscerations. There's even implied rape. There's torture and evil.
But it's still a fun, compelling read. It's a truly interesting premise with a likable protagonist and complex relationships.
The most obvious 'Bad Guy' in the book is Stopmouth's brother. But his brother is also the typical hero from every other YA sci-fi novel; He's the intelligent, curious one. He's a born leader. He's also emotionally twisted and a secret coward. Stopmouth often lets his brother get away with things for the good of the tribe – and the reader goes along with him. The 'right' path in this novel is sometimes unclear. When the antagonist does good things for good reasons, you stop hating him and start pitying him. When the good guy unthinkingly does stuff we all instinctively think of as evil, we do the same.
O'Guilan is very, very good at making likable and sympathetic characters. There are few characters here who aren't three dimensional. And all of the main characters have edges and secret reserves that make them very real, even when you might not like their actions.
The Inferior is a book about morality in an inherently immoral society. Can a society where it's impossible to be moral – where murder and cannibalism are the only alternative to death – create moral beings? What makes someone inferior? Physically, mentally, educationally or morally? And Can any of these things be overcome? When a 'superior' society impacts this horrible, vicious world, the reader is left trying to decide if newcomers are any better, morally, when they are forced into the same choices despite their technological prowess and privileged upbringing.
It's weird and clever to be able to leave the reader hating the only major character who doesn't resort to murder for food.
This is a brave, well-constructed and deep book. At times it's a simple action-adventure. Sometimes it's an interesting bit of sci-fi world-building. Sometimes it's more. But in no way should this have been labeled YA. Not because of the writing, or even the complexity. YA should be deep. But simply because any book with more violence than 'A Clockwork Orange' is lucky to be in print and definitely shouldn't be aimed at the youth market. I don't see a movie version being greenlit any time soon without a massive spike in the stock-price of novelty blood manufacturers. People eat spleens. Roast children. Wear their enemies' heads as masks. Spend weeks slowly dying while being eaten by brain-controlling slugs.
Not a nice book. But still a very good one. I was left hoping for a sequel, though not because the ending is unsatisfying. O'Guilan leaves some things undone, deliberately so, because some of the resolutions could not be tied up with a bow without it feeling cloying and overly neat. These unfulfilled promises leave room for a sequel, though no pressing need for one. It's just that I got attached to the rather scary ride I was on and didn't want it to stop. I wanted more of O'Guilan's challenges and characters. However, when a book starts making you wonder what the flesh of a sentient turtle-man tastes like, it's probably a good thing that there isn't more of it.
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