A Review of The Culling (The Torch Keeper #1) by Steven dos Santos
by REBECCA, April 10, 2013
Lucian “Lucky” Spark: smart and forced to grow up too soon after losing his parents, he will do whatever it takes to protect his little brother, Cole
Digory Tycho: strong and dependable, he is working with the resistance against the bloodthirsty government that controls things
Every year, The Establishment recruits five citizens to face The Trials, with their loved ones as the Incentives for their success. When Lucian tries to take things into his own hands to protect his brother, he finds himself a Recruit, fighting for his brother’s life, and Digory, who seems desperate to protect him, is a Recruit right along with him. What mysteries is The Establishment hiding, and how can Lucian and Digory have any hope of being together when they may have to kill each other to save their Incentives?
Ok, so I’ve read reviews that call books or movies “supercharged” and always thought it was a really stupid word . . . until I read The Culling. There is just something about it that seemed amped-up, dynamic . . . well, supercharged.
The world of The Culling is a grim one. The Establishment controls every element of the lives of those living in the city through military presence, information-repression, disease, and poverty. Then there are The Trials: if you win, you have the chance to be an officer of The Establishment; if you lose, the people you love the most will die. When The Culling begins, Lucian is attempting to gain an audience with the prefect of the city, who came from his neighborhood, to try and protect his little brother, Cole, when he finds himself thrown headfirst into The Trials alongside the very person he’s attracted to: Digory Tycho, a highly capable member of the resistance with a heart of gold, at least where Lucian is concerned.
The Trials are sick, dude! I mean, like, messed-up in an awesome, eerie, Steven-dos-Santos-please-be-my-creepy-friend kind of way. The worldview of The Culling in general is one in which you cannot trust anyone, everyone will betray you, and people have been forced to do things for survival that leave psychological scars as well as physical ones. I admired dos Santos’ ability to present the truly harrowing consequences of The Trials, in which the Recruit who comes in last in each round must choose which of his or her two Incentives to kill. There are definitely some surprises there that were very well-handled. In short, The Culling reads like a highly creative action movie—very fast-paced but with just enough detail to everything that you absorb the world in passing, as opposed to lingering in it.
As the first book in a series, I thought The Culling did a nice job of planting a lot of seeds, any of which could be taken up in the rest of the series. The fast pace purposely values action over depth of world-building and I didn’t find this a fault, but rather an intentional artistic choice. I would have been equally satisfied by a slower-moving book with deeper world-building, but the pace here really was compelling. I’m not usually one to care overly much for speed, but I literally could not put the book down. Like, I had to go to work and was reading while I peed, reading while I walked to the trolley, reading on the trolley, which makes me carsick, and reading in the elevator up until the moment I walked in the door of work.
The characters are great: Lucian is smart and stubborn, resentful of ever needing Digory’s help, but so desperate to save his brother that he feels he has no choice. Digory could have fallen into the strong, savior stereotype, but his political ideals make him far more interesting. The other three Recruits are all excellent, too. There’s Cypress, who is cold and controlled in response to the traumas in her life; Gideon, the boy who seems pretty together, but is revealed to have more of a stake in his Incentives than anyone could possibly know; and Ophelia, who is fucking terrifying.
what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?
Now, I’ve read several reviews of The Culling that were negative, denouncing it for being similar to The Hunger Games, and I do see the similarities, plot-wise, but I’m very much hoping I can dispel the notion that these plot similarities are the heart of The Culling. Yes: The Culling shares with The Hunger Games trilogy a deep horror of a totalitarian government, the suspicion that under such a regime its citizens are mere pawns who think they have a chance of winning their freedom but who are always already merely fulfilling a preordained role, and the understanding that in a world where adults are necessarily enslaved by the system, wanting to protect someone innocent from harm is the most powerful impetus to fight, even if you don’t believe you can win. What they share, then, is the kind of deep structure that produces genres and subgenres. The Hunger Games and The Culling are part of the same subgenre of dystopian literature—a subgenre that predates the former and will, I’m sure, postdate the latter. Mkay, done.
The reason I was so excited to read The Culling in the first place is that it’s one of the few pieces of YA speculative fiction that I’ve come across where the author’s intention was that being gay wasn’t going to be the point of the story. There has been a lot of talk lately about how some people believe the next phase of queer visibility in the literary community is to have queerness be simply a fact of a character, as opposed to an occasion for comment about struggle. I don’t think that normalization into non-issue signals progress per se, but I’m glad that people are at least talking about the issue.
Anyway, I was curious what dos Santos’ take was going to be and I came away pretty impressed. My suspicion of the ideal of framing queerness as being so normal as to be invisible is that it elides very important material consequences of struggle. In the world of The Culling, being gay doesn’t seem to be an issue, but rather than eliding struggle, the commonality of being gay simply shifts the threat (Lucian is almost victimized by prison guards who call him “pretty boy”), not invisiblizing it. Furthermore, I was really glad to see a novel that depended on a regime of totalitarian control, as opposed to knee-jerk gender conservatism, to construct its dystopia.
I’m not a very patient person, so I’m kind of cursing myself for reading The Culling when I will now have to wait at least a year to find out what happens next. I highly recommend that you curse yourselves too, and check out this truly supercharged dystopia. Flux, you’ve done it again—my hat’s off.
The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, of course (2008-2010). Nuff said about this, I think.
Girl In the Arena by Lisa Haines (2009). This compelling book explores a neo-gladatorial society, complete with its culture of violence, through the eyes of one girl who has to fight not only for her freedom but for her family as well.
procured from: I received an ARC of The Culling from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. The Culling by Steven dos Santos is available now!