This is an incredibly powerful and thought-provoking story which totally engrossed me right from the prologue which occurs 10 years before the main story when society is drastically changed by the catastrophic environmental damage caused by Hurricane Chronos.
The story is set in a dystopian aftermath where society has been firmly divided into three social groups: the Paragons, the Freedoms and the Outlanders. The inequality between these groups in terms of social status, power and wealth is evident. The Paragons rule ruthlessly through the ARK government, and control, not only the food supplies and wealth within Kairos City, but also the right to knowledge and perceptions of the landscape outside the City. The Outlanders refuse to conform to the expectations of the Paragons and live outside society, displaced and suffering social deprivation and hardship. Paradoxically, the group which is least free are the Freedoms, and it is to this group that the main protagonists, Shifa and Themba, belong.
Fighting his way through the eye of the storm, driven by his love for his infant son, Themba, Nabil survives the hurricane that devastates the very foundations of society. On his return, he discovers an abandoned baby with her cat, Daisy. There is no mother and her only possessions are a daisy chain strung around her body, a basket of edible leaves and a golden locket. He names her Shifa, and brings her up as his daughter.
Skip forward ten years … to Shifa and Themba’s tenth birthdays. It is on this day that the terrible, and heart-breaking, pledge their father has made to the ARK is realised. In exchange for the benefits of the food, money and education the family have received, Nabil’s children must give up four years of their lives to become Freedom Field Recruits. These recruits are needed to help with food production, including the pollination of plants as bees have become extinct due to climatic chaos. This is sold to the family as a vital part of the re-generation of society so that all can eventually enjoy the benefits currently only in existence for the Paragons.
Shifa and her family have a deep ingrained love of the natural environment and, defying ARK laws, have their own secret garden and ‘skep-heart’ code which becomes a powerful symbol of family love, loyalty and bonding threaded throughout the story.
We’ve got to keep our family skepheart beating.
What awaits the children on the Freedom Family Farm they are sent to is unbearably unjust as they struggle to cope in an oppressive regime where they are effectively dehumanised with any level of freedom they thought they had being cruelly ripped from them. The treatment of the children and the hopelessness of their situation is heart-wrenching; however, the resilience and strength of the majority of the children is uplifting. Torn from their families, they become a new family, taking care of each other, despite their hardships.
Shifa and Themba are just wonderful children who have made a lasting impression on me. They have an incredibly close bond and clearly adore each other: it is their love for each other that helps them survive. Shifa is kind-hearted, resilient and loving, but she also questions the society into which she has been born. Themba is artistic, impulsive and trusting, but also vulnerable. It is this vulnerability which gives his fiercely protective sister the strength, courage and determination to make an impossibly difficult decision. A decision which leads them on a terrifying journey, but also one of new discoveries, new friendships and perhaps towards hope of a new way of life.
The story’s central message is a very current one around the potential devastation that could be caused by inertia in tackling climate change. It really crystallises the effects this could have not only on the environment but also on the people who have to live in the aftermath, with the innocent bearing the brunt of mistakes made by their elders. Children are both the victims, and the redeemers, of this dystopian society.
Not taking care of the planet felt like destroying the thing that most cared for you.
The concept of freedom is also explored. Are you truly free if you don’t belong anywhere and don’t care about anyone? Can freedom be taken away if you have the love of your family in your heart? Can apparent freedom be nothing more than a façade? This theme is explored beautifully through the difficult and heartfelt relationship between Shifa and Luca, an orphan taken in by the ARK. Is he the enemy he appears, or just as much a victim as the other children?
This is an engrossing story of family, friendship and hope, set in deeply rooted themes of the effects of climatic change, societal injustice and an exploration of freedom, which captured me entirely. This story has incredible potential for classroom discussion. As a teacher, I can definitely see me using it with children of 9+.
Thank you to NetGalley and Orion Children’s Books/ Hachette Children’s Group for an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.