‘Subject Twenty One’ is a dystopian novel with an intriguing premise. The dystopian genre dominated the YA scene for several years, with The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner series’ possibly the best known examples, but since then it’s been a tough genre to crack. ‘Subject Twenty One’ is simply written, but puts a fresh spin on older ideas, creating an engaging and highly readable story. First published by Locutions Press in 2018 as ‘The Museum of Second Chances’, it’s now being reissued under a new name by Del Rey.
Elise is a Sapien – a member of the lowest order of humanity and held responsible for the damage inflicted on Earth by previous generations. Sapiens are given limited education and kept in poverty to atone for their ancestors’ crimes. When Elise is offered a job at the Museum of Evolution, she sees a chance to build a better life. Her task is to be a companion to one of the recently resurrected Neanderthals, Twenty-One. However, the job comes with risks – at the Museum, she’ll be under greater scrutiny than she ever has been before, putting her and her family’s secrets at risk. Plus, the more time she spends with Twenty-One, the more she starts to realise how little there is keeping her from a cage of her own.
The world Warren creates is excellent. Set only a few hundred years in the future, it’s changed enormously. The advent of genetic engineering has led to a race of superhumans, Homo Potiors, who run society. All skilled jobs are performed by Homo Medius – another race of genetically engineered humans, inferior to the Potiors but far superior to the un-engineered Homo Sapiens. Homo Sapiens was responsible for the destruction of the planet and extinction of untold species, and therefore cannot be trusted. All of humanity lives on four highly controlled bases – each named after a component of DNA – with the rest of the world given over to rewilding, allowing Earth to heal. Its a simple yet effective concept. As a Sapien, Elise is taught very little about her world, and it’s fascinating learning about evolutionary concepts and the structure of her world with her – and then seeing how Potior-taught truths are challenged.
Elise makes a very likeable protagonist. Her father is a sceptic, convinced that the Potior and Medius are going to move against the Sapiens, and raised her to be prepared for war and survival. Elise, in contrast, is more trusting and genial – but also lonely, as most of those around her see her family as freaks. She also has a younger brother who’s Deaf, which is seen by society as a marker her family has poor genetics. Elise is friendly and caring, always looking out for her family – especially her brother – but her friendliness means she easily forms attachments, and as a companion the biggest no-no is becoming attached to her Neanderthal. It’s interesting seeing how Elise grapples with her warring responsibilities – how her loyalty to her family starts to chafe against her loyalty to her new friends at the Museum.
The supporting cast is also excellent. Samuel and Georgina, a Homo Medius scientist and doctor respectively, are two highlights – both are always nice to Elise despite her designation, but there’s always an underlying uneasiness of how much the different classes can truly trust each other. Twenty-One, the Neanderthal, is brilliantly written – he’s lived all his life in a cage, alone except for his companion, and the way this has affected his psyche is both horrible and fascinating.
The science is kept to a minimum – Elise has never been allowed much of an education, so she barely understands concepts like evolution, let alone how the Museum is bringing back extinct animals. It makes this a highly accessible read. The language is also very simple. It took me some time to get into the book because of this – at times it felt over-simplistic – but the story is fast-paced and the content engaging, and after a while the language starts to suit the story. It’s a little unclear if this is aimed at the YA or adult audience, but given the more basic language and Elise’s age, I’d put this in the YA bracket.
Overall, ‘Subject Twenty One’ is a solid addition to the dystopian genre, with elements of Jurassic Park crossed with a standard YA dystopia. Recommended for fans of both the former, plus those who enjoy a fast-paced story and explorations of human ethics.
Thanks to Del Rey and Netgalley for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by Del Rey
Paperback: 1st July 2021