~by Catherine Jinks
The first book I read by Catherine Jinks was Evil Genius and I quite enjoyed it. The next book I had planned on reading by Jinks was Genius Squad, the next book in the series, though admittedly I haven't gotten around to it yet. But when I saw the awesome cover art by Cameron Davis for Jinks' standalone young adult science fiction novel Living Hell, I couldn't pass the book up. (Even better, it turns out the cover fits the story perfectly.) Living Hell was first published in Jinks' native Australia in 2007, making its way to U.S. shores in 2010. I find it interesting that even though Jinks is a medieval scholar (not to pigeonhole anyone or anything), many of her books have science fictional elements to them--this is certainly true in the case of Living Hell. Generally speaking, Jinks handled these components quite well in Evil Genius, which is more real to life, and so I was looking forward to seeing what she would do with the even greater freedom that Living Hell would allow.
Cheney is seventeen although he was technically born thirty-three years ago--it's just that he's been in stasis off and on his entire life, just like everyone else aboard Plexus, searching for a new planet that can support human life. Plexus is a complicated system, making use of DNA and microbial colonies to efficiently function. The ship must be constantly monitored and kept in careful balance. That balance is catastrophically upset when the ship encounters an unknown radiation wave. Soon, Plexus develops into an independent, living system and the humans have lost all control. In fact, they find themselves being hunted down and destroyed by the ship's newly evolved immune system and defense mechanisms. If humanity can adapt fast enough, the people aboard Plexus might just survive. But then what?
For as huge as I imagine the Plexus must be, we actually see very little of the ship in Living Hell. There are however plenty of named characters which I will admit I occasionally found difficult to distinguish--particularly the adults. Part of this was because the writing style included little descriptive material, focusing more on the action. This isn't necessarily a problem in and of itself, but some details seemed only to be introduced as the plot needed them as opposed to being incorporated into the story as a whole. Still, Jinks has a good premise to start with and a strong back-story to support it. I enjoyed her version of a ship with biological elements and most of her basic science fiction is believable. And what isn't is at least a lot of fun.
I was actually somewhat disappointed with Living Hell, despite it being quick, fun, and easy read. The book did give me a warm, fuzzy feeling of nostalgia for the science fiction stories that I read when I was much younger than I am now, which I appreciated and made me smile. But at the same time, I wanted Living Hell to be more complex than it ended up being. I was sorry to see intriguing plot points introduced, but not actually lead anywhere--the genetic heritage of some of the characters being one example. I also felt cheated towards the end of the book when one character stops another from revealing what had previously happened because there were more important things to attend to at that very moment. Granted, that was true, but still, I wanted to know. However the Epilogue, appropriately written in a completely different style, was excellent and a very nice touch. It did make me want to read the appendices referred to, though. Living Hell had a great premise to it, but Jinks didn't pull it off quite as well as I had hoped. She does get some thing right though--Cheney makes a wonderful and very likable protagonist and the background is well thought out--and even sneaks some great biology lessons into the story. I expect that Living Hell will be enjoyed by the younger readers at which it is aimed, but most adults will probably be left wanting something a little more substantial.