Best friends Kayla and Mishalla know they will be separated for their Assignments. They are GENs, Genetically Engineered Non-humans, and in their strict caste system, GENs are at the bottom rung of society. GENs are gestated in a tank and sent to work as slaves as soon as they reach age fifteen.
When Kayla is Assigned to care for Zul Manel, the patriarch of a trueborn family, she finds secrets and surprises; not least of which is her unexpected friendship with Zul’s great-grandson. Meanwhile, the children that Mishalla is Assigned to care for are being stolen in the middle of the night.
After weeks of toiling in their Assignments, mystifying circumstances enable Kayla and Mishalla to reunite. Together they hatch a plan to save the disappearing children. Yet can GENs really trust humans? Both girls must put their lives and hearts at risk to crack open a sinister conspiracy, revealing secrets no one is ready to face.
Oh, my goodness, is that a person of color on the cover of a YA novel? It is! And she’s beautiful, and Sandler is awesome for writing about women of color in a genre that is inundated with stories about white teenagers, their special powers and their absent parents. And that cover is beautiful by itself with all that green and blue. I would apologize for starting this review with a little politics, but seriously. This book is about two women of color (who were gestated in a tank) getting sent off to be slaves to other, higher classes. I mean, that’s a direct parallel if I ever saw one, sci-fi twist or not. So. Tankborn…
The racism apparent in this book seems to be internalized. The lighter the skin, the higher the caste, and so on. Kayla’s skin falls somewhere in the middle. She was made with unnatural strength, and it makes her clumsy and awkward. She has never felt comfortable in her own skin, which is unusual for a GEN, considering their aptitudes and interests (called skill sets or skets) are programmed into them. There is blatant discrimination of them (a trueborn tries to hurt Kayla’s brother with a big chunk of concrete, GENs are constantly called “jiks,” a term Kayla makes sure you know is an epithet), even as they’re being sent on their Assignments. Kayla’s assignment is in a large trueborn house, where, as soon as she arrives, she’s called a jik twice. But here’s where the real story starts.
Here, Kayla is brought face-to-face with Devak, the trueborn boy who saved her brother earlier in the book. She’s there to care for his great-grandfather, but Zul Manel has other things in store for her. The best part of this book is watching Devak go from idly racist to enlightened. Sometimes it’s hard for us to understand intense racism and hate, but I can see how Devak’s insulated trueborn upbringing could make him blind to the GENs’ plight. ”It’s for their own good”, “they like the way things are”, “resetting and realigning a GEN is in their best interest” are all common tropes that Devak has has drilled into his head since he was a child. It’s like some sort of benevolent slavery, with “benevolent” having a very flexible definition. Seeing Kayla changes him, and when he meets Mishalla, he doesn’t even blink.
Mishalla is vital to the story as well, though she’s not nearly as interesting as Kayla. Mishalla is in a creche, taking care of ostensibly orphaned lowborn children. She’s frightened and easily cowed for the most part, but that just comes with being a GEN. I think the plot needed Mishalla to stay where she was for the story to be furthered, but Mishalla really is important. She overhears vital information and puts her life on the line to save children who, in a few years, would look right through her or call her a jik. That’s courage.
This book is bittersweet. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but it made me a little sad at the end. I wish this one was a series! Look for it next month!