When Ruby woke up on her tenth birthday, something about her had changed. Something alarming enough to make her parents lock her in the garage and call the police. Something that gets her sent to Thurmond, a brutal government “rehabilitation camp.” She might have survived the mysterious disease that’s killed most of America’s children, but she and the others have emerged with something far worse: frightening abilities they cannot control.
Now sixteen, Ruby is one of the dangerous ones.
When the truth comes out, Ruby barely escapes Thurmond with her life. Now she’s on the run, desperate to find the one safe haven left for kids like her—East River. She joins a group of kids who escaped their own camp. Liam, their brave leader, is falling hard for Ruby. But no matter how much she aches for him, Ruby can’t risk getting close. Not after what happened to her parents.
When they arrive at East River, nothing is as it seems, least of all its mysterious leader. But there are other forces at work, people who will stop at nothing to use Ruby in their fight against the government. Ruby will be faced with a terrible choice, one that may mean giving up her only chance at a life worth living.
The Darkest Minds follows Ruby, as mentioned above, from her horrible time in Thurmond (of which we only see the beginning and the end) to her mad dash for freedom with three other escapees, Liam, Chubs, and Zu. Thurmond is kind of a legend, one of the first facilities for what Ruby calls Generation Freak, and one that once performed experiments on the children living there. There is only a little mentioned about the virus at first, so I was confused in the beginning, but the children are classified into color groups, like the terror alert scale, and soon, all the upper echelon children*-red, orange, yellow-are dead, whether from the virus or from the camp, I wasn’t sure. Ruby doesn’t trust anyone, and with good reason, as she’s been hiding her true nature for six years at camp. She won’t let anyone touch her or get close to her, and I found myself just completely sympathetic toward her. Her parents shipped her off when she was in fourth grade to what is basically a concentration camp for children. Ruby gets points for being able to hold coherent conversations.
One of the problems with the protag keeping a secret from the other characters is most of the time we, the readers, know the secret already. It can be frustrating watching Ruby jump around and be skittish and secretive, knowing it has to come out at some point, understanding why she’s hiding it, but also wishing she would just grow a backbone a little too. Which is unfair considering where she spent her childhood. She is incredibly good under pressure in the beginning, and she looks out for Zu before anyone else. The problem I found was, after the action of the beginning, the middle is very slow. This is another traveling book, full of kids trying to get from one place to another while adults try to either kill or control them. Dystopian novels are starting to make me sad. Does this mean I’m getting old?
So we spend most of the novel looking for the mythical Slip Kid, who absolutely no one will give any details on for quite some time. It was also kind of nice to have the romantic role reversal, where it’s very obvious Liam is falling for Ruby, while Ruby is oblivious, but also not terribly interested. Granted, her disinterest has more to do with her fear of herself than Liam himself, but it’s nice to not have a female protag following the boy around like a puppy for half the novel. And I started feeling sorry for Liam, because, while he’s got a sunnier disposition than Ruby, he’s damaged goods too. He devised the breakout plan for his camp, and when only a few people escaped and more were killed, he blamed himself. And, because of that, he believes he can’t go find his parents until he “earns it,” until he breaks everyone out of every camp. That’s a lofty goal, and kind of delusional. I want to say, “Liam, don’t be a hero,” because he simply can’t do that on his own. This isn’t fantasy; Liam doesn’t have magic. And the world that Bracken creates with this story is not a kind one. I don’t believe it would ever allow Liam to be a hero in that way, not without putting an expiration date on his life.
As mentioned above, Bracken creates a hard, unyielding world for her protagonists, where even a kiss can be deadly, and happiness is elusive. Ruby’s secret keeps her from any more than a few minutes of comfort, of laughter. I don’t like it when teenagers call themselves “monsters” for doing what circumstances dictate must be done. This book kind of destroyed me, but in a good way. I’ve been growing tired of the dystopian genre since earlier this year, maybe even last year when I did my Hunger Games rereads, but this one… Sure, the science is a little sketchy, but if you can suspend your disbelief (something I couldn’t do with books like Delirium and Wither), I think the journey Ruby takes, both in her head and with her friends, is really something to read. So definitely check this one out, buy it, whatever, because it’s the perfect dystoptia for these cloudy winter days. (See my review of Bracken’s previous novel, Brightly Woven, here.)
*I hesitate to call the children by their “colors” or refer to them as Blues or Reds, because that’s exactly how you start dehumanizing fellow people. By referring to groups of children as “Blues,” you only see their designation or what makes them bad or different. That is why in my field (special education), we’re trying to incorporate more people-first language. If you say “autistics” instead of “children with autism,” there’s a whole different set of ideas that arise, not to mention how labels generalize. Ahem. Excuse my tangent.