Dan Wells is an author I’ve enjoyed in the past, with his John Cleaver books being a favourite since I first read them. Partials is the first of a four-book series set in a dystopian future, in the wake of a war with the Partials, biological soldiers created by humans. The war ended several decades ago but it wasn’t really won. Now a new problem exists: over 90% of the world’s population is dead due to a plague that kills newborn babies. Humanity is on the brink of extinction, unless a cure can be found. To make matters worse for the women of this community, the governing Senate had brought in the Hope Act which states that every woman over 18 must be pregnant as often as possible, the logic being that the more babies born the more chance that one of them will survive. It’s definitely and interesting premise, and one that has a lot of potential, but I confess I often grew frustrated with it.
The book is about a hundred pages too long, its pacing is somewhat off, and I think both are because the book is trying to do too much. First the world needs to be established, so our character begin in the city before they go on an expedition and get caught up in some crazy hijinks. When our main character, Kira Walker, finds out her sister is pregnant, she dedicates herself to finding a cure to the plague, which will require finding a Partial for study, and so goes on a second trip outside the city. She then comes back, studies said Partial for about a hundred pages, before helping him escape. This requires a third journey outside the city, before she gets captured by the Partials and is studied by them. A major bomb shell is dropped at the eleventh hour, but instead of being able to properly digest it, she needs to find a way back into the city to administer the cure to her sister’s baby. It’s a lot of going back and forth and back and forth that holds up the actual story telling. By the time I got to the third leaving and returning to the city, I was skipping pages and even whole chunks of the chapters because it felt like repetition. What I was interested in was the story, but there was chunks of this book where the characters were moving but the story wasn’t.
Kira is a young woman who is far more mature than her sixteen years, but everyone her age has to be as they watched the plague kill everyone they knew when they were children. One could argue it’s a bit unrealistic that a sixteen year old is able to solve a problem the adult scientists haven’t in two decades, but your main character needs to have something special about them. I’ll give Kira this: she’s a rebel with a cause. She is fighting against the establishment, but this is the rare case of the sixteen year old being absolutely right in standing up for what she believes in and going to extreme measures to attain her goals.
Her friends and boyfriend, however, are two dimensional and never really become anything other than what Kira or the plot needs them to be. The romance between Kira and Marcus was uninteresting and the introduction of Samm, the Partial, seemed like the beginnings of a possible love triangle, which felt like something shoved in to give the young woman something worth reading. The author seems to be a bit unsure as to what to do with the female characters, giving them unconventional names like Isolde and Xochi (which resulted in me forgetting or not noticing that they were women) and then not having them talk about the massive elephant in the room that is the Hope Act. The only other character who came close to being interesting was Haru, who was something of a hot head, but smart and calculating at the same time. While out in the field, he questions orders then assumes command of the group, throwing everything into turmoil. When he returns to the city, he seems to be standing up for the group but is really only interested in himself. Had he been the central foil for Kira, it could have been a more satisfying book. Yes, she has an enemy in the Senate and a few of the senators are named, they tend to come across as a faceless group rather than an adversary that needs to be defeated.
While the set up and situation that the characters find themselves in is interesting, I’m disappointed that they don’t get explored further than they do. A law that states a woman must be pregnant as often as possible is horrifying to me and the name of this law, The Hope Act, is just as sinister as the Patriot Act, a name chosen to silence any objection to it as opposing it implies that you are opposing a core ethos of the society. I so badly wanted the author to explore it more but he didn’t. Perhaps this is partly due to him being a male writer with a plot element that effects women. Maybe it just didn’t occur to him that his female characters would be more worried about this than they are. That’s not to say that the subject never comes up, quite the opposite. Kira worries about it several times, though it is usually in the context of not being ready to have a child rather than it being something that is forced on her. What if a woman in this society doesn’t want to become pregnant? Is she forced to? Is she made to become pregnant, either through sex with a man or artificial insemination? What about any lesbians, or non-heterosexual women – where is the morality in forcing them into a sexual encounter with a man? Now credit to Dan Wells where it’s due, when Kira has an argument with Xochi about this, it is referred to an ‘institutionalized rape’ and that it was ‘the government taking full control of your body – what it’s for, what you do with it, and what other people can do with it.’ Unfortunately this isn’t said until page 271, and it feels like something the author has inserted after several drafts, as though someone had to point out that the women were never bringing up the fact that they were being raped by their government. If I was a sixteen year old, facing the possibility of being being forced by my government to be constantly pregnant in the next few years, it would be the only thing I would ever talk about with other women. It would feel like the sword of Damocles was hanging over my head. I was constantly surprised that this was not talked about more than it was and it gave me the impression that the women of this city just find themselves a husband or a fuck-buddy like the good citizens they are.
Despite the issues I have, Partials is not a wholly bad book. It was probably at its best when world building, thought that did have the unfortunate habit of getting in the way of the story at times. This feels more like the set up for the next book, because everything has to be a multi-part saga these days. Still, I will probably check it out at some point in the near future. The world that has been created is an interesting one that I’d like to know more about. I just hope that there is more emphasis on a story in that one.