The only times I let myself be critical in reviews is when I had high expectations to begin with. So really, this was a solid book, as far as dystopian goes. The premise was interesting and original. A semi-virtual prison that gauges the prisoners’ moral compass and executes them accordingly—how cool is that?
Needless to say, I went in (the book, not the compass room) with high hopes.
This is the Goodreads blurb:
Evalyn Ibarra never expected to be an accused killer and experimental prison test subject. A year ago, she was a normal college student. Now she’s been sentenced to a month in the compass room—an advanced prison obstacle course designed by the government to execute justice.
If she survives, the world will know she’s innocent.
Locked up with nine notorious and potentially psychotic criminals, Evalyn must fight the prison and dismantle her past to stay alive. But the system prized for accuracy appears to be killing at random.
She doesn’t plan on making friends.
She doesn’t plan on falling in love, either.
From this description, I expected a twisted psychological thriller with a morally grey unreliable narrator and a cyberpunk VR twist or two to top it off. Instead, I got a tame YA dystopian-- except with college students, swearing and sex (can we just decide once and for all that it’s okay to have those things in genre YA? Teens have heard these words before and they know about the birds and bees. No, really.)
But the problem, for me, was the main character. Or rather, what the main character wasn’t.
Evalyn was not an antihero, not even close.
POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD—I whited out the really spoilery parts but READ AT YOUR OWN RISK
Evalyn is kind, nurturing, considerate of others and prone to beating herself up over things that are out of her control. In other words, a fairly typical YA heroine afflicted with a bad case of God Forbid Readers Think I’m A Bitch syndrome. An antihero would be helluva pissed off at being imprisoned (and basically sentenced to a horrible death) for a crime she didn’t commit. But not even her trial or the months she spent in prison can get to Evalyn’s beautiful, pure soul. One of the first things she does in the Compass Room is try to save a convicted multiple rapist (who had already threatened her and the other girls in the CR) from his much-deserved karmic death at the hands of one of his victims.
From the very beginning it’s painfully clear there isn’t a thing wrong with Evalyn or her moral compass and she clearly didn’t do whatever she was accused of. When she kills, it’s in self-defense or in the defense of her newfound CR friends and love interest. I kept waiting and hoping she’d pull an Amazing Amy by the end, but when we finally get to the reveal (at 75%) sure enough, I was right: [SPOILER] she was framed and forced to shoot someone because the real bad guy held a gun to her best friend’s head. [END SPOILER]
The other girls in the CR, however, are major badasses, especially Valerie. I found myself wishing this book had been her story from the beginning (and it seems like there’s going to be a companion novella from her (??) POV—I’ll be all over that!)
Another thing I found commendable: Harian didn’t magically wrap everything up with a happy-for-now ending so common to Book One of a dystopian trilogy. There are repercussions after what happened in the compass room, and Evalyn is actually worse off at the end than she was at the beginning.
To conclude, like I said above: I really wish I had liked this book more. There was so much potential for twisted darkness—and the New Adult category placement could have opened new, unexplored possibilities where YA cannot go (yet). Still, I hope this book is the first of many crazy, twisted, fun New Adult novels that aren’t just contemporary romance. We need more of them. This is why I round up my 2.5 to a full three stars.