Summary: Treason, betrayal, heartbreak.
A lot can happen to a girl between her first kiss and her first kill.
It’s 100 years since the Genetic Integrity Act was passed and America closed its borders to prevent genetic contamination. Now only the enemy, dysgenic Deviants, remain beyond the heavily guarded border. The Department of Evolution carefully guides the creation of each generation and deviations from the divine plan are not permitted.
When 16-year-old Jess begins to show signs of deviance she enlists in the Special Forces, with her best friend Jay, in a desperate bid to evade detection by the Devotees. Jess is good with data, not so good with a knife. So when the handsome and secretive Sergeant Matt Anderson selects her for his Black Ops squad, Jess is determined to figure out why.
As her deviance continues to change her, Jess is forced to decide who to trust with her deadly secret. Jess needs to know what’s really out there, in the Deviant wasteland over the border, if she has any hope of making it to her 17th birthday. Because if the enemy doesn’t kill her first, the army probably will.
It’s not often that I come across a story that has me so riveted from beginning to end that I denounce sleep—especially when sleep is a precious and rare commodity in my life these days. “External Forces” falls into this category, and then some. The story touts itself as a YA sci-fi/fantasy, but it also merges into the realm of speculative fiction: it contains everything from action/adventure to a decent dose of coming-of-age romance. Mixed with equal measures of seriousness and comedy, this dystopian story definitely takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride of emotions.
Written in first-person almost like a personal journal, the story’s 16-year-old protagonist Jess Grant captivates throughout. Jess is kickass in a way that blows every other female protagonist out of the water. Considering I have held Katniss Everdeen on a pedestal as the epitome of great female characters (even making her the initial focus of my graduate thesis), this is saying a lot. Jess has spunk—she’s bold, determined, courageous, super intelligent, and doesn’t take any crap. This isn’t to say she doesn’t have a few weaknesses, but these weaknesses ultimately make her stronger and more determined as the story moves forward.
Warning! Spoilers ahead!
The story begins with a glimpse of Jess in the middle of the grueling Special Operations Assessment and Selection course; basically army basic training. As the story moves forward, we learn exactly what propelled her to make such a choice for her life: she is quite possibly Deviant—a member of a “race” of humanity that has been all but pushed to extinction by the genetically-pure Devotees of the Department of Evolution who propose to do God’s work in cleansing the planet of unwanted genetic “contamination.” Deviants live beyond the border in the wasteland of the former United States. Believed to be uncivilized and insane monsters, the genetically-pure inside the wall are taught from an early age that Deviants must be destroyed for the salvation of humanity. To hide her own emerging deviance, Jess chooses the only place that she might fly under the radar and have a fighting chance at survival—in the very army charged with ferociously destroying her kind.
Still too young to enlist but facing an early assessment that might reveal her secret, Jess manipulates her birth records in order to escape. With the help of her best friend Jay—the only person that she trusts unconditionally—she successfully joins the army and proves her worth as a soldier. Eventually, she achieves her goal of being accepted into Special Forces. But this comes at a cost.
Enter the young, handsome, and mysterious Sergeant Matt Anderson who seems to have taken a keen interest in Jess from the very beginning. After their first strange encounter on a rooftop during lights-out, Jess can’t seem to shake the sergeant’s unwanted attention. He shows up everywhere she goes, scrutinizing her every move. When she finds out that Matt has been tampering with her assessments and even enlisting the help of her fellow platoon mate Sheree LaSalle, Jess finally confronts him and insists that he correct her psyche evaluation scores. To her surprise, he isn’t at all like any sergeant she has encountered. Aloof and with a flirtatious grin, he explains that her tampered scores will stand.
Jess eventually graduates and is immediately assigned to Matt’s Black Ops team along with Jay and Sheree. She is livid and insists that Matt reassign her to Intelligence; a request that he refuses. Eventually, Jess learns that Matt has secrets of his own. Not only is he planning to commit treason and in need of her help, but he’s also come to care for her—more than he admits he should. Grappling with her own conflicted feelings where Matt is concerned and her ever-growing deviance, Jess agrees to help him as long as he will take her with him when he escapes beyond the border.
What I love about this book:
- You can cut the sexual tension between Jess and Matt with a butter knife! The buildup to their first kiss is so intense that I found myself screaming (and melting) every time a romantically-charged moment between them was interrupted by another member of their team or the need to get back to work. The taunting and playful, flirtatious banter that flows between them is wonderfully real and not at all a detriment to the story. I was rooting for them from the moment they met on the rooftop.
- The camaraderie between the members of Black Ops is brilliantly woven into the narrative. You really get a sense of how much these soldiers care for one another and know without a doubt that they would take a bullet for each member of their team. It comes as no surprise when they all volunteer to assist Matt in his treason, even at great personal risk. They are family through and through.
- I love the sibling-like friendship between Jess and Jay. Jay is very protective of her and isn’t afraid to stand up to anyone who might cause her harm, including Matt. Jay would follow her to hell and back, regardless of the risk.
- Each character in the story stands out perfectly from the others and rarely strays out of character. I’m a stickler where it comes to character development, so this was definitely an element of the story that really drew me in. It was especially refreshing to see an author include two outwardly-homosexual male characters who break the “flaming gay” stereotypes that are so common in literature.
- The world the author built is very real and not at all contrived. From life in the military to the circumstances of the new world order, it is obvious that the author has done her research into every facet of this story. While some explanations of the underlying science and religious aspects of the story at times seemed a little preachy, it was also understandable given that this was written for a young adult audience who may not be versed in current events or scientific discovery. It was also written in an interesting manner, thus it didn’t detract from the narrative.
What made me roll my eyes a bit:
- As a Deviant, Jess has certain genetic abilities that give her a unique edge. While most of these were plausible, her hyper-fast reflexes were a bit too far-fetched for my liking. Jess describes these moments as if time has slowed, whereas Jay notes that she’s not slowing time but reacting at superhuman speed (think Dash from Disney’s “The Incredibles”). This apparently stems from her body’s ability to produce an overabundance of adrenalin. These moments came off a tad cartoonish and forced. Honestly, I feel that with her intellectual gifts, superhuman strength would have sufficed.
- A few times Jess comes off as a tad too needy where Matt is concerned, especially considering the newness of their relationship. Her constant worry that her deviance will make her an outcast, while warranted given the circumstances, sometimes seems a bit out of character. Of course, she’s also a 16-year-old girl who has her first real boyfriend—and a mysterious one at that. So I suppose a little uncertainty where Matt is concerned should be expected. Even so, I’d like to see it toned down a bit in the next installments.
Overall, “External Forces” is an excellent debut novel from the mind of a very talented author. It proves ethically challenging and leaves the reader questioning what it really means to be human. What is the definition of right and wrong? Who decides?
I seriously could not put it down no matter how hard I tried (sleep be damned). I’m impatiently awaiting the next book in this action-packed, kickass series. At present the second book “Acceleration” is currently in development with no posted release date, however I will make sure to post an update when that date is announced. In the meantime, check out the author’s website at http://www.deborahrix.com.
I can’t stress this enough: READ THIS BOOK NOW!