Published March 13, 2012 by Random House
Despite showing early promise, Starters failed spectacularly to live up to its potential. Lack of support in everything from world-building to romance made this intriguing-sounding novel flop.
Starters begins after the Spore War killed off everyone between the ages of twenty and sixty, leaving only the young – Starters – and the old – Enders. Enders, who can live to be two hundred, can relive their youths by temporarily (and illegally) occupying the bodies of minors who get paid a hefty sum for their time. Callie would never ordinarily consider allowing her body to be borrowed by bored Enders, but with lack of food and shelter exacerbating her brother's illness, she doesn't see any other way to make enough money to support them. What she learns as a donor, however, makes the original deal seem fair and ethical.
Reading Starters was like walking into a beautifully apportioned room filled with books and lovely places to read them. At first glance, it seems wonderful. Only then you realize the walls are filled with termites, the building was constructed on a sinkhole, the furniture is actually made of cardboard, and all the books are Scientology treatises. Nothing like what you wanted or expected.
When I saw Starters on NetGalley, the description sounded quite interesting. YA dystopias can be pretty hit or miss, but Starters seemed to have a good premise and the promise of some decent action in the story. However, the more I read, the more disappointed I was with the realization of that premise.
There are a couple of ways authors can introduce readers to a new world. The simplest, the info dump, is effective but unsophisticated. Readers often get bored reading pages of world-building and backstory, and it doesn't really flow with the real story. It takes a bit more skill to convey the same information through the telling of the story itself, in such a subtle way that the reader doesn't notice what's happening. Starters tried to do the second but failed, leaving the reader without even boring info dumps to explain the world. What caused the Spore War? Why weren't adults in their prime vaccinated? How can people live more than twice as long as they do today? If the bioweapons from the war killed off a huge chunk of the population and life is so precious, why are children without families so neglected and mistreated? Where does the labor market come from? If Enders were healthy enough for manual labor, presumably they wouldn't need to rent teenage bodies to enjoy themselves. What does the rest of the world outside the US look like? How were they affected by the Spore War? Is there no longer immigration in this world?
These questions, all at least tangentially significant and many crucial to the story, were never even alluded to, much less answered. Fiction has to make sense. When the world itself doesn't add up, how can the story? For the first half of the book, I was willing to let these issues slide, assuming they would be answered later in the book. That they never were was indescribably frustrating, basically ruining whatever enjoyment I had left of the book.
I say "whatever enjoyment I had left" because the world-building wasn't the only element of the book that lacked support. The characters might as well have been a single figure standing in a hall of mirrors, for all the difference their was between them. Their decisions arose frequently from the needs of the plot rather than their own personalities (which actually made sense since they didn't have them), and several times I was surprised by a sudden unexplained shift in a characters opinion.
Worse was seeing characters that behaved in ways so incomprehensibly outside the sort of people they should have been that I was entirely baffled. Example: at one point, Blake and Callie are trying to talk to Blake's grandfather, a US senator secretly backing the renter program. When they try to explain the program's nefarious nature, he silences them by repeating what they say. In a singsong voice. Because apparently United States senators are the rhetorical equivalent of argumentative four-year-olds. This incident stood out particularly, but there were a few other similar cases that were extremely jarring.
And to top all that off, Starters included a clumsy love triangle and completely unbelievable insta-love. I don't like either of those things in general, but I like them even less when they're done poorly. Honestly, the book would have been better without the Blake romance entirely. The lack of emotion and connection in the love story was typical of the book as a whole.
Starters did have some redeeming qualities. The story, when I could get over how full of holes it was, was suspenseful. The twist at the end was definitely a surprise, though I'm not actually sure that counts as "redeeming." I did enjoy parts of this book, in between running into a variety of problems. Basically, with better world-building and character development, Starters could most definitely have been a winner. The elements of a good story were all there. But they were not even close to fully realized. I suggest you find something better to read.
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