Review: Viral Nation by Shaunta Grimes
Shaunta Grimes’ Viral Nation caught my eye earlier this year for a single reason: the cover.
The cover art depicts a teen girl, wearing very the very teen girl garb of jeans, a hoodie and Chuck Taylor sneakers, standing in the ruins of an urban landscape with an equally awesome-looking dog.
Having suffered a mild case of Dystopian Burnout, like many readers I approach dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories with a bit of caution. However, Viral Nation is a creative, fresh entry into the crowded dystopian shelves--one that deserves much more attention than it’s received.
Viral Nation is set in a future version of Reno, Nevada. A catastrophic Ebola-like viral outbreak wiped out a large portion of the nation’s population, and the remaining citizens were moved into fifty walled cities across the country, where it’s easier to distribute the critical viral suppressant--discovered thanks to time travel--needed to prevent a future outbreak.
At the center of this story are brother and sister West and Clover Donovan, whose absent father works for The Company, the developers and distributors of the suppressant that runs the United States following the outbreak. Both teens are extremely bright, and Clover is also autistic, relying on her service dog, Mango, to help her in social situations and minimize her outbursts. However, despite her exemplary test scores, Clover is denied entry into The Academy (a sort of college-prep program of gifted teens), because they will not allow Mango to accompany her.
She wasn't going to do this without her dog. Mango stopped when Clover did, at the front door to the Waverly-Stead building. Doors weren't exactly Clover's thing. Especially if she didn't know what was on the other side. She closed her eyes and steeled herself against the possibility that it would be loud in there, or that it might smell bad. Or have the same flickering, garish overhead lights as the primary school building.
Clover, along with Mango, finds herself instead conscripted into the Time Mariners program, an initiative of The Company aimed at preventing crime. It is in this new role that Clover discovers her brother’s future, and they begin to understand that The Company may not be the benevolent caretaker everyone believed.
Viral Nation, while existing in a dystopian world, is essentially a thriller with science fiction elements.
I think that’s important to remember that, as the pacing is quick with multiple twists, it’s written in third person from both Clover and West’s points-of-view and contains numerous “reveals,” which keep the story rolling. All of these things are typical of thrillers, but vary from the typical storytelling of the current popular dystopians.
"Do you have anything unusual to report?"
Seriously? "I went to orientation at the Academy and ended up time-traveling in a submarine."
While I adore first-person point-of-view, Viral Nation is a better book because it’s told in the third-person. As an autistic person, Clover’s view on and reaction to the world is different, and it’s quite compelling to see the strange, regimented post-apocalyptic world in which lives through her eyes. However, seeing Clover through West’s eyes lets the reader understand Clover’s challenges in a way that wouldn’t be possible if she were the sole narrator. This narrative style also helps the reader to better understand the complexity of the relationship between the siblings, particularly West’s conflict over his dedication to his sister and his dreams for himself.
I generally enjoy a well-done band of misfits story, and Viral Nation is no exception.
Clover and West’s crew of “Freaks” who band together to fight the nefarious motives of The Company were very compelling, though I would have liked to have gotten to know some of them better. Jude, a maybe love interest for Clover, represents much of what’s gone wrong under The Company’s reign, an orphan who’s smart, and a natural leader, he’s been victimized at Foster City, and no one in the establishment cares. My favorite scenes in Viral Nation involved Jude and the contrast between the relatively comfortable--though still harsh--life Clover and West lived. Actually, the glimpses of the secondary characters’ lives left me wanting more from so I could better understand this futuristic world.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m a sucker for time travel, parallel universe and alternate timeline-type stories, largely thanks to my love of the television show Fringe. (I love Fringe on its own, not just for Pacey Witter/Joshua Jackson/Peter Bishop reasons.) Viral Nation does involve time travel and the notion of multiple timelines thanks to manipulation of single events causing a ripple effect backward in time. Unlike many of the newer crop of time travel novels, Grimes’ novel acknowledges the complications of time travel, bringing up questions each time a minor element from the future is altered in the present.
They were stuck in a time loop. Living in a present perpetuated by the future.
Unfortunately, the specifics of the how behind the time travel and the rules of it were not revealed in any depth in this first novel in the series. I will withhold my judgement about this until the next book, however, since much of it isn’t revealed until late in this first book in a planned series. Regardless of this niggle, and my complaint that I’d like to know more about the other Freaks, I thoroughly enjoyed the story and can’t wait for the sequel.
It’s interesting to me that Viral Nation is published by Berkley Trade, an adult imprint of Penguin.
It’s definitely full of strong YA reader appeal, with its compelling teenage characters and the us-against-the-world vibe. But at the same time, I understand why Viral Nation may find a more comfortable place among adult science fiction/adventure-type titles, rather than competing with the likes of Divergent, Delirium and Shatter Me, which typify (and this is not a criticism) the YA dystopian stories popular at the moment. Romance is marginally present in Viral Nation, and the rebellion, conspiracy and intrigue are at the core of the story.
But if you're like me, and hungry for a dystopian that brings something different to the table, you won’t go wrong with Viral Nation.