Frozen (Heart of Dread, 1) by Melissa de la Cruz & Michael Johnston

Forget global warming. If you want a real dystopia, imagine poisoned seas covered by drifting trashbergs, snow in the American Southwest, and polar bears in Los Angeles. Imagine a world in which fresh water is a delicacy and strange mutants have weird powers. Imagine a world in which government oppression is so extreme that people will pay fortunes for the chance to get out … even though the only way out is a mythical country, ‘The Blue’, where the sky and sea are clean. But no one knows if it exists. At least, no one has ever returned to tell the tale.

This is the world we enter in this novel. There are dual protagonists: Nat, a girl on the run, working as a dealer in one of New Vegas’ glitziest casinos, trying to to get the cash to pay a runner to escape to the Blue. And Wes, a mercenary who has just drawn the line and refused a job too dirty even for blood money. She needs a guide. He needs a job. Together, they set forth to find the Blue. But things are not as they seem, and as they proceed, they learn that more is at stake than their own lives. Theirs is a world without magic — except for people like Nat with strange, mutant powers — but in reality, the magic is trying to return. Yet the world may be too grim, too poisoned to allow Avalon to bring renewal.

This is in part a story of revelations, both about the world and about the characters’ backstory, and the authors handle the resulting tensions well. We’re kept slightly baffled, but enjoying it as we piece together the bits to build up a clear vision of the world. The interaction between Wes and Nat is especially strong, and finely drawn. These are characters you care about.

If there’s anything that bugs me, it would be this book’s tendency to go from shades of grey to black-and-white when it comes to the government’s role. We end up with a kind of morality tale background (good magic; bad technogovernment) which is drawn much more simplistically than the story of Wes and Nat and their friends.

But that’s perhaps too picky. The world is brilliant, the characterization striking, and the adventures suck you right in. I recommend it highly.

I read an advance review copy of Frozen that was distributed at Book Expo America. It will be released Sept. 17, 2013.

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