Rio lives in an underwater city called Atlantia where most of mankind assembled after a nuclear war. They call the time “the divide” when some choose to stay above water, and the rest sought safety in Atlantia. Those who are “below” in Atlantia are given a choice when they come of age. They can choose to remain, or they may choose to go above. The air quality above is still toxic, and those who go know that this will mean sacrificing themselves. Atlantia is sustained by those who live above, as they send supplies to those who live below.
Rio’s twin sister Bay chooses to go above which shocks Rio. One member of each family must stay below, so Rio can’t go with Bay. Rio was sure that Bay would choose to remain, and why Bay made this choice becomes the mystery she must solve. Did Bay learn the truth about their mother’s death? Was their Aunt Maire responsible? Why did her mother make her hide the fact that she is a siren from the council? As Rio seeks to answer these questions she learns more about who she is, and what she must fight for. Rio’s family struggles, mistrust of authority, and desire to leave her hometown will capture the interest of today’s teens.
Atlantia is a compelling concept, and Condie has created a complex dystopian world. Atlantia was once a haven for mankind, but it’s now crumbling. Her sirens are able to control others with their voices akin to Professor X’s abilities from the X-Men comics. Sirens are deemed dangerous, and the council of Atlantia must observe and monitor them. This creates great difficulty for Rio as she tries to suppress her siren abilities which she calls her “true voice”. Rio’s relationship with her Aunt Maire is complex. She should be an ally, being a fellow siren, but she also might be responsible for her mother’s death.
Rio’s mistrust of family and authority is something she starts to come to terms with during the course of the novel. She isn’t the most appealing character at first, and the reader learns about her very slowly. She doesn’t have a group of friends who help drive the story along. She forms a relationship with True who is trying to find out why his friend, went above with Bay. True is trustworthy, and Rio learns to depend on and care about him.
Nevio, the head of the council is not a memorable villain in the book. If there are more books in the series then we may see his character become fully formed. Rio’s interactions with him are short and few. Maire may seem like a villain at first, but we come to know her more as the story progresses. Rio’s hatred of her clouds how the reader perceives her. It’s only when Rio opens up to her do we see another side of Maire.
The novel is told in first person from Rio’s perspective. While being in her head informs the reader of many things, it is a limited view. One might come to see more of Condie’s world if certain parts of the story were narrated by another character. True’s perspective would have been intriguing, and would have allowed the reader to see another side of Rio. Perhaps this might occur in future books in the series.
“Despite her lifelong dream of living Above, recently orphaned Rio has promised her twin sister, Bay, that she’ll stay in their underwater city of Atlantia when they come of age. In one shocking moment, however, Bay is headed Above, and Rio is left alone, separated from the last person who knew the secret of her hidden siren voice and loved her anyway. As Rio tries to find her own way to get Above, she also discovers pieces of Atlantia’s hidden past and its uncertain future. Complex characters, including Rio’s antihero aunt, and a realistically slow and subtle first romance make this a book teens will relate to, even non-genre fans.”
-School Library Journal
Book clubs could talk about the complexity of Condie’s dystopian world building. They could discuss the similarities and differences between this book and other dystopian works like The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner. They could discuss Rio’s character, and how she copes with being a siren. How does Condie’s version of a siren differ from the sirens of other fiction works & fairy tales? Would you choose to remain below, or go above? Rio’s Aunt Maire is an imposing figure in the book. Do they have a family member who isn’t trusted by the rest of the family? Why?
Reviewed by Beth K.