With her latest novel, Children of Icarus, Caighlan Smith takes what could have been a rehash of too-familiar YA tropes — a futuristic/dystopian setting, a promised paradise hiding a terrible secret, a band of scrappy teenagers rebelling against a faceless government — and enlivens them with innovative twists and updates on familiar Greek myths like Icarus, Daedalus’ labyrinth, and all manner of monsters.
Children of Icarus’s nameless narrator lives in the walled city of Daedalum; everything she could need, from markets to education to a temple dedicated to the fallen angel Icarus, is located in her apartment building. Once a year, a lottery is drawn from all the names of the children aged 10 – 16 in the city, and those who are chosen have the great honor of entering the labyrinth outside Daedalum, where, if they reach the center, they will become angels (“Icarii”) and ascend into the sacred land of Alyssia. The narrator desperately wants to avoid being chosen and have a normal life in her building; her best friend, Clara, wants to be chosen so that she’ll have a chance to find her older brother, who went into the labyrinth years ago. Both girls’ names are called, and along with the small group of other Icarii, they must leave their city behind, discovering the dangerous and terrible truth of their supposedly glorious journey.
The labyrinth itself and the warrens underneath are described in careful, claustrophobic detail, down to the reality that a resistance group with no access to running water or a reliable food supply wouldn’t smell particularly nice. The scavengers themselves have organized a makeshift society, and it, too, has its secrets and perils. Monsters lurking within and above the labyrinth bear familiarity to creatures like manticores and harpies while also taking on their own characteristics and appearances, which further helps the novel stand as its own work.
The narrator is introduced as a painfully shy and anxious girl, to the point where it’s easy to forget that she’s capable of speech, though her inner monologue is filled with observations of her surroundings and the people she tries to interact with. When she’s in large groups, she retreats within herself and merely watches while other people act; considering how often she needs to be saved from danger or told how to engage in behaviors which should be self-explanatory, the frustration felt by her saviors is palpable. But later, when she’s given access to a different method of learning, her true capabilities and intelligence shine, gently rebuking the reader for any earlier loss of patience — a clever move on Smith’s part.
Children of Icarus is primarily concerned with showing the narrator’s extremely limited experience, so any questions readers may have about the overarching world and how all of this came to be will largely go unanswered. The ending opens the way to all sorts of possibilities for a future series, however, so hopefully there will be opportunities to learn more about how Daedalum was established and why fantastic, blood-thirsty creatures roam the labyrinth.
With shades of The Giver, The Hunger Games, and The Maze Runner, it’s obvious where Children of Icarus owes its debts, but that’s not a knock against Smith. She’s clearly got a strong imagination and a talent for bringing characters to life, even when they’re engaging in self-destructive or sadistic ways. Young Adult readers who feel that they’ve outgrown The Giver and are ready for slightly more adult fare, especially if they’re interested in classic mythology, are sure to enjoy this novel. I’m looking forward to seeing where the story goes, and to reading more from Caighlan Smith as she continues to cultivate her skills.