Scott Westerfeld has long been one of the best YA authors going, with multiple stories well worth a read, including the UGLIES, LEVIATHAN, and MIDNIGHTERS series, all of which are top-notch. And his SUCCESSION sci-fi series, more adult in nature, is absolutely great. So a new title from him is big news, made even bigger when we learn it’s a return to his beloved UGLIES trilogy. Honestly, it’s hard to live up to that sort of expectation, and unfortunately, I have to say title one in the new series, Impostors (2018), doesn’t do so. That’s not to say it’s a bad book; it just doesn’t reach the same level as Westerfeld’s other work. And even with that said, I’m pretty sure younger readers, its target audience, will eat it up anyway, overlooking some of those aspects that gave me pause (me very definitely not only past the target but on-the-thruway-six-towns-away from it).
The story picks up nearly two decades after the events of the UGLIES series, though Westerfeld offers up enough reference to those events that one needn’t have read it to follow Impostors (though one should just because it’s a good series). After the prior series’ heroine, Tally, had overturned the dystopian “Pretty’s” society (yes, yes, it’s the Pretty’s society but the series is UGLIES, it all makes sense, believe me), things fell apart and in the vacuum lots of different city-states have risen, many with differing views about how society should work. Frey and Rafi are twins whose father is the calculating, stone-cold ruthlessly authoritarian ruler of Shreve, one of the largest cities. Rafi is brought up cultured, highly educated, fluent in languages, etc. Frey, on the other hand, has been hidden since birth from the world and since age seven has been brutally trained in the arts of self-defense and killing, her sole purpose apparently being to keep her sister alive. When negotiations with a rival city end in that city requesting their father’s “only” daughter as a hostage to ensure good intent, Frey is sent in her place. There she meets Col, heir of the ruling Palafox family, and is finally introduced to a more normal sort of life, as well as other ways of ruling. Things, however, quickly go awry, and soon she and Col are on the run, potential allies or adversaries, as war and rebellion break out, leaving her to figure out who she is as a person (separate from her sister) and politically (with or against her father, with or against Col’s family, with or against the rebels once led by Tally).
To begin with the positive, Westerfeld shows his usual deftness with action scenes and pacing. The book starts with a bang (literally, as it’s in the middle of an assassination attempt) and moves apace from there, with just the right number of slower moments/more intimate scenes to offer variety but not slow things down too much between cinematic, exciting chase and fight scenes. Again typically, Westerfeld also comes out with some neat tech, such as “spy dust” used by Freya’s father to keep an always vigilant eye on his populace.
The premise is also a plus, even if it isn’t wholly original. But the varied city-states vying for independence and control, the scarcity society (recovering old metals from the “ruster” — i.e. our time — days is key to the plot), and the main character torn between warring groups and unsure of her own identity are all, as noted, things we’ve seen before but well-handled here. Finally, Westerfeld weaves in, as he is wont to do, a hefty dose of social criticism, whether of environmental irresponsibility or the surveillance society, criticism aimed obviously not at the people of Impostors’ world but at our own time.
Turning to the more negative side of things. Many parts feel more than a little sketchy or perfunctory. Frey and Rafi’s father, for instance, is almost entire off-stage and so is more a caricature of a tormented-by-his-past, cruel authoritarian despot rather than a living, breathing person of substance or complexity. Rafi and Col also feel undeveloped. Similarly, while we’re told the people of Frey’s city are oppressed and hate her father and love Rafi, we never feel it. It’s just an abstraction, making it difficult to be invested in. The insta-romance between Col and Frey is, well, way too insta and again feels all too perfunctory and predictable, and I’m really holding out hope it goes in a different direction in the later books.
To close with a positive, Impostors ends with another bang of an action sequence, and then switches things up nicely at the very end, resolving some issues but ending on a pretty big cliffhanger. Despite the issues, and the fact that this is probably more toward the younger end of YA than Westerfeld’s earlier work, its propulsive plot and strong close still will have me picking up book two of the IMPOSTORS series.