Shatter City by Scott Westerfeld
Shatter City (2019) is the sequel to Scott Westerfeld’s Impostors, a set of four novels extending his UGLIES series by picking up roughly a decade after that earlier quartet ended. As I noted in my review of Impostors, this series doesn’t quite match the high quality of those earlier books, and seems aimed at a somewhat younger audience, but still retains enough of Westerfeld’s plotting strengths to make for an often exhilarating read. Fair warning, some inevitable spoilers for book one ahead.
The first point to note is you’ll definitely want to have read Impostors before picking up Shatter City. I won’t bother recapping characters or plot; instead I’ll just point you to my review of book one. And honestly, that review could pretty much serve almost word for word for book two as well, as many of the same strengths and weaknesses arise in Shatter City as appeared in Impostors.
The new story picks up shortly after the events of its predecessor (again, spoilers for book one ahead), with Frey and Col imprisoned by Frey’s despot father in the city of Shreve after Frey’s twin sister Rafi has escaped with the rebels, though everyone save Col and a few others thinks Frey is Rafi and vice versa, a necessary subterfuge. Frey and Col are meant to be married for political reasons (lucky for them they love each other, though they pretend it’s a begrudged/forced marriage), but in short order another rescue attempt is made then semi-thwarted, leaving the two separated. Col heads off to fight with the few survivors of Victoria (his city destroyed by Frey’s father), while Frey goes looking for her gone-missing sister in the free city of Paz. The urgency of her mission is increased by Frey’s knowledge that her father is planning an imminent catastrophic attack on the city with some sort of mysterious Rustie super-weapon.
As is often the case with a Westerfeld novel, the story moves apace, with lots of action. A general pattern does arise of chase — capture — escape (with variations on the theme), but Westerfeld does a good job of changing things up within the larger pattern by offering a variety of scenes depicting conflict: air chases, group battles, one vs. many, one-on-one encounters that are more psychological skirmishes than physical ones, urgent rescue scenes, and the like. And these are interspersed as well with quieter moments of introspection from Frey’s 1st Person POV (though I had some issues with that — more later). My one issue with the plotting is that at times it seemed certain information should/would have been shared that wasn’t, or wasn’t shared as quickly as one would think, which led to a little feeling of contrivance here and there, but to relatively minor impact.
The shift in locale to the wider world outside Shreve allows for Westerfeld to expand his world-building. We’ve seen what sort of culture rose up in Shreve and Victoria, and now in Paz we see one almost wholly antithetical to Shreve. Instead of full-time surveillance by nano “dust,” the citizens of Paz prize privacy above all else. The two competing world-views, of course, make for an intriguing analogue to our own time’s debate over privacy. We also get a glimpse into another city through its agents (we don’t actually visit the city itself) that offers up yet more rich world-building potential, but I don’t want to say any more so as to avoid spoilers. Another interesting aspect of life in Paz is that the inhabitants wear “Feels” on their arms — little icons (recognizable to us as emojis) that when pressed will create a particular emotion or “feel.” So one can force oneself into a state of calmness or vigilance, can give oneself a caffeine-like “Morning buzz,” can ward off pain (either emotional or physical), or induce grieving. The whole question of artificially induced emotions could have been handled in a simplistic manner, or offered up as the target of some obvious condemnation — and in fact Frey does just that when introduced to the idea — but Westerfeld is a better writer than that and so presents it in much more nuanced form.
What does come in for some sharp denunciation is our own world through the “Rusties” — the prior civilization in this universe that seemingly destroyed itself. The Rusties are obviously us, and Westerfeld uses the framework of his story to offer up some pointed if brief criticism of the direction our world has taken in our time with regards to our environmental destructiveness (the land is still scarred, for instance, by strip mining), our nonchalance about genetic engineering, our corporate mentality, etc., adding some welcome depth to the action-packed story.
While plot, world-building, and theme are generally strong, characterization is unfortunately one of Shatter City’s weaker aspects, as was the case with Impostors. Side characters remain undeveloped for the most part, lending a sense of unreality to their inter-relationships. Frey certainly develops into her own (or at least is on that path), a journey nicely complicated by her having to role-play her sister. This, on top of having spent almost all her life as the hidden-away combat-trained “double,” means she hasn’t had much time to form her own identity. While I like that complication, it does mean that it’s hard to take her love for Col seriously, no matter how many times she gushes about it. And her first-person POV for me was often too on the nose about her identity issues/development. The same held true for her constant references to using or not using her Feels, as she goes back and forth on her, well, feelings about them. That said, it’s quite possible that the target YA audience will find her POV less annoying. I confess it grows ever more difficult to cast myself back into an adolescent reader’s frame of mind as I move ever farther from those years.
The narrow problems/missions that lies at the heart of Shatter City are resolved by the book’s end, though the larger issues, both geopolitical (how to deal with Frey’s father) and personal (who is Frey and what happens with her relationships to Col and Rafi) are still up in the air. And as is Westefeld’s wont, the book tosses in a pretty big twist toward the end. I don’t think this new series holds up as a cross-over novel due to its voice and character issues, but my guess is its target audience, and particularly those who have not yet aged too far past their UGLIES reading days, will be thrilled to continue the action-packed story.