It’s the 22nd century, and North America is divided into several different countries in the aftermath of a worldwide disaster. A plague that first hit back in the early part of the 21st century killed ― and continues to kill ― almost every person who get infected with the virus. Those few who survive become “witchings,” developing a variety of magical powers as a result of the virus’s presence in their body.
Noam Álvaro is a bisexual teenage refugee from Atlantia, now living in the West Durham slums of the more well-developed country of Carolinia. He’s the son of a Jewish mother and a Hispanic father (thus ticking as many boxes as I’ve ever seen for diversity representation in a single character). When Noam survives a plague outbreak that kills his father and most of the people he knows, he emerges with unusually potent magical powers over technology that make him highly valuable to the people in charge of the Carolinian government. Noam outwardly accepts his new life as a student in Level IV, the Carolinia government’s elite witching training program, and as the defense minister’s protégé. Secretly, though, he plans to use his new position and power to bring down the government, which has been extremely hostile to refugees.
But then things get complicated, particularly when Noam meets Dara, a handsome brown-skinned fellow student who looks like a magazine model. Noam is torn between his deep attraction for Dara and his fears about Dara’s allegiance to another politician who’s taken anti-refugee positions. Noam is also confused about how much he can trust Calix Lehrer, the minister of defense who has taken such a keen interest in Noam’s development.
The Fever King (2019) is an LGBTQIA urban fantasy novel that feels more like science fiction/alternative history. Even the magic has a quasi-scientific explanation, which was appealing and helped to ground the novel. On the other hand, it didn’t seem realistic that not just the main characters, but every single character in the novel, is queer (per Victoria Lee’s blog). It made The Fever King feel like an interesting if unlikely exercise in diversity representation. The politics in the novel and its concerns with refugee rights and the gulf between the haves and have-nots also bear a clear message for our current society.
Lee’s storytelling is a little disjointed and unclear, most noticeably in the first half. She creates an imaginative future society, but it could have used more worldbuilding. For that first half I wasn’t particularly enjoying the story, just plowing through it. But then it gets much clearer, and the final third is exciting and tension-filled, with some solid twists and turns. The Fever King is the first book in Lee’s FEVERWAKE duology, and though the ending doesn’t leave you with a terrible cliffhanger, the overall story is clearly unfinished at this point.
Although the main character and his love interest are teenagers, this is a hard-hitting, R-rated book, with countless F-bombs, a semi-explicit gay sex scene (it cuts from the initial foreplay to the aftermath), discussion of sexual abuse, underage drinking, drug use, violence and murder. That’s quite a list, and I thought it was excessive for what is considered to be a YA book. There’s an audience for this type of novel, but I wouldn’t recommend it for younger teens. I’ll admit to some curiosity about how the plot will be resolved in The Electric Heir, to be published in 2020, but I’m on the fence as to whether I’ll actually read it.