Unwind by Neal Shusterman science fiction book reviewsUnwind by Neal Shusterman science fiction book reviewsUnwind by Neal Shusterman

In the near future, after a long bloody war between pro-life and pro-choice armies, the United States amended the constitution to ban abortion but allow parents to “retroactively abort” a child between 13 and 18 years old as long as the child was “unwound” in a process that allows the child’s parts to be given to others, like organ donations. In this way, the child isn’t actually killed, but lives on, a technicality that appeases both sides.

You’d think that few parents would opt to unwind their child, but when it’s legal, and even sometimes perceived to be moral, many do. Mostly unwinding is used to rid society of troublesome, unhealthy, or otherwise unwanted or “abnormal” teens, but some parents choose to sacrifice a child as a religious “tithe” that’s considered sacred.

Connor, Risa, and Lev are three such teens who we meet in Unwind (2007), the first in Neal Shusterman’s UNWIND “Dystology.” Connor is a troublemaker whose parents have given up on him and (unexpectedly for Connor) turned him over to the authorities for unwinding. Risa is a ward of the state who was never adopted and is being sent for unwinding so the government can give her spot to a younger orphan. Lev is a tithe who doesn’t exactly look forward to his fate, but has been raised to believe it’s noble.

When the three teens meet each other on the way to their unwindings, Connor and Risa decide to run and resist. They just need to hide until their 18th birthdays and then they can be free. That sounds easier than it is, though, because the juvenile authorities are always hunting for escaped “unwinds” and very few citizens are willing to help an unwind escape. Lev, who has accidentally thrown in his lot with Connor and Risa, isn’t ready to seek freedom, but doesn’t want to turn in his new friends, either.

Neal Shusterman

Neal Shusterman

If you can get past the extremely implausible premise, Unwind is a gripping story. The plot is fast-paced and exciting with lots of twists and turns. The three protagonists (and many other soon-to-be-unwound kids we meet along the way) are likeable and relatable (and some are not). My YA daughter and I listened to the audiobook together and we both felt invested in their lives and concerned for their futures.

I mentioned the implausible premise but at the moment that I’m writing this review, I’ve actually read through the third UNWIND book and can report that as the story progresses and more of this society’s history gets filled in, it becomes easier to believe in unwinding.

Shusterman uses the unwinding laws and procedure to implore us to think about topics such as abortion, adoption, parents’ and children’s rights, and also more abstract topics such as personality, temperament, and self-identity.

The audiobook, produced by Brilliance Audio, is narrated by Luke Daniels. Daniels is one of my favorite readers and he mostly does a great job here, but I have to say that some of his voices were a little annoying in this story. But I still recommend the audio version.

Published in 2007. In a society where unwanted teens are salvaged for their body parts, three runaways fight the system that would “unwind” them. Connor’s parents want to be rid of him because he’s a troublemaker. Risa has no parents and is being unwound to cut orphanage costs. Lev’s unwinding has been planned since his birth, as part of his family’s strict religion. Brought together by chance, and kept together by desperation, these three unlikely companions make a harrowing cross-country journey, knowing their lives hang in the balance. If they can survive until their eighteenth birthday, they can’t be harmed — but when every piece of them, from their hands to their hearts, are wanted by a world gone mad, eighteen seems far, far away. In UnwindBoston Globe/Horn Book Award winner Neal Shusterman challenges readers’ ideas about life — not just where life begins, and where it ends, but what it truly means to be alive.


  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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