Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw
This is England in the near future. It is no longer a free country. With a chip implanted at birth, the Government can track anyone, anywhere. And children without two parents are sent to Academy orphanages, where they’re treated miserably and eventually groomed to work on fracking fields for the rest of their lives. Unless they can escape.
Jake at least wants to give going on the run a try. Following the death of his parents in a car crash, he flees his Academy, pausing only to rescue his faithful dog, Jet. Once on the run, he makes trails to Scotland, a country free of the oppressive Government. Before he can get there, he’s snatched by the Outwalkers, a gang of runaway kids living on their wits off-grid. The Outwalkers promise to make him one of their own, but as they try and survive being constantly hunted, Jake begins to unravel some secrets that might not only put himself in danger, but the gang and everyone else in England too…
I must say, I’m not the biggest fan of dystopian novels. I can read them, but usually it takes me a while to get through them, and they’re never really my first choice. So when Book Box Club announced a dystopian theme for their Feb box, I felt a little disappointed. Still, I bought it, figured I deserved some bookish swag. Inside, I found Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw. My friends who also bought the box suggested doing a buddy read, so I went away for a while and mentally prepared myself for what I suspected would be a dark and depressing read.
And it was, to some extent, but I thought it did well to balance these very dark moments with glimmers of hope. I was expecting something a little like a YA version of The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and so I was actually pleasantly surprised when it went better than expected.
The first hundred pages or so were a bit of a trudge. I get needing to set up the world and characters and things, but it didn’t do anything I haven’t seen before, and I felt like the explanations for things like the hub chips [the tech implanted in people at birth which acts as a tracker and other things] was very passive and tell-y. Lots of the sentences just came across as a bit juvenile, which I was concerned about since the protagonist is around twelve years old but the book is meant to be YA, so I was starting to worry if the author had over-simplified the voice to fit with the character’s age. The exposition just didn’t seem necessary to me, and it pulled the pace down by several rungs. Eg. ‘The mother didn’t usually help boys in the night. Usually she just pushed them back through the door and left them to sort things out for themselves. The new boy might not even remember where his bed was, or know how to change a sheet in the dark. Didn’t matter. He wouldn’t get any help with it.’ Lines like these, where they’re really adding little to the plot, could have done with stricter editing to balance the explanation with the pace. For the first hundred pages or so, it came across like this for me, as a bit clumsy, a bit dragging, and not something I was too keen to continue.
And then, almost so gradually that I didn’t notice it for a while, it began to change. I don’t know if it was the reduction of exposition, or the inclusion of interesting new characters, or the twists and turns in the plot, but I found myself starting to get into the book. I read past the allocated reading for the day without even noticing, eager to find out what happened next to Jake and his dog Jet, and the Outwalkers gang: Swift and her little sister Cassie, Poacher the leader, Davie, Martha and Ollie. What hammered it home for me was Cassie’s illness and the sense of urgency it poured over the whole plot. They needed help for her, but she couldn’t do it in England, where medicine and healthcare required a chip. The Outwalkers gang were charming and realistic, and I loved how they didn’t always make the right choice, because they were looking for easy, safe options. I thought it was quite interesting that they sometimes took on quite a cynical and ruthless way of looking at the world, and it reminded me of a very watered down Lord of the Flies in so much that these kids were willing to do whatever necessary in order to survive. Jet, of course, was another significant figure on my caring-scale, and I bit my lip all the way through the book praying he’d survive. The twists and turns of the plot were gripping, so much so that as one point I even punched the air to celebrate them surviving a chase scene.
The novel is by no means perfect. I’ve already mentioned those passive, told not shown pages, and I was a bit bored of the frequent use of deus ex machinas employed to wrench the children from the jaws of certain death, but I think it largely worked because Shaw made me care so damn much about the characters. The plot does deviate a little from the tropes of dystopian novels, and like I said there are lots of bright moments in amongst all the gloom to keep you from losing all hope during the darker moments. It tweaks the tropes a little, but I think it doesn’t do anything totally new.
Which is fine, because I wasn’t expecting it to, and I like it fine as it is. If you’re a fan of Contagion by Teri Terry, or McCarthy’s The Road this is a book you should take for a whirl. 7/10 stars from me. It was readable, and I enjoyed it, but it did have some wobbles.
For people in the UK, you can buy copies of Outwalkers from Waterstones here and Amazon UK here. The book isn’t meant to be out in the US for another year or so, so unless you can get a copy through book groups etc, you’ll have to be very patient!