Price, Lissa. Starters. New York: Delacorte Press, 2012. ISBN: 9780385742375. $17.99.
One of the latest offerings in the dystopian young adult fiction field, Starters features Callie, a 16-year-old orphan living in a post-biological-warfare Los Angeles, where the Spore Wars have wiped out every living soul between the ages of 20 and 60. Living on the streets of LA, where she fights “unfriendlies” and allies with “friendlies,” Callie is in dire need of money for permanent shelter for herself and her sickly brother, Tyler. This desperation pushes her to Prime Destinations, an organization that uses teenagers’ bodies as vessels for elderly people who want to feel young again (in this dystopian society, Enders, as they’re called, live to be well over 100 years old). In return for a hefty sum of money, Callie must simply allow a chip to be implanted in her brain and essentially go to sleep for days at a time while a 150-year-old Ender gads about and enjoys the blessings of youth and beauty.
Callie is understandably hesitant at first, but when a fire takes away her and Tyler’s only remaining belongings and they are forced on the run yet again, with Tyler coughing all the way, Callie determines that the money she’ll get from Prime Destinations is worth relinquishing control of her body. She gets control back, though, when she wakes up in the middle of her renter’s borrowing period. While Callie tries to figure out what went wrong, she enjoys the opulent lifestyle led by her renter, Helena, and starts a romance with Blake, a rather wooden love interest. As her feelings for Blake (inexplicably) grow, Callie also hears from Helena, who reveals that Prime Destinations is not as legitimate as it appears. The pressure builds as Callie races to stop the government from supporting Prime Destinations' nefarious plans. The plot races through its romance and reveals, ending with a cliffhanger that paves the way for book #2 in this trilogy.
Starters is fast-paced and simply written, sometimes to its own detriment. The hurried pacing overshadows the development of Callie's character, motivations, and history. The Spore Wars are not explained in depth, and we learn that they only wreaked their havoc a year prior. I would have liked to see more explanation of their destructive properties and more specifics about how Callie went from having a home to being a street urchin in a matter of months. Such a rough transition could have offered a great deal of personal exploration for Callie, but her emotions are explored only shallowly. We get the occasional comment on how nice it is to sleep in a comfortable bed again, and of course Callie is in awe of Helena's wealth and gorgeous home, but there is no emotional impact or self-reflection in Callie’s experiences. Tyler, Callie's sick brother, is her motivating force in life, but we don't really get any backstory to their relationship or why she feels so compelled to take care of him beyond older-sibling obligation. Additionally, the author, Lissa Price, suffers from a case of telling, not showing, as she uses her secondary characters as vehicles for exposition and not as well-rounded people that enhance Callie’s story. Finally, the flat romance between Callie and Blake calls to mind YA insta-love, wherein two characters are suddenly transfixed by each other for no apparent reason. On Callie and Blake's first date, Price again tells us instead of shows us what's happening. Apparently whatever conversation Blake and Callie had was killer, but we don't get to know what they talked about.
Despite its shortcomings, Starters delivers a fantastic concept and raises interesting ethical questions. I see echoes of Robin Wasserman's Skinned, with the idea of the brain inhabiting another body, and Marie Lu’s Legend, with a bleak, post-apocalyptic Los Angeles cityscape. Like both of those novels, Starters features an urgent desire for survival and a contemplative look at the lengths to which governments will go to maintain control. With its fascinating premise and the promise of further character development in the rest of trilogy, Starters will surely be a commercial hit.
Reviewed by Jill Coste