Above World by Jenn Reese – Advance Review

Book Jacket:

A suspenseful sci-fi escapade plucks two children out of the ocean for a thrilling adventure.

Thirteen-year-old Aluna has lived her entire life under the ocean with the Coral Kampii in the City of Shifting Tides. But after centuries spent hidden from the Above World, her colony’s survival is at risk. The Kampii’s breathing necklaces are failing, but the elders are unwilling to venture above water to seek answers. Only headstrong Aluna and her friend Hoku are stubborn and bold enough to face the terrors of land to search for way to save their people. But can Aluna’s fierce determination and fighting skills and Hoku’s tech-savvy keep them safe? Set in a world where overcrowding has led humans to adapt – growing tails to live under the ocean or wings to live on mountains – here is a ride through a future where greed and cruelty have gone unchecked, but the loyalty of friends remains true.

You can read an excerpt here.


When it comes to imaginative Middle Grade adventure stories, I find they tend to fall into two categories: there are the ones that effortlessly carry me away, and then there are the ones where I have to muscle my suspension of disbelief to engage. Above World is an action-packed story in an intriguing world – but unfortunately, for me, it fell into the latter category. I consciously had to forgive and let things go in order to enjoy the story – but I did still have fun reading it.

Far and away, the best thing about this book is the world building. Above World is founded on the classic sci fi paradigm of technological regression – descendants of a technologically advanced culture must rediscover knowledge that has been lost, to fix/use their ancestors’ tech in order to save the world (think Pern). Reese takes the idea and runs with it, cleverly melding sci fi tech with mythological beings and a dystopian world to make for one big bundle of inventive fun. In Reese’s world, pollution and overpopulation led to radical solutions – some left the planet, most killed each other off, but others underwent drastic genetic alterations that allowed them to colonize uninhabitable areas of the planet, like, say, the bottom of the ocean. Those splinter groups, taking on forms inspired by classic myths – centaurs, mermaids, etc – succeeded and survived while the rest of the world spun out of control; but now, generations later, the tech they rely on to survive is starting to fail. And so Aluna – who happens to live under the sea – sets out on a quest to determine why her people are dying, and there’s only one place she can go for answers – the mythical Above World. Once she reaches the surface, Aluna encounters all sorts of dangers – not only from the various splinter factions, who have each evolved their own societies, but also from strange cyborg-like marauders, amalgamations of machine and flesh who scavenge tech from the living and the dead. It all makes for a wildly imaginative landscape that is ridiculously fun to explore.

As for the characters themselves, unfortunately Reese leans heavily on archetypes – Aluna is your typical scorned female-warrior-in-training, nobly self sacrificing at every turn, and Hoku, her geeky sidekick, is your typical tech genius. I liked them both fine, but they were both very, very familiar. I also found both characters to be upstanding to the point of disbelief. Now I’m all for having good guys to root for, but the endless noble self-sacrifices – that always miraculously led to rewards that were just what the characters happened to need – just grated. Still, every now and then Reese would find a lovely moment of insight for her characters – there’s one scene in particular where Hoku suddenly looks at Aluna, his best friend, and sees her through the eyes of the new culture they’ve found themselves in, and he’s stunned by how differently he sees her. But while those brief flashes of personality were enough to keep me vested in the characters, it wasn’t enough to keep the broad generalities from domineering the story.

Plot-wise, I have to admit the opening pages of this story – plucky, adventuresome girl sets out to uncover hidden repository of knowledge – absolutely made me cringe (it’s such a tired trope), but happily things quickly veered off in interesting directions from there. However it wasn’t long before the spectacular contrivances and conveniences began to pile up at a positively irksome rate, such as when Aluna and Hoku are separated in a strange land, and yet then manage to find each other again with ridiculous ease. Or when they happen to be taken prisoner by the very people who happen to be holding information they need. Or when those same people holding them happen to value female warriors and are willing to train Aluna (I mean, who trains a prisoner how to fight better, I ask you?). Or when they “coincidentally” meet a young girl who happens to be perfectly positioned to help them politically. Oh, and she’s also the perfect love interest for Hoku (never mind that they belong to different cultures – no conflict here!) Of course then Aluna once again Does The Right Thing, which happens to allow them to be magnanimously freed, on top of which they’re then told where they need to go next and then TAKEN there. And did I mention Aluna happens to save the life of a complete stranger, who happens to then come back and rescue her at an opportune moment? ARGH. It was downright cartoony, the way they kept conveniently running into teenagers who also happened to be future leaders who would then help them on their quest, not to mention the ways in which things kept falling into their path with ridiculous ease. And yes, this is a story skewed towards the younger end of Middle Grade, but that’s no excuse for these kind of contrivances. It was very, very hard for me to let them go and carry on with the story – and yet I did, because despite it all, I still wanted to see how it ended.

So while Above World is a Middle Grade sci fi/fantasy/dystopian mash-up that has a lot going for it, with plenty of imagination and non-stop action, all in all it just couldn’t quite overcome its shortcomings. In that way, Above World reminds me very much of Emma Clayton’s The Roar –  both stories try very, very hard to move fast enough that we won’t notice the crumbling bridge that is our suspension of disbelief, but while both were fun and entertaining, neither quite managed to pull it off. Still, if you’re in the mood for a fun, mindless adventure read, Above World definitely fits the bill.

Byrt Grade: B+

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

Kirkus Reviews says:

A warrior heroine with a caring heart, stalwart friends, an edgy futurist subtext and the suggestion of a possible sequel make this a thrilling sci-fi adventure. Imaginative and riveting.

Wandering Librarians says:

The first scene in this book seemed right out of the Little Mermaid.  We have the headstrong girl and her scared male friend going somewhere forbidden. People are called guppies as a fill in for scaredy cats, and then they are chased by a big shark…There was some interesting world creation going on (you know I like good world creation) but the story itself was unimpressive.

Publishers Weekly says:

First-time author Reese takes mermaids (and other mythological hybrid creatures) into postapocalyptic territory in a straightforward but exciting adventure….Action-seeking readers should enjoy the many revelations, twists, and hand-to-claw battle sequences, and fierce, take-charge Aluna is the kind of heroine who is easy to get behind.