Author: Scott Reintgen
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi
Page Count: 377
Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers
Notable Notables: POC characters, Social class struggles
Recommended Readers: Fans of space adventures and high stakes
The first reason I picked this book up was actually because of the author’s note on the dust jacket:
Scott Reintgen has spent his career as a teacher of English and creative writing in diverse urban communities in North Carolina. The hardest lesson he learned was that inspiration isn’t equally accessible for everyone. So he set out to write a novel for the front-row sleepers and back-row dreamers of his classrooms. He hopes that his former students see themselves, vibrant and on the page, in characters like Emmett.
It warmed my heart and made me tear up a little.
The second reason was the premise. Emmett Atwater has been selected, along with nine other recruits, by Babel Communications to compete in a competition in space. Only eight recruits will secure spots to go down to the planet Eden to mine nyxia, a substance that’s become the most valuable material in the universe. Winners will be set financially for life while the losers get nothing.
What Emmett comes to quickly discover is that the other recruits come from broken lives and poverty like he does; all of them want to win the competition just as desperately, but how much will all of them choose to sacrifice and compromise to get it? Cue uneasy alliances and easily-made enemies! Or as Babel would say, iron sharpens iron.
Don’t get it twisted, though. This isn’t another Hunger Games or Battle Royale story where kids have to ruthlessly kill each other. It’s a lot more psychological than grisly violent, though violence does occur. I’d compare it most closely to Ender’s Game, if I had to. The teens all have to compete against each other individually but also in teams. Babel Communications is super shady with how deeply they want competition to thrive and what they want these kids to become, and there’s some things about the humanoid-aliens of Eden that they’re not telling the recruits about.
The cast of characters are vibrant on the page, too, just as Reintgen hoped. Emmett is black and comes from an impoverished but hard-working Detroit family who can never seem to get ahead. He’s joined by teenagers from Palestine, Japan, China, Switzerland, Kenya, Brazil, and the US. My favorites of the bunch are Emmett, Bilal, Kaya, and Azima, but every character shines and is distinct beyond just their nationalities.
Emmett is a wonderful protagonist, smart and family-oriented but deeply flawed. He struggles with anger and toeing the line of wanting to win the competition but preserving his morality. Bilal is my sweetheart son who never did anything wrong ever. (But seriously, the kid is hospitable and gracious to a fault, and I adore him.) Kaya is an amazing strategist but also thoughtful and driven. Azima is blunt and curious about everything, and a lot of her lines made me laugh or smile.
I enjoyed this book so much I finished it in two days. Nyxia hooks you from the start and truly refuses to let go. There were many twists in the book I did not expect or see coming, and the competition is thrilling enough that I kept wanting to keep up with the scoreboard as anxiously as Emmett did.
My favorite scene, though, had nothing to do with the competition. One night, most of the kids gather in Bilal’s quarters to play cards together—a tense and uneasy situation since they’d all be enemies competing against each other again in the morning. Katsu offers the last of his favorite dessert for the person who has the saddest sob story, and everyone goes around, revealing tidbits of their past and what’s driving them. The stories and everyone’s reactions to them were equally heartbreaking and amusing but above all human.
As readers, we like those moments where characters break down barriers between them and reach deeper understandings. We like it even better when, even after mutual respect is gained, characters still must act against each other to achieve a greater, sometimes selfish goal. Reintgen pulls this off masterfully, and it’s his sensitivity to things like class issues and the effects of poverty that truly brings these characters, their hopes, and their desperation to life.
Now, though, I’m dying because the ending was crazy, and I don’t know what became of certain characters. I’m eager to see what Eden’s like and what Babel’s true goal is. Ugh, great job, Reintgen, you wizard, you; I’m beyond restless for the sequel!
Break the chains, the key cries. Take what is yours.