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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

I pulled two books off the shelf at the Lockport Library and took both home with me. One was "The Country of Ice Cream Star" and the other was "City of Savages." Both dealt with a post-apocalyptic world where the scattered survivors were struggling to overcome various hardships and a singular escape from the drudgery. My initial plan was to compare the two in a double book review. However, "The Country of Ice Cream Star" is written in the author’s invented pidgin English, and it was taking me longer to decipher it than I expected. Don’t worry though, I will be getting to that book’s review in the very near future.

"City of Savages" by Lee Kelly is the tale of two sisters struggling to survive nearly twenty years after the Chinese army attacks the United States and, in victory, makes Manhattan a prisoner of war camp. It also unearths the secrets that drove their mother and her best friend so far apart. In this new Manhattan, the residents of the island are required to report to Central Park for the annual census for protection during the winter months. For the summer months, the inmates are permitted to settle anywhere on the island to fend for themselves. If they miss the census, they are turned away from the protection of the collective.

Rolladin is the leader of the prison. She, under orders from the victorious Red Allies, maintains Manhattan’s docile population. Using a combination of fear and reward, Rolladin maintains a powerful hold over her charges. It is this oppression that begins the questions in the minds of the sisters Phee and Sky.

Sky has dreams beyond the borders of her island prison. She has the tendency to buck authority and push the limits that keep them safe in their reluctant haven. The world beyond, they’ve been told, is full of roving bands of cannibals and bomb-scorched ruins. Why would they ever need to leave Manhattan? Everything they could ever want is right there if they only follow the laws set forth by Rolladin and her Chinese overlords.

Phee, Sky’s younger sister, is quite content to maintain the status quo. Despite their relative lack of freedoms, they are kept safe from marauders in the subways and starvation in the winter months. To Phee, that seems like a fair trade. What good is freedom if you’re not alive to enjoy them? She finds happiness when she is with her sister and her mother, Sarah.

Sarah has her own secrets. As the attacks on New York City commenced, she had one toddler daughter on her hip and another causing the first pangs of morning sickness. Her husband was off to work that day and likely killed in the initial attacks on Manhattan since no one has heard from him. So, it is up to Sarah to find a way to fend for her children and herself in a drastically changed world from the one she had woken in that very morning. Those lives were irrevocably changed, and the best adapters would be those who survived.

In the old house where she lived with her husband and Sky, she has a gift for her daughter. She hands a gun that was hidden in a wall safe to one daughter, while the other finds a journal written by Sarah about the attack and its immediate aftermath. Sky secrets the journal in her belongings, hoping to get a better grasp on what was happening in their world as it was falling apart.

A group of strange men entering Central Park sends the prison/commune into a frenzy. Who are these people? They’re not the scavengers who steal food and supplies, and they’re not the cannibals from the dark tunnels beneath the city. To add to the confusion, they claim to be from England, which the Reds have attacked, defeated, and destroyed. They must be lying about who they really are. A tribunal sentences them to prison at the former Brooklyn Zoo. Through eavesdropping, Phee and Sky learn that Rolladin means for these men to be executed away from the eyes of her charges. The sisters must act to save the lives of these mysterious men.

When Phee and Sky free the strangers and kill a guard in the process, they must run for their lives. Ryder and his brother Sam, the British strangers lead Sky, Phee, and Sarah on an escape  route that will return them to their ship and able to sail back to England. It is during these travels that their already turbulent lives are thrown yet another challenge. They meet up with Sarah’s husband’s best friend.

From this new peripheral character, we learn that Sarah’s husband survived the attack and lived for many years with a religious cult bent on changing the way the world related to God after the fall of the United States. However, he falls out of favor after questioning authority and ultimately succumbs to a “disease.” The group of Central Park escapees is welcomed into the open arms of God’s children. Of course, since this is a dystopian novel, things don’t go well for our heroes.

The cult attempts to indoctrinate the unsuspecting group into their way of thinking. Without giving too much away, there is a great deal of mind control at play in this endeavor. The sequences in this part of the plot are a bit rushed, but reading it will leave you as breathless as the characters. In the end, the girls must turn to an old friend to escape the clutches of a mad man and his entourage.

I have read many reviews of this book after finishing it, just to see how well it was received by the public. Many people had a very positive response to this novel. Some others had many issues with it, mostly concerning whether it was a Young Adult novel or a science fiction work. At our Lockport Library, I found it in general fiction, and I would tend to lead towards that direction rather than either of aforementioned genres. At the same time, that tween and teenage audience would not have any problems tackling this novel.

"City of Savages" is Lee Kelly’s first novel, and it is very well written. This is probably my quickest read of the past six months. I simply could not put down the book. Kelly introduces the action of the narrative through the eyes of both Sky and Phee. Each chapter alternates between the sisters to describe their point of view. It was intriguing to see the scene set up from the perspective of Phee and then concluded through the eyes of Sky. Kelly was able to give both girls their own voices and progress the story without so much as a hiccup.

The transitions from character to character and scene to scene are smooth. Most of the plot devices work in the author’s favor, even if some of them are quite predictable. We figure out early on in the book about the relationship between the sisters and Rolladin, but it takes most of the book before those facts are formally unveiled. Kelly let too much out in small increments to the points where there should have been big reveals were anticlimactic.

In reading this book, it seemed that there were some political undertones that drove the entire novel. It seemed that the message behind everything was that sacrificing personal freedoms is fine as long as you were trading freedoms for personal comforts and the guarantee that you would be fed. While I personally disagree vehemently with this concept, I understand how, in a world where we are a defeated nation struggling to survive, this would be a possible reaction by the people left behind. In this way, Kelly is able to capture the sense of panic the survivors feel after all that they’ve know has been destroyed and find themselves as lowly prisoners to a foreign power.

I thoroughly enjoyed City of Savages by Lee Kelly. Considering this is her first foray into the world of novel writing, I expect nothing but success for her future works. As she hones her craft, she can only improve on an already strong foundation. I wait in eager anticipation for her next novel. After reading City of Savages for yourself, I’m sure many of you will also.

+Craig Bacon uses sarcasm to “sign” his reviews. Sarcasm sometimes is a form of humor. Sarcasm helps him find humor where others may find none. You can contact him at or follow his sarcasm/humor on Twitter at @hippieboy73

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