Arclight by Josin L. McQuein is a young adult novel with a dystopian setting that was recently optioned for film (available April 23, 2013).
Arclight is the last haven for humankind in this dystopian debut novel by Josin L. McQuein. The world has been overridden by creatures known as the Fade, and the remaining humans have converged in this compound for their own protection. Every night the Arclight glows brightly to keep the Fade—who hate the Light—at bay.
Then one day, out of the Dark—the territory of the Fade—Marina arrives at the Arclight. She is the first human the other survivors have seen in years. A miracle. But she has no memory of her past, no clue where she came from or what was chasing her in the Dark. As Marina struggles to fit into the society of the Arclight, facing the suspicions of her peers and the questions of the elders, the Fade attacks on the Arclight increase. Until finally it becomes clear: something has followed her out of the Dark.
The future-Earth McQuein has created consists of borders that are created by light, or lack thereof. At the center of this novel is the Arclight:
The Arclight is human territory, existing under the protection of perpetual day. A solid wall would create shade and shadows, so we have a barrier of light. Massive lamps embedded in the ground and mounted on posts and buildings shine through the night to keep us safe. We’re packed inside with buildings and gardens, a few pens for dwindling animal stock, and stories of the world that was.
But the world that was is gone. It has been engulfed by the Dark, which surrounds Arclight:
The Dark is lost to us, filling the gaps on the map between areas of light. To get from one to another, you must first believe there’s somewhere to go. And should you be so stupid as to believe that, you still have to cross the Dark and pray the Fade can’t see you any better than you can see them. That was the mistake my people made, and now there’s nowhere left to run. Only the Arclight remains, and I’m its only immigrant.
McQuein’s world is very defined. Even the Gray elements—the nebulous areas between the Light and the Dark that typically mark where things mix and get mushy—have their own space and their own purpose.
That’s technically where she was found, in the Gray, and Marina is probably the most Gray element of the novel. She doesn’t really belong in the Arclight world because she is from somewhere else. And wherever she’s from is far away, beyond her memory—perhaps overtaken by the Fade—and now sits in the Dark. She survived, but how is she supposed to cope with not truly belonging anywhere?
From the beginning, as Marina sits through a series of presentations about occupations, McQuein establishes that Marina really doesn’t fit:
I keep staring straight ahead, past Mr. Pace to the patched crack in the writing board bolted to the front wall. Mr. Pace speaks of guard details and patrols, honor and responsibility, but none of those are for me either. Even if I wanted to join a security team, no one would allow it, so I let his words break around me and continue on to those more suited for them.
When he’s finished, the other presenters go back to their assignments, leaving me with a quandary. No offered trade or task feels right. Is it my destiny to always be the burden I became when Mr. Pace and the others dragged me, bleeding and unconscious, through the front gate?
If Marina thought she didn’t fit in her new home before, however, her situation becomes even more off-balance when a Fade is discovered in the compound. He attacks Marina and her friends, who aren’t meek and mild. Together they manage to get hold of him. But he only stops fighting when he recognizes Marina:
I dig a knee harder into his side, and the Fade jerks. Our eyes connect again, causing a sensation like static. Not quite tickling, not quite pain. The Fade’s eyes widen, forcing the blue to recede to the far edges of its silver irises. Shock, if I had to guess.
It appears as a word, an impression, and a picture all at once in my thoughts. The cool weight of still water washes over my arms and legs, so real I have to glance down to make sure I’m still here. If I close my eyes, I’m outside the Arclight, floating in water that has nothing to do with sprinklers…
“Do you know me?” I ask.
Arclight is a well-conceived and well-delivered idea. Throughout, Marina’s struggles remain center-stage in a plot that could easily have been lost in the twistings and turnings of the world-building details. At its heart, the novel is about a girl’s struggle to figure out her past, and herself, in a world that’s been turned upside down…with lots of fight scenes and action sequences thrown in for good measure.
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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.