In 2100, the floods have risen, conspiring with prolongued winters and massive long lasting storms to drive those last people who cling on to the land to let go and abandon the final scraps of trees and grass for a treacherous life on the sea. Legend has it that to the south there are cities towering above the waves, where there is safety and food. But it isn’t an easy decision to make. What the survivors need is a strong young voice, someone foretold perhaps, who can persuade her elders to let go.
Mara is such a person. Confined for weeks at a time due to storms outside her cottage on the ever shrinking island of Wing, this teenage girl draws comfort from her ‘Globe’ – an artefact from almost forgotten, drier times when there was still power, communication and infrastructure. Through it, she enters the Weave, a virtual universe that remembers the past and is populated by its fragments as well as a few people who can roam there as cyberbeings, among them Mara. While there, she encounters Fox who offers hope from one of these bright cities and she decides to follow his voice.
And so Exodus, the first of Julie Bertagna’s Young Adult dystopia series begins. Published ten years ago, it has taken almost a decade for the trilogy to finish, progressing through Zenith to Aurora, published in 2011. This first novel creates a brilliantly visualised world, mostly of water but containing little pieces of land while also hinting at the horrors, now glowing with some kind of creepy organic phosphorescence, that still fester deep below in the oceans. There are cities, cars and people down there, caught as the seas rose.
However, when Mara’s boat reaches her goal, the city towering above the water, it is not as she would have wished. Refugees loiter in great numbers at the base of the pillars while pirates patrol the waters and police hunt. Small orphans are more at home in the water, with traces of sleek hair on the bodies as well as gills and webbed fingers and toes. Only the privileged few are safe in the white cities, where they live connected to some kind of elaborate intranet that creates wealth they don’t need.
When Mara breaks through the gates in the wake of a supply ship she discovers another set of people, the Treenesters, living in the foundations of this city in what were once the highest points of Glasgow. Led by an old woman who remembers the past, these tree people lead a dangerous life, scavenging what they can from museums, reading what they can from libraries, and watching from church spires for a person or prophet. It is not just the islanders who look to Mara for freedom.
Exodus is a fine novel indeed. Julie Bertagna brings to life circles of settlement – the islands, the refugees, the Treenesters – all trying to reach the towering city. And inside there we have the Fox himself who, with the help of Mara, conceives a great plan. The novel is a high adventure with some thrilling scenes but the real strength of the book is in the societies that can be found in these few remaining pockets of life. The Treenesters in particular are wonderfully visualised, as are the feral orphans darting around in the water like fish, saving artefacts from the museum like jewels, even rescuing a giant apeman of all things. It’s incongruous but it’s moving.
In Zenith, the middle novel, the story moves back to the seas and Mara’s escape with refugees, orphans and Treenesters alike to follow the cold to the north. There, it is alleged, land remains underneath the Northern Lights. New characters are introduced, notably Tuck, the young Gypsea – a pirate who bravely leads Mara on to land but has bold and dangerous dreams. Aurora, the final book in the trilogy, presents the fruition of those dreams and the harsh legacy for the people of the northern lands. Again we have new characters, a generation has been leaped and now we have Lily, Clay and Candle.
Through all three novels we have Mara and Fox, as well as other stranger people, almost not human at all, especially Wing – one third fish, a third wolf, a third man. Zenith is arguably the weaker of the three novels with some lack of development in the characters, unexplained leaps in time and a strange world created that is difficult to grasp. However, with the third book, Aurora, all is put to rights and there are moments that shock – moments that all such Young Adult novels should contain. Characters have changed while others are just finding their feet. Whether there are answers to this world in which everyone now finds themselves is another matter but the path to hope is well and truly laid with great skill by Julie Bertagna.
This is a series in which it is well worth investing your time. There are parts that read like poetry. The books themselves are a visual treat. But, above all, they will give you Mara, Wing, Broom, Fox and other wonderful characters to remember.