By the year 2113, the British Isles have been in lockdown for fifty years. The Agency for Crime Investigation and Defence (ACID) has become much more than a police force. It is now an iron fist, the government and military combined, controlling every aspect of life, including whether a baby is even born at all. No one is permitted a job or a home until they have been assigned a Life Partner at which point that job and home are selected by ACID. If you’re among the wealthy living in Upper London, you will be given two warnings for insubordination. But if you’re one of those scrambling for food in Outer London, there are no warnings. There is only immediate, permanent imprisonment.
ACID opens in one of the many prisons, Mileway. Jenna Strong is a 17-year-old prisoner, jailed aged 15 for the murder of her parents who were prominent members of ACID. ACID’s leader, General Harvey, was even Jenna’s godfather before they locked her up and threw away the key. Jenna has survived by training herself, turning from privileged schoolgirl into a hardened, tattooed and scarred fighter. When she is broken out of Mileway by the resistance, Jenna discovers that she has so much to learn about herself, not least that she still has the capacity to live and even love. But along the way there are lots of decisions to be made, some of which have the most drastic consequences for Jenna and the mix of freedom fighters and ACID’s victims who surround her.
If you’re a fan of Young Adult Dystopia as I am then you’re in luck as there’s a lot of it about. But ACID has qualities that make it stand out above many others of its kind. Chief among these is the character of Jenna herself and the world in which she has been placed by Emma Pass. The fact that ACID is set in the UK, evoking such familiar places as London, Newcastle, Manchester and Orkney among others, is a refreshing and appealing change but even more than this is the realism of what has happened to Britain. This is a truly dark and frightening Orwellian world, made even more terrifying by its vivid, precise descriptions of subdued cities and their abandoned cultural centres, and the meticulous detail with which Emma Pass describes how journeys, events, procedures take place. This is a state governed by rules and laws. There is an attention to detail that is completely fitting with the tone and theme of the novel and adds to the menace of its mood. The plot is cleverly and effectively supported by extracts from newspapers, all contributing to the depth and realism of this future Britain.
Jenna is a likeable, understandably angry young woman who has to transform herself, not just once but several times. She isn’t sentamentalised, even when she displays all too human signs that she is attracted to young Max, another victim of the state. The story is told by Jenna in the first person. This inevitably draws us closer to her even though there are times that we know things that Jenna does not. It is very hard to read this novel and not be egging our heroine on.
The story itself is a thrilling one, full of twists and turns and surprises as well as moments of the most awful horror. There’s no beating around the bush here. The imprisonment of children is abhorrent. Their small bodies are less able to survive. Jenna is a symbol of hope but it’s a dangerous and often heartbreaking path. It’s not all bleak, though. Some of the situations that Jenna finds herself in are almost ludicrous and farcical. Furthermore, Jenna retains a sense of humour and the narrative, Jenna’s voice, reflects that.
I was gripped by ACID from start to finish. Its ending was, for me, heightened even further by the fact that it is not the first of a trilogy or series. It is a novel on its own. Emma Pass has produced a very strong debut novel which, thanks to its great characterisation, world building and pace, will have wide appeal to YA readers whatever their age.