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Book Review: The Farm, by Emily McKay

A hot mess of a book in which the protagonist hooks up with her high school crush in the vampire post-apocalypse (sigh). I only read it for the autistic character.


The Farm

Penguin Books, 2012, 420 pages



Life was different in the Before: before vampires began devouring humans in a swarm across America; before the surviving young people were rounded up and quarantined. These days, we know what those quarantines are—holding pens where human blood is turned into more food for the undead monsters, known as Ticks. Surrounded by electrical fences, most kids try to survive the Farms by turning on each other…

And when trust is a thing of the past, escape is nearly impossible.

Lily and her twin sister Mel have a plan. Though Mel can barely communicate, her autism helps her notice things no one else notices—like the portion of electrical fence that gets turned off every night. Getting across won’t be easy, but as Lily gathers what they need to escape, a familiar face appears out of nowhere, offering to help…

Carter was a schoolmate of Lily’s in the Before. Managing to evade capture until now, he has valuable knowledge of the outside world. But like everyone on the Farm, Carter has his own agenda, and he knows that behind the Ticks is an even more dangerous threat to the human race...




Yeah, why am I reading vampire YA fiction? Like, what was I expecting? The Farm is pretty much what you expect a YA novel to be: very simple, unchallenging prose, half-assed worldbuilding, plotting that reads like the script of a Playstation button-masher, and the obligatory kissy-kissy-woo-woo with a hot boy.

The Farm (blurbed as "Resident Evil" + "Hunger Games") is a vampire post-apocalypse that suffers from having just too damn many story elements dropped into it. Civilization has fallen to a plague of vampires known as "Ticks," who are the mindless rage-zombie sort of vampire, ala The Passage or I Am Legend. With the Ticks prowling the countryside, teenagers (there's a serious dearth of adults in this world) have all been herded into Farms, where they are separated into castes; "Greens," "Breeders," "Collabs," and basically live like concentration camp inmates under the constant threat of being fed to the Ticks, who apparently find teenagers extra-tasty because of their hormones.

Yeah, I'm not even sure what metaphor Emily McKay was going for there.

Lily, the main character, has an autistic twin sister named Mel. She plots their escape. She meets her high school crush, Carter, who somehow appears at the very camp where she and Mel have been imprisoned. The book then alternates between first-person Lily chapters and third-person Carter chapters (which was annoying), with an occasional first-person Mel mini-chapter. They escape from the Farm and find out... that there are also real vampires. The suave, immortal, master-vampire with Dracula powers kind of vampire. Carter is allied with one and is the leader of a rebellion against the master-master vampire who's responsible for the Tick apocalypse. And the reason the vampire Sebastian is with Carter is that they are looking for abductura, who are humans with the rare abductura gene that gives them mind control powers, and they think Lily is one.

Are you going "Whaaaat?" at this point? Because I sure was.

So, The Farm is mostly a run-and-fight story in which Lily loves-hates Carter (and to her credit, actually has legitimate moral qualms that are not casually set aside when she absorbs the implications that Carter might be in love with her because she has mind-control powers) while bits of exposition are dumped on Lily a chapter at a time, and the book ends with a pretty predictable twist since this is of course the first book in a trilogy.

It's not horribly written, but it's written for the comprehension and attention-span engagement of the average, and I mean average, YA reader, meaning, it's pretty dumb. Frankly, I think it would have been a better book if McKay had dispensed with the vampires altogether. Justin Cronin already wrote this book and it was much better.

However, I must confess that my snarky cut-text is unfair to Ms. Snyder. She recommended this book to me during a writing workshop because I mentioned that one of the characters in my SF novel is autistic. And in fairness, Mel was one of the few things I did like about The Farm.

That said, I don't know how believable Mel is, and from the reviews I've read, reaction from readers on the autism spectrum seems to be mixed. So, I dunno. Mel was interesting, but this is what her chapters read like:


This rabbit hole feels cozy and we're not trapped even though Carter's still acting like Bugs. Uncle Rodney understands about music even if he worships a dead god.

...

I can try. I have all night to find the music. The pink gum helps.

The shark is gone — out tocking after Ticks. Finding food before it finds us. But part of me misses his watery silence. Who will pilot us, if we're not pilot fish to his shark?


I mean, her stream-of-consciousness internal monologues were interesting, but made me think that McKay was modeling Mel after the Cylon Hybrids from Battlestar Galactica.

Cylon Hybrid

McKay also tries too hard by half to be clever:


Carter and I had gone to school together back in the Before. Despite what teen novels everywhere would have you believe, sitting beside a hot guy in ninth-grade biology is not the basis for eternal love — at least, not the requited kind. And yeah, I admit it, in my more romantic moments, I imagined that I alone saw through his tough, bad-boy exterior to the wounded soul inside. Carter had been the kind of guy who ran hot and cold. One day he'd be all charming smiles, the next brooding glares. Some days he'd flirt with me, others he'd ignore me completely. What can I say, that charming, bad-boy thing he had going was like catnip to a geeky girl like me. And yeah, my predictability disgusted even me. I'd spend the first two periods of every day reminding myself not to be an idiot — because a guy like Carter didn't even exist in the same social universe as I did — and I'd show up to class ready to banish my crush forever, only to have him flash me one of those crooked smiles that made me melt inside.


There's got to be a trope to describe trying so hard to subvert the thing you are mocking that your subversion turns into outright imitation. And yeah, elsewhere in the book, there's an explicit "Vampires don't sparkle" line. Also, because Lily learned archery in Girl Scouts, she picks up a bow to start shooting vampires with. Uh huh.

Lily is mostly annoying. She's your standard issue feisty-girl YA protagonist, with an extra side of thick-as-a-brick-stubborn-as-a-wall, because I lost count of how many times she'd stop Carter or someone else in the middle of a life-and-death flight from the bad guys to demand that they give her answers! Right! Now! Or she's Not Going Anywhere!

But once again getting back to Mel, she also, unsurprisingly, provides Lily with one of her few genuine moments of self-awareness and character development.


"Has it occurred to you, Lily," he continued — either unaware of my bone-deep revulsion or unconcerned with it — "that Mel is as much her own person as you are. Perhaps it is not anyone's fault but her own."



All those months on the Farm, I had treated her like she was a burden. I had acted like some sort of saint for taking care of her. God, that must have irritated her. Suddenly I thought about how her speech patterns changed on the Farm. I had assumed it was stress, but maybe it wasn't. After all, she'd started talking again when Carter showed up. Carter, who'd always treated her like an equal. Maybe I really was the problem. Why had I always treated her like she was a burden, when we were really in this together the whole time?


So, there were a few bits of shiny glass in the swamp of this dumb, teen-romance apocalypse, but this is YA product for filling publishing slots, written for readers who consume indistinguishable YA vampire books and think they're self-aware because they make fun of Twilight.



Verdict: Occupying the low end of "readable," raising absolutely no expectations where YA is concerned, The Farm is a YA-mill vampire book with a few salvageable bits that made reading it not a complete waste of my time, but it will probably be a waste of yours.




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Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
hisietari
Jun. 15th, 2013 06:22 am (UTC)
I must say I'm very easy to trigger when it comes to things such as depression, other mental diseases, and so-called disabilities such as autism. I did not find that excerpt a particular mindblower as I didn't understand one word, and it doesn't fit with one of the more common symptoms of autism (though of course, being a spectrum, Mel isn't supposed to show all of them): being unable to understand metaphors. That text is nothing but code. Unless she speaks in a secret language to herself, which, with all those adjectives and images I find hard to grant, I just can't see how she got to that way of thinking.
Also, oh wow. Autists are real people with real feelings. I wonder how long it took the author to get to that conclusion. God, that trope just p***es me off.

On a genetic side, I'd like to know if she mentioned anything about what kind of twins the girls are. If they're monozygotic twins, the chances that one is an autist and the other isn't are basically YA-level.
indigo_mouse
Jun. 16th, 2013 09:46 pm (UTC)
Definitely does not inspire me to read.

I have a nephew on the autism spectrum, a brother who probably would be if he were diagnosed today (I can't remember what he was diagnosed with 40 years ago, but looking back, it sure seems like today's autistic spectrum), and quite a number of other male relatives who probably would be as well.

None of those excerpts sounds remotely like what I would imagine their thought process would be.

Growing up with a (possibly) autistic spectrum brother was really frustrating - so little of what he did made sense to me as his kid sister. He would spend hours in his bedroom rolling dice and writing down the results - he had notebooks full of this. Maybe he was trying to prove the laws of probability, maybe he was trying to perfect his dice playing technique, I have no idea. But he wouldn't do his homework, despite his obvious intelligence, and he could not cope with any kind of conflict at all. He also won't drive a mile over the speed limit. That might not sound like a big deal, but when he was passing a slower moving car on a two lane road and would not speed up to pass despite oncoming traffic... He actually forced the oncoming car off the road.
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