Review: Origin by Jessica Khoury

Origin
Jessica Khoury

Razorbill
Released September 4, 2012
394 pages
YA / Science Fiction / Genetic Testing

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Pia has grown up in a secret laboratory hidden deep in the Amazon rain forest. She was raised by a team of scientists who have created her to be the start of a new immortal race. But on the night of her seventeenth birthday, Pia discovers a hole in the electric fence that surrounds her sterile home--and sneaks outside the compound for the first time in her life.

Free in the jungle, Pia meets Eio, a boy from a nearby village. Together, they embark on a race against time to discover the truth about Pia's origin--a truth with deadly consequences that will change their lives forever.

Origin is a beautifully told, shocking new way to look at an age-old desire: to live forever, no matter the cost.

Back when I first came up with Working for the Mandroid’s 2012 Science Fiction Readers Challenge, I thought the most difficult category for people to fill would be the Mad Scientist category, so I expanded it to include genetic testing. Now it seems that every other book I read has some sort of mad scientist component or a main character with altered genetics. It’s like the new dystopia or something, and I fear the idea will soon get tired if authors don’t manage to find an alternate take on the subject.

Thankfully Origin is a bit different from the other more future-centric genetic enhancement books I’ve read of late. First of all, it’s a standalone. Standalone! I didn’t even think people wrote those anymore! So that alone gives Jessica Khoury major bonus points for creating a self-contained story that feels well-paced and still manages to be a fully developed world.

Unlike a lot of mad scientist books, this one takes place in present day, but transfers most readers into an unfamiliar location rather than an unknown time. Origin takes place in the Amazon jungle at a hidden lab called Little Cam that primarily exists to utilize the nectar of a local flower to create an immortal race, which ends up creating Pia. Now a 17-year-old teenager expected to carry on the legacy of immortality through creating her own race, she’s a complex character as she learns more about the world that has been denied to her throughout her life and the effect this new found knowledge has on her very analytical black and white opinion of the world. She’s been bred and taught to think scientifically and only be concerned with the creation of more people like her, immortal with unbreakable skin and enhanced mental capabilities. But as she learns more about the world outside the electrified fence that makes up her entire world, she’s faced with previously unknown elements like human emotions and relationships based on more than proximity.

Pia is both an advanced character and incredibly naïve, qualities that make sense based on her upbringing and her lack of knowledge of the outside world. Her extreme curiosity pretty much fuels this entire story. Without it the plot couldn’t get started, so it’s pretty interesting that the entire 400 page story is hinged on a single personality trait of its main character and Khoury carries it off. Pia is her own catalyst, driving a plot that twists and turns as she discovers the jungle and the villagers that live within it. Pia noticeably changes and matures as the story carries on, which is further enhanced since it’s a first person narrative.

The last 60 pages or so are a complete whirlwind of drama and emotion as secrets come spilling out from all corners and the darkness hinted earlier in the book comes fully to light. While many of the reveals weren’t all that surprising, I liked how Khoury introduced them – not just with a large info-dump by a mustache-twirling villain – but naturally in the midst of an action fueled confrontation involving multiple parties. Her main villain is kept at arm’s length for most of the book, but hints of the evil hiding within the walls of Little Cam are evident from the very first pages. How vague can I be while still complimenting Khoury’s writing and plotting?

What really makes Origin a unique story is the setting. Khoury is great at emerging the reader in the wilderness of the Amazon jungle. The sight, sounds and experience that Pia experiences as she discovers the freedom and beauty of the outside world is shared with the reader through sensory writing that’s not only compelling, but also really engaging. The author paints beautiful pictures to set her scenes against and then fills these backdrops with action, emotion and questions of morality. It’s a pretty amazing thing for a debut author writing a young adult semi-science fiction standalone story.

If I had any complaint about Origin, it would be my standard pet peeve of insta-love. This entire story takes place over the course of a week and within days the male love interest is willing to sacrifice his life for someone who is basically a stranger. By adding in a spiritual aspect and the mythology of his tribe lessens the annoyance of the insta-love, but still, I wish there was a little more meat to the relationship that would have convinced me more to buy their attraction.

Origin is a solid debut from Jessica Khoury, one that shows so much potential to a writer that brought a fresh element to the newest plot-of-the-month in young adult fiction. There’s enough science to make the morality portion of the tell compelling and believable, but not so much that it bogs down the story or would turn off readers who don’t like sci-fi. The writing is beautifully descriptive, the character well-rounded and a romance that’s not too over the top. And did I mention it’s a standalone?

 

I received a hard copy of this book from the publisher at Comic Con this year and the publisher provided me an e-copy via NetGalley in return for an honest review. Thanks Razorbill/Penguin!