Today, I’m reviewing the two books in the Want duology by Cindy Pon, which follows a group of Asian teenagers in a near-future, very polluted world as they try to make the situation better. It’s mainly about class privilege and environmentalism.
There won’t be any spoilers for either books.
Want is one of the best YA dystopians ever published.
I tend not to like dystopians. Some of them don’t work because they’re thinly-disguised romances in which the “dystopian” part doesn’t make any sense, and most of them aren’t that interesting to read because the setting is always a terribly bland future version of the USA.
Not in this book, and I don’t mean that just because it’s set in Taipei. Want is a story that portrays hope in a ruined world not only through the plot, but also through the setting. For a story set in a polluted city, it’s very atmospheric, and there are so many beautiful descriptions – not only of the extravagant sci-fi technology, but also of the night markets, of the food, of the ways humans try to change their appearance when they can do nothing to change how sick the world looks around them. It also shows this future Taipei as a city of contradictions, the rich and the extremely poor, the old temples side-by-side with sci-fi skyscrapers. The setting is as developed as the characters, and like them, it has its own charm.
Let’s talk about the characters, then. This is the story of Jason Zhou and his group of friends, who managed to bring down an evil corporation by kidnapping an heiress and infiltrating the rich. They’re hackers and thieves and they’re trying to do the right thing in a world in which injustice is everywhere. I really liked reading about Jason – he’s the kind of character who really feels like a teenage boy but doesn’t end up being insufferable (and he also throws knives, which I appreciate).
My other two favorite characters were:
🎭 Lingyi, the bisexual hacker who is amazing and in a relationship with Iris, a mysterious acrobat;
🎭 Daiyu. She’s the best character in this book, and when I read it for the first time (in 2017) my reaction was “why can’t I marry her right now”. She’s smart, she’s competent, she’s beautiful, she’s aware she’s privileged and actually does something about it.
Another thing I really appreciated about this book are the themes. It’s a story about environmentalism and anti-capitalism, and it doesn’t shy away from showing how messed up the situation can get. And the thing is, I can see some parts of this book happening, and in a not-so-far future. Want feels both relevant and realistic, like a good dystopian should.
This book isn’t perfect. Sometimes the story got lost in paragraphs of exposition, and because many of the characters already knew each other, we’re told about their friendships and relationships instead of shown, so they didn’t feel as real as they could have.
Also, the literature references got a bit cheesy, but I didn’t mind that too much. I love cheesy sometimes, just as much as I love decadent – is it weird that part of the appeal of this book is reading the descriptions of the parties thrown by the corrupt rich people? There’s so much beauty in here, and I love when beauty is just a layer covering the rot.
My rating: ★★★★½
I didn’t love Ruse as much as I loved Want. I do think it is a solid sequel, and worth reading if you liked the first book, but the combination of my expectations and this book just not being as compelling and well-paced as the first one was led me to enjoy it less.
Let’s talk about expectations: I believed Lingyi would be the main narrator of this book. She’s not; most of the novel is still narrated by Jason Zhou, and while Lingyi is slightly more prominent and has a few chapters in her PoV, she still doesn’t get much development or more depth that she had in the first book.
While I love Zhou, I expected this book to be different, to get more into Lingyi and Iris’ history, and their relationship. It doesn’t.
I also thought this book was less thematically strong than the first one. It still talks about class and environmentalism, which I really appreciate, but it does nothing with these messages that the first book didn’t already do more effectively. The descriptions of the excesses of the rich and the poverty felt far more vivid in the first book.
The pacing was also uneven, which made some of the flaws already present in Want stand out even more, like the lack of character development (the only character who actually gets an arc is Daiyu. Who is of course the best character in the book and we don’t deserve her).
However, I still really enjoyed reading this! I loved reading about this diverse group of teenagers trying their best to take down an evil rich man. They doubt each other and mess up and feel guilty for not being able to do more in a world that is so unjust, but… I admire all of them a lot.
Also, the novel was still very atmospheric (it’s set in Shanghai instead of Taipei this time and I really liked seeing this new place from Lingyi and Zhou’s eyes), and it has the kind of food descriptions that will make you hungry.
My rating: ★★★½
Overall, I thought this was a really interesting and original series, and it’s one of the few YA dystopians I feel like I can recommend.
What are your favorite dystopians?