Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this novel from the author for review. I did not receive compensation; all opinions are my own.
Ok. First, let me say it’s come to my attention (via this book) that there’s an annoying lack of dystopian-near-future novels out there from non-Christian perspectives. Hang onto that thought, because I’m going into it more in a minute.
On the surface, Knight in Paper Armor by Nicholas Conley is your typical “teenage-superhero-fighting-dystopian-regime” plot. BOY is this book so much more than that trope. The lead character, Billy Jakobek, is a Jewish little boy living in a ghetto in New York in the near future, after the United States implemented anti-Semitic laws reminiscent of 1930’s Europe. Billy’s family is poor: both his parents work for the corporation running the country, Thorne (think Amazon or Disney if they get a full monopoly on everything). Billy’s a powerful psychic, and a scientist working for Thorne wants to take him for a “gifted” sort of program which promises to help his family financially AND will protect Billy from people who are afraid of his gifts. His grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, absolutely refuses the opportunity, because she remembers Jews being subjects of experiments. She passes, and when Billy tries to heal her with his gift he experiences her memories of the camps and of “The Shape”, an evil the psychics in their family has seen and fought before. Her death is the end of the last real protection Billy had.
We jump forward in time. Billy has been in the program for over a decade now, and research upon him has produced all sorts of “good” (new psychological breakthroughs, medicines, etc.) and he is indoctrinated to his sacrifices for the greater good. He spends a lot of time essentially in an induced coma in a sensory deprivation tank. He is lonely. In a new town in Colorado, Heaven’s Hole, Billy is allowed to go to high school and he meets artist and rebel Natalia Gonzales.
Natalia and Billy’s relationship fuels changes for Thorne’s secret plans and the way Thorne controls society at large, and I must say there are some unexpected twists in there both heartbreaking and excellent. Natalia and Billy are both the quintessential teenage change-drivers of dystopian fiction, but in new and fascinating ways. Their fight against The Shape is both internal and external conflict that constantly questions whether evil is an active foe or internal indifference. I was engrossed from the first chapter, and unlike similar novels I was left with a sense of hope.
What struck me about this story is the way cultural fears are so very different for different faiths and backgrounds. Conley doesn’t shy away from describing what it’s like to be Jewish in a country that has decided as a culture to hate Jews and immigrants. The bleak descriptions of Beth Shalom (the Jewish neighborhood Billy is from) are punctuated with shockingly violent episodes. Natalia’s family’s struggles as Guatemalan immigrants show the human repercussions of living in a land that uses them as cheap undocumented labor and hates them for it. Conley explores deep cultural fears of powerlessness, exploitation, experimentation, extermination, and what hating anyone “other” really looks like.
We need MORE of these perspectives in urban fantasy/dystopian fiction/all other genres of books. I want more Jewish culture, more Muslim culture, more ANYTHING other than the standard white protestant backdrop of morality and motivation in the books I’m reading. And I will admit fully that I didn’t know I was missing it until I read this book. I am grateful to Nicholas Conley for showing me what I’ve been too ignorant to miss before.
The villain, Mr. Thorne, is a true villain in every sense of the word: his extreme power and selfish nature fuels his own corruption and an utter lack of humanity until he devolves into a monster with no “person” left. And yet, there is an underlying sense of hope, of faith, that I don’t often get in this sort of novel, and I appreciated it. At the end (and I won’t lie some of the parallels with this not-so-distant-fictional-future are WAY too close to real life for comfort), I felt like good can still win if it has champions fighting hard enough. I found I needed that sentiment.
Conley’s writing style is engaging, smart, and easy. His characters are multi-dimensional and you get a good sense of them having backstories even if you don’t get to delve into many. His compassionate cheering for the underdog is absolute and palpable throughout the story, and he portrays the banality of evil wonderfully. This book is a bit of an emotional roller coaster, and it’s a ride I’d read again, because I’m certain I missed small things while I rushed to find out what happens.
I don’t do stars much here, but on Goodreads I gave this one 5 with no hesitation. I highly recommend Knight in Paper Armor for so many reasons: excellent writing, twisty plot, interesting premise, and both loveable AND hateable characters. Loved this book, and without giving the plot away…I’d love to see what happens next.