Book Review - Camp Zero: A Novel by Michelle Min Sterling

Camp Zero feels like the kind of book that works on all fronts. Each of the three different narrations are as interesting at the beginning as they are at the end, momentum carries the book from start to finish, and the way the three stories coalesce is masterclass. 

But I can't quite put my finger on it. It always felt exciting enough, but you sort of waited for the story to be amped up to eleven. It never quite gets there. The pace set forth at the beginning remains steadfast. At no point does the story waiver. It continually introduces enough elements to the world to keep you interested. And author Michelle Min Sterling never breadcrumbs us. That is to say, she gives you enough revelations about the past to give you satisfaction, something many current dystopias (Our Missing Hearts, I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself) fail to do. And it all works, but the actual events of the story are a bit flaccid. This is a dystopia with an espionage angle, but while the dystopia works, the espionage portion never delivers. 

The book is split between three different narrations. Rose, the half-Asian escort, who leaves the elite world of the "Floating City" to work in the blistering cold. Grant, a professor who leaves his well renowned parents to teach college to foremen up north. The third frame revolves around a group, White Alice, comprised of women living at a station who are working on sustainability. 

Rose, while seemingly the most interesting, has the most convoluted of stories. Not only is she an escort, but she is also collecting information as an informant. She also has a contact at the camp, but is unsure who that is. As a character, Rose is far and away the most fascinating character, but there's just too many threads to follow what is happening with Rose. Revelations that occur aren't revealed with the precision of other novels. If there's a revelation, you'll find out about it usually in a direct way. For people who are sneaking around and delivering information, they're doing a pretty piss poor job at that. And because of the limited characters at the camp, it's all the more glaring how terrible everyone is at hiding secrets.

Meanwhile, Grant is as interesting as white paint. Where Rose carries much of the action, Grant holds virtually none. He is the observer. What makes Grant sustainable is that he is often the person revealing what happened before the world went to total shit. The apocalyptic revelations remain interesting throughout, and even as the book neared the end, there were still more revelations that kept me surprised. That said, Grant moving through the present never delivers, and his motivations and connections to characters felt muddled at best.

And then there's White Alice. I could read an entire book on White Alice. The cohort of women composed of an engineer, a cartographer, a biologist, and more, really feel like a world all its own. The best part of White Alice is that there's a sense that they're out of the timeline of the story. Is it before the current events of Rose and Grant, or after? How do they work through sustainability against abysmal conditions? Every White Alice chapter leads you closer to the answer, and it works on a level that Rose and Grant never do. And yet, without Rose and Grant, White Alice would never work. There wouldn't be that uncertainty; furthermore, the end of the text comes together in ways few books do, without necessarily feeling neat or tidy. 

Like the aforementioned dystopias (Our Missing Hearts, I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself), there's nothing wrong here. In fact, this fits nicely as a triage. All three books are flawed, but they all also excel in their own way. Which one should you reach for? Take your pick. I lean towards I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself, followed by Camp Zero, and then Our Missing Hearts, but truly, there's not a bad pick among them. I'm just still waiting for the total knock out of the genre to happen. What these women writers are doing is unlike anything we've ever seen before in the dystopian genre. They're 85% of the way there, but they just need a little more finesse.

Camp Zero: A Novel
MSRP: $19.99
Release Date: April 4, 2023


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