Stories dealing with those often-painful transitions of adolescence dominate mainstream young adult fiction. On the genre side of the fiction divide, post-apocalyptic settings contain characters constantly beset by external dangers, characters that simultaneously must struggle to adapt themselves to their civilization’s collapse. In both cases these tales combine peripheral threats with internal struggles, shaping varying degrees of character growth and/or plot development.
Thus, it’s fitting that S.C. Flynn combined aspects from both sides of young adult fiction’s spectrum in his debut novel Children of the Different. Though comprised of many familiar elements, the novel is aptly named. Flynn’s story feels fresh and intriguingly different. With inspirations from analytical philosophy and biological metamorphosis, Children of the Different explores the transformation of his young characters into adulthood within post-apocalyptic settings that merge science fiction and mythical fantasy.Set in the southwest of Western Australia (a region Flynn calls home), the novel picks up 19 years following the outbreak of a mysterious disease affecting the human brain. Most of the world’s population has died, and those still living seem to have survived because of something different, something unique about their neural biology. But the strange disease has not left them unaffected. Those born now enter adolescence through the Changeland, a trance-like state that appears part biological and part spiritual, blurring the lines between physicality and illusion. Individuals emerge from this traumatic (and now ritualized) experience in either of two ways: They find themselves with newly developed mental capabilities, clear-headed but forbidden by taboo to speak of any memories they have of their personal Changeland ordeal. Or they emerge Feral, devoid of human reason and fueled solely by cannibalistic instincts.
Arika and Narrah are 13-year-old twins living in a small rural community, and they are about to go through the Changeland. But their experience becomes unlike any other, fusing their existence in both physical reality and the dream-like Changeland, bridging a deeper connection between their minds, and setting them on a path that forces them to discover past history and confront forces at work to restore dangerous remnants of past civilization. Leading those forces and intent on stopping the twin sister and brother is the “Anteater”, an enigmatic figure who also straddles existing within the real world and the Changeland, a powerful creature that feeds on human lives.
From this description it should be clear that Children of the Different is above all imaginative. Starting the novel I began to wonder if Flynn was being a bit too ambitious in his designs, too outrageous in the fantastic elements. However, as I settled into this post-apocalyptic world and accepted the set-up I found that he indeed makes it effectively work. Although the novel has some faults, being passionately engaging, compelling, and entertaining to read is not among them.
According to Flynn’s promotional biography, he “has written for as long as he can remember and has worked seriously towards becoming a writer for many years.” Though working with literary agents during this time, he was unable to have work published through traditional means. “He responded by deciding to self-publish his [debut novel] … aim[ing] for a book as good as those created by the major publishers.”
I am generally wary of reading (and reviewing) self-published titles. However, Flynn is a familiar face and voice in the genre blogging community, and he clearly is a hard-working writer and promoter. That tenacity has gotten his debut novel noticed, and it has garnered consistently positive feedback (that you can easily search and find out there). My own opinion agrees with much of the bits I have seen from other reader responses: Flynn succeeded in producing a book that is as good as many of those produced through major traditional publishers. It has tremendous strengths, particularly the aforementioned imagination. Solidly good overall, it still has uneven aspects. This reflects Flynn’s talent and passion, but also his early stage of experience and development as a published writer.
Flynn’s world building is strong; he makes you buy into this post-apocalyptic world, inserting the reader into the action of the protagonists’ lives in a way that makes one curious to learn more. The Australian setting is wonderful to see, and rendered beautifully, particularly for someone like me on the other side of the world. Within the overall arc of the novel’s progression, Flynn provides readers and his characters with revelations at the appropriate times to balance comprehension, curiosity, and forward momentum. However those doses of information can sometimes proceed clumsily, through a burst of awkward dialogue. These moments of awkward writing aren’t limited to info-dumps, but occur from time to time throughout, simply indicating a need for a bit more writing polish and subtlety over theatrics.
The characters also have attributes both positive and negative. The twins are each uniquely well rounded. However, they work in concert too effectively, in part a consequence of the plot. This largely contributed to making the novel a bit of a slog through its middle. As I got familiar and used to the twins, their descriptions and actions became repetitive. By the end, elements of the plot again made my interest pick back up again. I read Children of the Different in a period that overlapped with my reading another book featuring twin protagonists. The loyalty and connection of the twins in that other novel had an interesting balance with a competition and certain degree of animosity between them as well. That kind of complexity therefore made Arika and Narrah relatively less compelling.
On the opposite end of character spectrum, the antagonistic Anteater is a fantastic character, threatening and frightening in the dream-like horrors of the Changeland. For the most part I adored the end of Children of the Different, featuring the best-written action of the novel and a conclusion that felt fulfilling. Yet, the only big disappointment with that close was the revelation of who the Anteater was: a case where the mystery shrouding a creaturesque monster was far more evocative and effective than the reality behind it.
Despite having faults, Children of the Different is an impressive debut, a novel that if I didn’t know was self-published, I wouldn’t have guessed. Big fans of post-apocalyptic fiction would enjoy it as a relatively quick, entertaining and imaginative read. Featuring adolescent protagonists and written in a style that evokes an ineffable vibe of young adult fiction, I would place it within that category. Yet, there is nothing about it that wouldn’t also be enjoyed by an adult genre fan. I encourage you to check this out if Flynn and his novel is news to you. He is currently planning on publishing an epic fantasy novel that is the start of a series at the end of this year, and I look forward to seeing what his vision and development bring.