Author: Monica Hesse
Who’s it for? Teens
What’s it about? Lona Sixteen Always is a Pather – one of a group of children who spend their lives on ‘Path’ – living vicariously through the life experiences of Julian with only an hour each day to be themselves. There is no self in the Path. There is only ‘we’. But when Lona is abruptly wrenched off path by her old friend Fenn she discovers her own sense of individuality, what it means to be ‘I’ instead of ‘we’, yet there is a shocking consequence for straying off Path, one that could cost her everything.
What’s good about it? It’s such a clever and fascinating idea! It’s a little Matrix ish in one sense as the Pathers spend 23 hours of the day locked in the simulations of Julian’s life but there’s still a real world. And not one run by robots either. The children in the Path programme are there because they’d been subjected to awful childhoods or were abandoned. It’s deemed easier and cheaper to keep them in the programme than to build more care homes. The really frightening thing was you can sort of see the logic. That was an unpleasant realistation.
I LOVED the meaning behind the names! Their names contain information about their date of birth, which sector they live in – it’s awesome. (There was a blog post over on Hot Key [the book’s publisher] which tells you how to work out what your own Path name would be. Mine is Lals, which brings me more joy than I should admit to.)
Lona is a great character, her initial exploration of her individual is lovely and the scene in which she feels real grass for the first time is so sweet. I quite liked her relationship with Fenn too, its start point and its progression didn’t feel forced or shoehorned in for the sake of having a romantic relationship in the story.
There’s an interesting undercurrent of nature vs. nuture; for a programme where all the children essentially have the exact same upbringing they’ve all got quite different personalities. It’s the little things that I love. All the characters are wonderful though – too many to list, although the Strays were their own bittersweet kind of wonderful.
What’s bad about it? There’s a tantalising hint about Lona’s true parentage and if there’s no sequel or short story or anything that picks up that loose thread I shall be most annoyed.
The verdict? I thought Stray was brilliant! It wasn’t what I was expecting at all but I think that’s what I loved most about it. It’s a fantastic, well executed plot with a great cast of characters. Plus the world building was excellent – so cool – with lots of little throwaway details that reveal much. The romance is nicely pitched too and didn’t feel like it was there just for the sake of it being there.
It’s a great read – I’ve not been so disappointed to reach my destination on a train in a long time (I was so close to the end!). I definitely recommend that people give this one a go!
(Edited to add: I’ve since heard there is going to be a sequel! Happy days!)