The Undying Tower by Melissa Welliver
Agora Books, pb, £8.27
Reviewed by Joely Black
Disclaimer: I received an ARC from the publishers in exchange for an honest review.
There are times right now when it feels like we don’t need to read dystopian fiction since we all seem to be living it on the day to day. Even the 2021 Arthur C Clarke winner riffs on the dominant themes of the day, including pandemics and animal sentience. It might be tempting to want to avoid a novel thoroughly in the mould of The Hunger Games or the Divergent series, but Welliver’s opening to her own trilogy has a great deal to offer readers, particularly as its geographical focus on the UK gives it a rather different flavour.
There is undoubtedly a very clear set of rules for writing in this genre, but Welliver manages to stick to them without ever making the story seem boring. This is a quick and easy read, and I found myself compelled from the off. Her premise is that in a future dogged by the climate crisis, resource-scarcity, an abundance of social issues, a group of Undying have emerged for the majority to conveniently blame it all on. They live forever and heal with incredible rapidity, although they can be killed. These physical advantages haven’t led to social ones, however, and the combined social and economic pressures of the time have led to their persecution.
Unusually for this genre, our protagonist Sadie does not start out as one of the underdogs. Welliver has taken the opportunity to give her a position of privilege at the start, which offers her the chance to flip expectations on the reader. Instead of a Katniss Everdeen clone fighting the good fight, Sadie must unlearn all her prejudices and presumptions about the Undying if she is to make it out of the end of the story in one piece. This is in many ways more satisfying a journey for the reader, and choosing to approach the problem of privilege and prejudice using the theme of health and longevity enables Welliver to make some great points about the obliviousness of those living with unconsidered advantages of other kinds.
There are points when I found myself with small questions about the world, moments when the ice feels thin underfoot. These are not enough to discourage a reader, though, because overall, the whole story is so readable, and Sadie’s journey is worth following. Reading this in the months after lockdown restrictions finally eased, and we felt the bite of both Brexit and a pandemic on supply chains here in Britain, it felt possible to see how the world might get from this place to the one Welliver has imagined.
Although packed with all the tropes we expect from this genre, Welliver has some very effective twists packed in there. She has alluded to but by and large sidestepped the “which guy will the lead girl pick” trope, although there are hints that it might become an issue further down the road. What is especially effective is that the central problem, that of the Undying and where they came from, is also teased for the rest of the books. I expect to have a fantastic gasp when Welliver reveals the truth.