Burrowed by Mary Baader Kaley
Angry Robot Books, £9.99
Reviewed by Nadya Mercik
When I read the blurb of the book, I was quite intrigued. A genetic plague as a premise for the world, the main character with low life expectancy and slim chances for a good life, a terrifying new virus arriving at the doorstep. This all sounded to me like a powerful cocktail, and Mary Baader Kaley did deliver on most of her promises. The story turned out to be quite a page-turner: there were fatal accidents, bombings, secret agents, mysterious research and much more.
In the world of Burrowed, all people are divided into two categories – Omniterraneans, boasting sturdy health and able to live on the surface of the planet, and albino Subters, the victims of the genetic plague, whose health is severely compromised and who are bound to live in the underground facilities. Subters are born to Omnit parents and then immediately transported to the burrows to be raised in nurseries and then progress with their short lives in different scientific roles, for what also differentiates Subters from Omnits is their smartness.
Zuzan Cayan is just about to be transferred from the nursery to the burrow when the story starts. Suffering from “light blindness”, she has to wear huge ugly goggles to protect her eyes and is unable even to read from the screens of devices. She also has quite a temper, which earned her the dislike of her nurserymaid and bad references. She is daunted by her arrival at the new place, but to her surprise finds a nice medera (teacher) there and new friends.
Years pass, and Zuzan is now almost of age to leave her burrow and start her work. The problem is that with her low life expectancy, her dream to become a medera is difficult to pursue. However, after a few nearly catastrophic events and with the help of the Centre for Genetic Excellence’s maven (director), she ends up with a position in CGE and is immediately plunged into mysteries and a new crisis. It turns out that one of the radical Subters has developed a new plague, which will destroy the Omnits. and there are fifty Omnit babies in the facility who are dying. There are also hidden documents of the previous CGE’s maven, which are somehow connected to Zuzan and the new maven.
From here, the events develop at a great speed – there is not a minute to lose, and Zuzan is split between searching through the old documents, arranging a proper nursery for the babies, finding the cure, battling her feelings for her maven, trying to understand him, being blackmailed by the radicals etc.
With such a fast-paced, gripping plot, the story, however, suffers from a few drawbacks. The main character was clearly designed to be a person at a disadvantage, and in the first part of the story, she clearly is. As are some other Subter kids in her burrow. Her friend Jal suffers from brittle, easy-to-break bones. There is a moment when severe allergies promise and do kill some of the kids. Moreover, being unable to see like normal people, Zuzan has all sorts of restrictions, which is particularly clear when she takes her test. But since her arrival at CGE, when Maven Ringol finds a solution for her eyesight problem, she becomes almost invincible. She is capable of working the whole day long to the point of exhaustion, and the only reminder of her Subter genetics is her short and not growing albino hair. Yes, the fast pace of the story leaves little space to show the character’s deficiencies, but for me, it felt like Zuzan turned from a disabled person into a loved-by-everyone, capable of everything superwoman. On the one hand, it is a great way to show that even with disabilities, we can persevere and be magnificent. On the other hand, it would work even better if we felt more of her limitations.
My other problem was with the fact that not all plotlines, which I wanted to see resolved, were completed. At the end of the story, there are still questions about Zuzan’s true heritage (is she or not a child born to Subter parents, when Subters cannot have kids?), the disappearance of the previous CGE’s maven, the direction in which Omnit and Subters relationship would go. It must be said that the author rounds Zuzan’s arc – she solves the problem of the new plague, and she has prospects for her future. I believe that that’s where the author wanted to leave Zuzan. And yet, perhaps, the story could be even greater if more of the mysteries gained flesh. But it might be there will be another story of Zuzan in the future…
Despite this, there are many great moments and themes in the story. Kaley raises the question of a true vocation, of differences between humans, which are distorted to the point that the common ground between us gets forgotten. She shows us the importance of family and the connection between people. There is a motif of being broken inside and taking time to find yourself. In spite of Zuzan’s righteousness and hatred of lies, there are no black-and-white things as she is capable of putting herself in the shoes of others. On top of that, I really enjoyed the scientific part, the lab and research environment, and the detailed descriptions of places and technology.
So, all in all, I recommend this novel – it is a gripping and, at the same time, thought-provoking read.