Rook Song is the follow-up to Naomi Foyle’s Astra, a post-apocalyptic novel exploring some of the wickedest of problems human society has yet come up with. I have to confess that I haven’t read Astra, but I can still recommend both books, as long as one has a particularly strong stomach. The series follows the adventures of Astra, a seventeen year old living in an environmentalist utopia. Her response to the discovery of hypocrisy in the military wing of this utopia is to attempt to murder a senior official, and by the start of Rook Song, she is living in a CONC compound, outside of Is-Land, struggling with the effects of some pretty horrific torture disguised as neurosurgery.
This description does nothing to explain the book, however, as it not by any means alike to Young Adult novels playing with post-apocalyptic scenarios such as The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner. These books will seem simplistic compared to the depth of research that has gone into creating a simulacrum of the Israel-Palestine conflict, where Abrahamic religions have been swapped out for Mesopotamian prophecy, and land rights for disability rights. As such, the book rather leaves its protagonist behind, and she is more like a vehicle to allow the author to reveal the issues she wishes to explore, rather than a character in the midst of her own adventure.
At times the narrative is slow moving, with much time spent in conversations exploring the problems of disability and identity, the issues faced by organisations like CONC (which is, essentially, the UN), trying to keep the peace between embattled societies. Astra comes across as self-righteous and judgmental: she is an evangelist for the Gaian vegan environmentalist cause, and struggles to recognise its flaws now she is outside its all-embracing grip. She is not really the central feature of the book at all, since although she is upheld by one group as their saviour, the plot’s central objective is to replay tensions in the Middle-East and how they can so easily spark into war. Given that the author is also attempting to explore the problem of super-human genetic mutation versus natural mutation as a result of human toxic waste and nuclear war, she has set herself a gargantuan task.
The book unfolds from a variety of perspectives, revealing the humanity on all sides of the conflict. There is an excellent shift of language away from our current parlance of ‘disability’ towards ‘alt-bodied’, and Foyle handles the issues well. It has the quality of an Atwood or a LeGuin at times, and will please readers who especially enjoy speculative studies of present-world conflicts transferred into the realm of fantasy or post-apocalyptica.