The Key to Fear by Kristin Cast
Head of Zeus, pb, £7.91
Reviewed by Siobhan O’Brien Holmes
The Key to Fear is the first in Kristin Cast’s new YA dystopian sci-fi series. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic America where life has been changed forever by a fatal pandemic spread through touch. Strict new laws have been put in place by pharmaceutical-company-turned-world-leader Key Corp, banning all physical contact, including kissing, and teenagers are assigned partners and careers the Key feels will suit them best. Elodie, a 17-year-old nurse, happily complies with the new world order, even though she isn’t convinced her fiancé Rhett is the right man for her. But when she meets Aiden, an insubordinate charmer from the morgue, she starts craving the excitement and adventure he seems to represent and the cracks in her carefully plotted life – and in the Key’s façade – start to appear.
This sci-fi premise is really intriguing and feels like a fresh take on the Covid-inspired pandemic story. This isn’t a story about living through a global emergency; it’s about how our lives might look if we were willing to do whatever it took to defeat the virus and prevent it from happening again: allow a computer to choose our futures, limit social interactions to VR and avoid touching each other for the rest of our lives.
The plot is fast-paced and fun. The relationship that develops between Aiden and Elodie feels sweet and believable and makes Elodie a much more compelling and likeable character as the story goes on. But probably the most compelling element in The Key to Fear is the sense that Key Corp has some ominous ulterior motive beyond protecting its citizens, their undisputed control pointing to a bigger threat. However, this never quite comes to fruition. There are stories about monsters roaming Zone 7, the no-go wasteland the military routinely torches to keep the virus at bay, but the mechanics of the pandemic and the approach to preventing it from returning are never made clear, which is a shame since these details would add real authenticity and colour to Cast’s world. Readers are likely to be left with lots of unanswered questions, and though these may well be wrapped up in the next instalment, the climax to this book feels a little unsatisfying.
It’s also worth noting that The Key to Fear is marketed as YA, which feels appropriate at first, given the main characters are in their teens. But, probably because this world sees citizens working full-time as nurses and technicians at 16 and being married off before adulthood, the protagonists read as fully-fledged grown-ups. The dialogue, internal monologues and themes don’t feel typically YA (even the romantic subplot doesn’t have the emotional intensity many young adult readers crave), so the book might appeal more to an adult audience.