One of the most twisty, surprising, engaging page-turner YAs you’ll read this year—We Were Liars with sci-fi scope, Lost with a satisfying resolution.
Cee awoke on an abandoned island three years ago. With no idea of how she was marooned, she only has a rickety house, an old android, and a single memory: she has a sister, and Cee needs to find her.
STEM prodigy Kasey wants escape from the science and home she once trusted. The eco-city—Earth’s last unpolluted place—is meant to be sanctuary for those committed to planetary protection, but it’s populated by people willing to do anything for refuge, even lie. Now, she’ll have to decide if she’s ready to use science to help humanity, even though it failed the people who mattered most.
Content Warning: terminal illness, suicide, violence (including choking), death, death of parent (off page), vomiting, large scale natural disasters and mass casualties, some gore.
Each year there are a handful of books that strike the perfect balance between concept and reality. On paper, The Ones We’re Meant to Find probably seemed like a great idea that wouldn’t necessarily make for a good read. It’s pitfall-ish in that it has tons of exposition (tedious), non-linear POV switching (confusing), flashbacks/dream sequences (huh?), lots of world-building (boring), and is mostly backstory (why?). Seeing the forest through the trees sometimes takes vision and can require a leap of faith, and unfortunately not all great stories make it to the right people.
Well, we should all be very glad this idea, the brainchild of author Joan He, found its way to the forest through trees people, because the end product is a book that will most assuredly top many “Best of 2021” lists. Baring the greatest second half in the history of calendar year publishing, it will for me.
In a book that features both main characters on the cover, and switches back and forth from first to third person, it’d be prudent to prepare yourself for a character driven piece, and yes, Joan gives us two strong, sympathetic characters; there can be no doubt about that. But what stuck with me was her grasp of technology, more to the point, future tech, and how the kind of footprint you or your family leaves determines your status. And this status, should it reach a certain marker, earns you a ticket to paradise, or in this case, a handful of eco-cities floating just above the earth’s surface, callously in view of the troglodytes down below. It’s sort of a highly conceptualized, ecology-based form of social stratification.
Once in these eco-cities, you have access to mental interfaces that are used to control/limit physical interaction. This is footprint management/reduction on steroids, but with the planet’s bloated populace hanging by a thread and not likely to survive another disaster; some tough love is needed. You should put that in your pocket for later by the way.
Seems to me Joan is suggesting that the planet would be pragmatically better off without humans at all, and on that point, we are of one mind. As a species, we’re treating Earth with a reckless abandon at an unstainable rate, regardless of how insignificant we are in the comings and goings of the stars. In short, people are the disease, and when you are your own worst enemy, well, let’s just say happiness is no longer a fish you can catch. And in this case, that’s quite literal as eating fish may kill you, another delightful by-product of the books self-destructive motif.
It’s a funny thing, putting so much narrative weight behind saving the planet through disposable means, the refuse being the billions of unlucky bastards down below. In placing so much value on human existence, depriving the species of extinction (not a bad way to go really), the cause and effect is that nothing seems important any more. Philosophically, Joan taps into something few of us dare to think about it and I would very much like to talk to her one day about it. Because what she’s offering here isn’t quite transhumanism, but it’s not nihilistic either, it’s simply human nature and I’m left with no choice but to conclude her observational skills regarding human behavior are off-the-charts.
But hope is a cruel construct that never leaves you alone once you open yourself up to it, and it often limits your ability to prepare for negative outcomes. This is where our main characters, Kasey and Celia; separate from the pack because they do hope, and not because of likely outcomes, but despite them. It’s a beautiful sentiment here by Joan and hers is a soul that must be protected at all costs.
Having said all that, that last point is why I don’t wish to dismiss the beating heart of this book, a bond which seems unlikely to be broken no matter how much it bends, sisterhood. How you feel about the sisters will probably fall in line with your character preferences in general as one demands your sympathy, the other asks for none of it. Yes, Kasey and Celia couldn’t be more different but once the gig is up, the two are connected in ways which reflects their true nature, intertwined in a wonderful symbiotic dance.
For my money, even though pragmatically I’m much more like Kasey, Celia ultimately gets my love and affection. You see, it turns out Celia was never really happy, only ever on her way to being happy. And in that individual pursuit discovers that the true meaning of life isn’t an isolated endeavor full of wanton desire, it’s a shared experience. After all, what good is happiness if you have no one to share it with? This is something I can relate to, especially as I get older, where my critical behavior is starting to be supplanted by a desire to simply feel contentment.
In a world where there are no secrets, Kasey on the other hand is very disconnected, moving through it more like a silent observer rather than an active participant. Her numbness can be attributed to a tragedy in the family (aside from a missing sister), which has affected her deeply but also hasn’t allowed for much self-reflection. So, she finds comfort in knowledge and acquiescence, that is until her sister goes missing and she must suspend a certain amount of logic if she is to retrace Celia’s steps.
If there’s a hero in this story, it’s Kasey, as she goes above and beyond the call of duty (with some dubious help) to put the pieces together of not only her sister’s disappearance, but perhaps something far more sinister. Indeed, there’s a whole sci-fi/corruption angle that involves uncovering some hard truths about many of the people who are supposed to be diligently overseeing the future of the species. Let’s put it this way, not everyone necessarily agrees with this form of environmental authoritarianism and will go to whatever lengths to preserve what’s left our humanity. This resistance is a little more old-school objectively speaking and plays a formative role in Kasey’s resolution both as a person, and as it relates to the narrative.
While not as expressively inspirational as the “lost sister” bit, it carries equal amounts of weight to the story as it brings home the overall sentiment, which is the principle of utility. Choosing the right form of action that will produce the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people, the consequence of action. Thus, ensuring both the survival of the species (which is important I guess), and (perhaps most important) the survival of our dignity.
Ultimately, her journey and the role she plays takes on something much more significant than even she could have imagined, and with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance, Kasey herself will have to face some realities of her own. Whether she’s up to the task or not, and can she convince others to come along for the ride will become her most pressing goal. I realize this is annoyingly vague but saying anything at all about the latter third of this book would be saying too much, and Joan deserves a better shake than to have an idiot like me ruin the story for someone else.
While all of this is going on, we cut to Cee, who like the summary says is trapped on an island, left with only a blank memory and a strong desire to return to the mainland and to her sister Kay. These chapters of the book are incredibly well plotted and is a masterclass in pacing, with Cee going about her mundane existence consciously and deliberately. I very much dug it, but again, I can’t fully explain why because of spoilers. And listen, these parallel stories exist in the same world in the same book, so it’s no spoiler to say that finding the connective tissue will be your quest.
Obvious metaphors aside, the island adventures of Cee (and later Hero), feels like the best Black Mirror episode never made. For something comparable, I would look to the Amazon series, Tales from the Loop, which examines the human condition through a surreal/technological lens for the best visual example in recent memory. These chapters are methodically soothing and like the surrounding sea, move to a very pleasing rhythm which will activate your neural reward system, so reading them is pleasurable, technically speaking, in a chemical way. Some might find these chapters, and the book’s runup, slow, but no, that’s the good stuff, with Joan’s brash prose weaving a vision of a dark future that is decidedly well-aimed and whatever the opposite of exculpatory is.
The ending is beautifully conceived, perfectly executed, and poetic in just about every way an ending can be. It provides not only the emotional catharsis the characters deserve but claws its way to a rational conclusion, an ending worthy of the book’s idealistic endeavors. In a word, sublime.
But wait, there’s a problem, because after you’ve wiped the tears away and regained your focus, you realize you’re only about 2/3 of the way through the damn book! Yes, this book has two endings believe it or not and once you complete the journey, it will make you appreciate the effort that much more.
And here’s where Joan shows off her mechanical skills as a writer, because after that first ending I talked about, the final third of book switches gears in a way that feels akin to water hammer. The stress this would put on a story that late in the game would normally be fatal, but in this case it’s only short-lived as Joan allows the story to bend nearly to its defeat, only to bring it back again, fighting against the physics of storytelling. It’s impressive really.
Now, I’m not bragging, it just happens to be true, but I figured out the gist of the book well before the gig was up. This is neither a humble brag nor a denunciation of Joan’s storytelling ability, it was mostly fluky. But as things went along it did become clear to me that Joan wasn’t being surreptitious and the themes will probably lead the book to a logical conclusion. And despite the inexplicable nature of the climax, one that I enjoyed very much, it does feel like a practical one. This is never truer than in the island chapters, where Joan sprinkles trace amounts of clues that in retrospect, will stick out like sore thumb.
A lot of times, in stories with twists and turns, the authors intent is to keep you off-balance, so that you don’t necessarily have the aptitude to guess the ending. Not Joan, no, instead she very much brings you along for ride and this is never truer than the final third of the book, and it’s a bold choice that she should be commended for because it’s not only wildly creative, but also steers slightly askew of the norm.
So, what’s the bottom line here as it’s clear I’m giving this book five stars and I’ve already taken up too much of your time.
Well, as it stands, The Ones We’re Meant to Find is a steadyhanded character vs. plot driven story that is both clever and entertaining. One doesn’t sacrifice anything for the other and in a book that doesn’t need anymore personality infused into it, still leaves just enough room for you, the reader, to find a place within it. It’s interactive in a sense and is another reason this book should find a very large audience.
The Ones We’re Meant to Find is a damn good read from cover to cover so shoutout to the entire team including editor Jennifer Besser, and illustrator Aykut Aydoğdu for that amazing cover art.
Do it safely, but please, buy this book immediately and post reviews for it, because we need more of Joan’s work, not less.
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About the Author:
Joan He was born and raised in Philadelphia but still will, on occasion, lose her way. At a young age, she received classical instruction in oil painting before discovering that storytelling was her favorite form of expression. She studied Psychology and East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Pennsylvania and currently writes from a desk overlooking the Delaware River. Descendant of the Crane is her debut young adult fantasy.
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Giveaway (US Only):
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