– By J.W. Fox –
The highly touted novel The Last Girl has been on my to-read list for a while but always got bumped back. YA dystopias are on the wane and it seemed Joe Hart’s new novel was just the latest in a long line of Hunger Games/Divergent copycats. Sadly, I was right. Although The Last Girl has its moments, it is largely formulaic and predictable.
Despite my prejudgment of Book One of the Dominion Trilogy, the premise did sound interesting. In the near future, a plague spreads across the Earth that dramatically reduces the number of female births. There are almost no girls being born. Society loses grip, terrified that the species may come to an end if there are no women to give birth to the next generation. Young girls are kidnapped by the government and brought to secret compounds where experiments are conducted on them to help find a cure.
One of those girls is Zoey, a young woman approaching her twenty-first birthday. She doesn’t remember much from her life before she was kidnapped, nor does she know anything of the world outside the compound. All of her needs are taken care of inside its walls. Yet, she feels something is wrong, that the officials and guards running the compound are lying to her. As she tests her boundaries, the officials respond brutally, which only drives her desire to find the truth.
The more I read, the more it felt like author Joe Hart was following the formula for YA dystopian novels, set forth by previous best sellers like Hunger Games and Divergent. A young, female protagonist stuck in a repressed dystopian setting that came about after some apocalyptic event. She starts off as a typical, relatable girl but soon demonstrates tremendous bravery and resilience, thanks to some well placed challenges put in her way. The villains, nearly all of them creepy old men, are all paper-thin tyrannical oppressors who must control her for some sinister end. The protagonist rebels against their tyranny and leads a revolution, ending their reign of terror. And somewhere in all that, there has to be a love story.
The Last Girl hits all these notes. It isn’t hard to see why the formula works. The idea of youth rebelling against older authorities appeals a lot to teenagers who feel oppressed by parents, teachers, society, etc.
At the compound, Zoey is supervised by two men called Clerics (stand ins for a father and older brother), eats with the other girls being held at the compound at a mess hall (lunchroom), must attend indoctrination sessions (class), has scheduled exercise time (recess or P.E.) where there are two girls who have it out for her (bullies). The director and guards of the compound (society) keep a close eye on her, closely controlling every aspect of her life. As she reaches the age of twenty-one, she feels the urge to rebel against all authority figures in her life.
Unlike the typical teenage experience, there are guns, corporal punishment, and fertility experiments. Unfortunately, the book uses the more interesting speculative elements as mere setting. The world-building is solid but not powerful enough to make much of a lasting impression. At least, it didn’t on me. After reading plenty of other YA dystopias, this version of a hellish future was pretty average by comparison.
Zoey is strong, compassionate, and somewhat clever but just isn’t compelling enough to carry the story on her own. Her friends and allies are not particularly interesting either. The villains are stereotypes, with ugly smiles, sharp noses and beady eyes. All that was missing was a scene with them rubbing their hands together and uttering “excellent, just as I planned.”
The Last Girl is a sort of safe, conservative novel that sticks close to the YA dystopia formula. The publisher was probably convinced it is the key to big sales. Given its success, they were right. The novel did not leave much of an impression on me but has done well with its target audience. I’d recommend it for readers who cannot get enough of YA post-apocalyptic/dystopian novels like Hunger Games and Divergent. Other than those readers, I do not think many will get a lot out of The Last Girl.
Jacob Foxx is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.