Cons: Southside people accept Nik's story too readily, some names are mentioned without context so when they're mentioned again it's hard to remember who the person was
For Parents: minor swearing, violence (not excessive, but it's a war situation, so: assassination, bombs, beatings, minor torture etc.), no sexual content
Seventeen year old Nik's brown skin marks him as a Southsider, though he's attended school on Cityside since he was 5. His intelligence has him earmarked for the Internal Security and Intelligence Services (ISIS), so no one understands why they pass on recuiting him. When the school is bombed he's suspected by ISIS of collaborating with the enemy. In an attempt to leave the city with friends from school, one of them is kidnapped by Southsiders and Nik and a girl team up to get him back. Knowing only the language and anti-Southside propoganda, the two have no idea what they're walking into.
The story focuses on their search for the boy in Southside. There are elements here that are hard to believe at first, as the two are obviously unaware of local customs and the girl's language skills are minimal (I'm calling her 'the girl' to avoid spoiling the first 75 pages of the book more than necessary). Nik lands in a position where he's privy to sensitive information, something that's hard to credit given his refusal to give more than his name and place of origin (one real, the other a lie). When his high intelligence is revealed, the characters start to question how a barely educated teen (as would be the case if his story were true) broke encrypted codes and then just accept his information with only a little hesitation.
That issue aside though, the book is brilliant. The pacing is fast, though the characters don't know how to go about looking for the boy, enough is happening with regards to Southside politics that the book never drags. Soon enough the teens learn information of value and events spiral out of their control as they're drawn deeper into a faction war among the Southsiders.
The political manuverings and history of the war are interesting, though the history isn't dealt with in as much detail as this reviewer would have like. Higgins' world-building is solid, with a bloody past, religious rituals, class and economic troubles, etc. It's obvious she's considered aspects of society that are never fully mentioned, but season the story nonetheless.
The characters are all three dimensional, with often tragic pasts, reasons for their actions and motivations, and difficult decisions to make. Though the book is from Nik's point of view, there are several strong female characters, and several characters of colour (including him). Discussion of race doesn't come into the book much, beyond Nik's fitting in better - with regards to looks - on Southside than his companion. But it is somewhat problematic as Citysiders are described as being predominantly white, while Southsiders are mixed (easterners being white and southsiders being black). This reviewer would have liked learning more about where the Southsiders came from (it's explained that they're refugees coming up from the South and East but Nik doesn't know more than that). Instead, class distinction is used for the reason for the hostilities between Southside and Cityside. And when it comes to positions of power, men and women are treated equally - on both sides.
The only problem with the characters, beyond the Southsider's easy acceptance of Nik, was that a few of them, like Commander Vega, are occasionally referred to by their first names rather than their titles. It's realistic, but the extra names were hard to remember. Similarly there were a few times when a character was mentioned briefly by name and then mentioned again a few chapters later and it was hard to remember who they were referring to.
While many teen dystopian books take a sort of Stockholm syndrome approach, with the protagonist learning that their way is wrong and the other side's better, this one does something different, and more realistic. It shows how both sides in war use propoganda to control their people. It brings home how ideology, fanaticism and the belief in one's cause can blind people to the reality of war - that people are dying. War is horrifying and no amount of 'an eye for an eye' will bring it to an end. The book is about how regular people - children even - get dragged into the fighting, as the war kills their loved ones, destroys their homes, limits food and medicine, and leaves them with nothing but ashes. It's about the choice every person in a war torn area makes, to continue the fighting in an attempt to utterly defeat the enemy or to try to work towards peace.
This theme, that both sides in a conflict can be evil, was used in Mockingjay (by Suzanne Collins). In that book, the rebel leadership is shown to be just a bad as the learders of Panem. Putting them in charge would not have changed anything but whose kids competed in the Hunger Games.
We're used to having one good side and one evil side when we think of war. The idea that both sides do evil things is something we prefer to hide and forget. Everyone knows that the Axis in World War II did horrible things. But how many attrocities did the Allies commit? There were internment camps, boats full of Jews turned back at North American ports, with nowhere left to go but back to Germany. There was rioting and rape. Horrific bombs were dropped not only on Hiroshima, but also on Nagasaki. This novel acknowledges that by the end of hostilities, neither side in war is 'right', regardless of who started it and why. It's a bold position to take and the message of the book really hits home. War is evil and there has to be a better way.
It's a powerful, moving story. And this reviewer can't recommend it enough.