In a new young adult science fiction series, Dan Wells tackles the post-apocalyptic dystopian genre that has become so popular in recent years. While not the most original take on the genre, Partials is consistently entertaining and surprisingly satisfying.
The Partials are a group of genetically engineered supersoldiers created to win wars; however, shortly after their creation they turned on humanity and unleashed a virus called RM, which wiped out most of the human population in an event called “the Break.” Partials takes place eleven years after the Break and follows sixteen-year-old Kira Walker, one of the few thousand people immune to RM, who have gathered on Long Island after the retreat of the Partials.
A post-apocalyptic “Best Of” mashup
While reading Partials, I couldn’t help but feel that many of its elements were derived from popular post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. One of the story’s major threads is the search for a cure to RM, which has been consistently killing human infants for eleven years, effectively eliminating humanity’s ability to reproduce. This entire plot line echoes Alfonso Cuaron’s film Children of Men with an eerie degree of similarity. The Partials themselves, in their capabilities and motivations, are strongly reminiscent of the machines from the Terminator films, and one scene late in the book is practically copied from a scene that takes place in the final book of The Hunger Games trilogy.
All these elements made reading Partials feel like a post-apocalyptic “Best Of” collection, with many of its great moments and ideas having already been done. However, even noticing all these similarities, I never felt like they detracted from the book—if anything, they enhanced it. No single element is dwelt upon long enough or is prominent enough to make Partials feel derivative of these other works; instead, I got to see elements of my favorite dystopian fiction mashed together, and Wells pulls it off with such effectiveness that I was more than pleased with the cohesive whole that resulted.
Hints of epic fantasy
Wells has mentioned more than once on the podcast Writing Excuses that he originally intended to write epic fantasy before he broke into the market with his I Am Not a Serial Killer trilogy, and Partials is his first published book where his epic fantasy inclinations clearly show through. Partials features a surprisingly large cast of characters, and many of them will be present for hundreds of pages, only to disappear for hundreds more. These characters can occasionally be difficult to keep track of, but Wells colors them with enough characterization to make them feel like real people, with lives and purposes beyond the scope of the story. While Kira is always present at the center of the story, the cast of characters around her is always rotating, and this keeps the story fresh throughout its entire length.
In addition, while the story takes place over the space of a few months and never steps outside the ruins of New York City, the scope never feels less than huge. Partials covers a lot of ground, both literally and figuratively; and the intricate overlap of plot and subplot, combined with the large cast of characters and the constant threat that one bad decision could wipe out the remains of humanity in an instant, all give Partials a surprisingly massive scale for its genre—and yet, there are hints littered all throughout the book that the sequel will expand the scope of the story even further. This may be post-apocalyptic YA, but it feels like epic fantasy in all the best ways.
Complex characters, complex themes
Perhaps even more so than with the scope, I was impressed with the complexity of the characters and themes in Partials. Wells has proven his talent for creating engaging first-person narrators in his other novels, but he wisely chooses to step back to a third-person narrative in Partials. This story is less about Kira Walker and more about a group of teenagers struggling to find their purpose in life when everyone around them is telling them that life—in particular, creating more of it—is their purpose. The novel explores questions that would inevitably arise if humanity was on the brink of extinction: do women have a right to their own bodies when reproduction becomes paramount to the survival of humanity? Is a totalitarian state an acceptable price for peace when the last society on Earth is at risk of tearing itself apart through civil war?
Every character in Partials has their own answers to these questions; even when they share the same goals, their differing approaches to achieving those goals create divisive conflicts that split even the closest of friendships. Partials raises a lot of questions, but rarely does it answer them; instead, it gives us the ability to understand and sympathize with every character’s point of view. We’re never really sure who will be right, who we can trust, or who we should side with, because it could be anyone at any time; and everyone’s opinions and motivations are in a constant state of flux. Wells keeps careful control of all these aspects of all these characters, and it keeps the conflict and momentum high from beginning to end.
Why should you read this book?
As someone who has read all of Wells’s novels to date, I believe Partials may be his best work so far. He draws from some of the best post-apocalyptic and dystopian sources in fiction to create the world of Partials without ever feeling derivative, handles a large cast of characters with relatively few missteps, and feels more in control of his story than he ever has before. Although his characters will occasionally spout one-liners that feel oddly misplaced in the context of the story, Wells’s tight writing and deft handling of complex characters and themes round out an immensely entertaining and powerful novel. I didn’t expect to like Partials as much as I did, and I feel no hesitation in giving it a strong recommendation.