There's a bionic crow in Andrew Smith's latest novel--a crow formed out of old DNA and a new genetic process called "chipping." There's also a boy, Ariel, who has been adopted into a family in suburban West Virginia after a harrowing escape from a refugee camp and a litany of traumas. There's a woman--a kind of warped therapist figure--who distributes her book, "Male Extinction," at an all-boys summer camp. And I guess there's also a man who believes that Joseph Stalin whispers in his ear to make him do evil things.
On the simplest level, Smith's novel is the tale of Ariel, the refugee. It's the story of a boy trapped in a coming of age story into which he believes he does not fit: trapped in America, trapped in a weird summer camp, trapped into "bonding" with his new teenage brother--all of these things are surreal to Ariel, who is sick of being saved (or surviving) time and time again. But Smith's novel, which can be described as sci-fi, coming-of-age, and a critique of the patriarchy and Western humanitarianism all at once, quite deftly resists reduction to being any one thing. And perhaps this is appropriate, insofar as the novel seems to strive to articulate the sense that some stories cannot be simply told.
I loved that this book was exceedingly cerebral while still being so heartfelt and appropriately adolescent at times. Even with so many moving parts, Smith navigates the bizarre landscape of the summer camp and Ariel's history with an understated confidence that refuses to lose the reader's trust or attention. I wish I could give away all the reasons to love this book, but that would only do sophisticated teenage (and adult) readers a disservice. Smith is a game-changer for YA--and this novel truly showcases his strengths as a genre-bending storyteller. ~ Reviewed by Aubrey Restifo