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Book Review: Control by Lydia Kang (reviewed by Erinn Batykefer)

Control is set in a dystopian future in which America has divided into mega-states with harsh dress codes, moral standards, and laws against extreme genetic mutations.  Any child born with such a mutation is “dealt with,” but some underground groups abduct such kids before the government can intervene and use their mutations to develop commercial products at high profits. 

We meet Zelia Benton as her father, a genetic researcher, is packing their family up for yet another move to a new megastate.  Their nomadic life follows his research—which feels slightly shady from the get-go—and is under his strict control.  Zelia and her sister Dylia only study what their dad tells them to, only go where he says they can go in a series of abrupt moves. On this particular move, a disastrous crash results in the girls losing their father and being transferred into the future equivalent of Child Services…except that it’s not reallychild services.  It’s an underground group called Carus House that serves as a safe house for mutant kids, rather than exploiting or eliminating them.  Before the girls can go to Carus, though, Dylia is abducted by Areus House, a rival group, and Zelia is plunged into the world of mutants in her quest to rescue her sister and find out what her father was really up to all those years.
The writing at the beginning of Control suggests a much more sophisticated and nuanced narrative that the rest of the book simply doesn’t deliver, unfortunately.  Foreshadowing is virtually absent from the novel, which means that the plot drives the revelations in the story, rather than the other way around.  Characters aren’t developed to the point that you understand their motives and can predict what they will do in a trying situation; instead, they often reveal convenient characteristics or skills in the moment they are needed to advance the plot. 
That’s a huge problem that crops up in all aspects of Control, from the characterization of the heroine, her family, and other important players, to the love story on which the story’s resolution hinges.  Cy has lived in Carus House for years, and has a mutation that allows for extremely fast healing and a backstory that means he tortures himself by tattooing himself daily, healing, and tattooing himself again.  He’s also a brilliant scientist, and this adds up to a very compelling broken bad-boy character.  He and Zelia’s attraction sizzles under the surface of the beginning of the novel and develops slowly and believably at first….and then the plot happens.
Zelia is cast as a weakling from the beginning, with a breathing disorder called Ondine’s Curse that makes it nearly impossible for her to breathe without the aid of a necklace that forces her lungs to work.  She is described as small and underdeveloped compared to her younger sister.  And she is a rule-follower– trained to be afraid of conflict, violence, and anything less than strict obedience to her father. Yet in one of the romantic scenes between her and Cy, she is able to maneuver herself up a tough climbing wall in the Carus House rec room with minimal direction from Cy, even though she has never been climbing before in her life.  This moment seems a tenuous set-up, even in a story where hidden genetic talents are par for the course, and later, Zelia breaks in to the rival Aureus House compound and proceeds to take out the deadly teens there with a combination of fighting skills that were completely absent in the text to this point, and medical compounds that mimic or magnify the special traits of her new Carus family members.
What Control lacks in narrative subtlety, though, can be glossed over in favor of the heroine, Zelia, who is cast as a brilliant scientist who has worked in labs from a young age, and whose determination and ingenuity with genetic puzzles is perhaps the most compelling writing and story in the book.  The frenetic pace, the promise (though not delivery) of the romantic subplot, and the compelling nerd-girl science behind the premise make for a fast read that is fun to think about, and which I whipped through in just a couple days.  Another plus? The racial ambiguity of almost all of the characters.  And the fact that Zelia isn’t just a science nerd, but a poetry nerd as well—and her  knowledge of poems actually helps her crack the mystery of her father’s research and her sister’s whereabouts.
For a school librarian standpoint, Control may be hard to place.  The language is clean—the worst swears in the entire book are hell and ass—but the complex genetic mutation story logically progresses to biological function.  Girls are captured, brainwashed, and impregnated in the story in order to breed new mutations that might be lucrative, and we’re talking girlshere: 13 and 14 year olds who are manipulated by one of the villains.  The implication is that their pregnancies are not invitro, either, in spite of the laboratory settings that are common in the story.  Zelia and Cy also engage in some legit makeout sessions and sleepovers, where it’s not clear if anything sexual happens, but it might.  And there’s some clubbing with underage drinking and neurodrug use. 
I’d say this is a good read to recommend for math/science types, especially those who may feel straightjacketed by parents or school curricula that forces them to choose science over art, or vice versa.  The strength of the heroine is not terribly well-developed in terms of character, but the bones of a smart, take-no-prisoners heroine are certainly there, and the fact that she acknowledges both sides of her intelligence and uses them to her advantage is a solid message for teens. 
This review refers to an ARC.  Control will be released December 26th by Dial Books for Young Readers.  ISBN: 9780803739048

Erinn Batykefer is Co-founder and Managing Editor of the Library as Incubator Project. She earned her Master of Fine Arts in Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2007 and her Master of Library and Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2012.  She works at Madison Public Library, and is currently writing three different books…oh wait, four.  Seriously.  When she’s not in a writing workshop, running the LAIP, or designing programs at the library, she makes quilts, watches Sherlock, and enjoys experimenting in the kitchen (which is often delicious and only sometimes disastrous).

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