Review: UnWholly by Neal Shusterman

Unwind hit bookstore shelves on June 2, 2009.  At the time, I was working two summer jobs to pay for my three-month semester abroad in London.  It was an extremely chaotic summer full of 13-hour workdays and fundraising, but I still found time to read Unwind.  And then I found time to read it again.  I fell completely in love with the characters and the concept truly inspired me to be a better writer.

The author of Unwind, Neal Shusterman, visited my school when I was in eighth grade.  As a class, we read his novel The Dark Side of Nowhere, and ever since his visit his work has found its way into my life in one way or another.  I still remember the night I stayed up late to watch the Disney Channel Original Movie Pixel Perfect and spotted his name in the credits as a screenwriter.  My trips to the library or bookstore have always included a quick glance through the S’s to see what he’s released.  I picked up Unwind on a whim that summer, and I was not disappointed.

If you haven’t read Unwind, you’re missing out.  It’s a fast-paced read that’s sure to make you think.  Since I’m discussing UnWholly, the sequel to Unwind, here’s a quick overview so you won’t be confused.  Unwind takes place at some point in the future after the Second Civil War, also known as the Heartland War.  The two sides of the war were split between the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice debate.  To peacefully end the war, a recently developed surgical innovation was used to create “unwinding,” the process of dismantling a person in order to donate every single organ and tissue, thus technically keeping the person “alive,” just in a “divided state.”  This process is used to retroactively abort someone between the ages of 13 and 18, after they’ve had time to prove themselves to society and the parents have had time to contemplate such a huge decision.  The process is socially accepted and commonly used.  The novel follows Connor, Risa, and Lev, three unwinds in hiding trying to escape harvest camps.

I have to admit, Unwind is a book that can make you lose sleep.  It’s very deep and the characters are complex.  I’m always recommending this book to someone who is looking for a good read.  That’s why I was so excited to discover that, after three years of being in print, Unwind would soon have a sequel.  UnWholly was released on August 28, and I flew through it within a few days.  Since then, I’ve had time to read it again at a more contemplative pace (thanks, unemployment), and I’m ready to discuss it.

UnWholly threw me for a loop from the first page.  We first meet Mason Starkey, who goes by his last name.  At first, Starkey seems a lot like Connor, someone rebellious yet honorable.  I fully expected Starkey to be the “new” Connor, the hero of the novel who will accomplish remarkable things.  However, Shusterman makes sure nothing about UnWholly is predictable.  Throughout the novel, I had trouble telling who to root for and who to side with.  I think this is a sign of brilliant writing: Shusterman is presenting two sides to an extremely complicated issue, and even after two novels I’m not quite sure which side he’s on.  The book is perfectly balanced, and makes the readers reach deep inside themselves to question who they are and where they stand.

For example, UnWholly introduces a new character, Cam, who is simultaneously repulsive and intriguing.  Cam represents the contradiction between creation and control.  He’s a bit like Frankenstein’s monster, constructed entirely of donated organs.  The question is plain: Is he human?  Does he have a soul?  The issues tackled in UnWholly are perhaps even more complex than those in Unwind.

The book is much more fast-paced than its predecessor.  Unwind has periods of quiet conversation between characters to discuss issues, while UnWholly battles these issues out.  It’s exciting and leaves a reader short of breath, full of gunfire, explosions, natural disasters, chase scenes– you name it!  While some prefer the slower pace of Unwind, I think this is the natural next step for the series.  Nothing will be resolved without a little violence; the characters are only human.

While this book introduces several new characters, it continues to follow familiar characters as well.  This means there are half a dozen story arcs at one time, which might be confusing to some.  It’s important to pay attention and follow each detail closely.  Some characters, like Miracolina, might need a little more development in the last book because they didn’t get a chance to truly hold the spotlight in UnWholly.  I am very interested to see how Shusterman ties up all the loose ends in the last book, UnSouled, which is due to come out next year.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in dystopian literature, young adult fiction, or simply looking for a good read.  If you haven’t read Unwind, I suggest you read it first, though it’s not necessary to understand the plot.  I wouldn’t recommend this as a stand-alone book, only because it feels like a book connecting two other books, Unwind and UnSouled.

You can read an excerpt of UnWholly and buy the print version or Kindle version here on its Amazon Page.

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