Hansen, Heather. The Breaking Light. New York: Skyscape, 2017. Print.
Not to brag, but I’ve loved dystopias before dystopias were cool.
But, like most voracious readers of YA fiction, I found myself a bit “dystopia weary” following the monumental success of franchises like The Hunger Games and Divergent. As much as I loved them (my classroom is still slathered with Hunger Games memorabilia), I longed for something new and perused YA fantasy or realistic fiction instead. My self-imposed hiatus officially ended this past weekend with an email from Amazon. I could receive a download of a yet-to-be-released YA dystopian novel, The Breaking Light, as a perk of my Prime membership. The premise was simply too good to resist.
Arden and Dade are citizens of a completely vertical society. The poorest and most destitute—like Arden—live in the Undercity, housed at ground level. Above the Undercity stretches a series of Levels, topped by the Sky Towers where the wealthiest of citizens—like Dade—reside. Those in the Sky Towers, called Solizen, are the only individuals granted access to the sun. The rest of the population relies on time in a sun booth or injections of Vitamin D. When citizens cannot afford or access these alternatives, they often die from a painful affliction known as Violet Death.
Arden is heavily involved in a ruthless gang called Lasair. The group is headed by her brother and notorious for stealing Vitamin D shipments to turn into a recreational drug known as Shine. Arden is on her way to a Lasair meeting when she has an altercation with Dade, who she views as an obvious outsider. Unbeknownst to Arden, Dade also steals Vitamin D shipments, though his motives are a bit more virtuous—he distributes the injections to clinics who use them on orphaned children. Although Dade and Arden part after a scuffle, neither can shake their mutual attraction and their desire to see one another again.
As fate would have it, their paths cross for a second time at a nightclub where Arden is dealing Shine. Their reunion is short-lived as the club is soon infiltrated by government operatives—referred to as “govies” throughout the novel. After their escape, Arden and Dade reveal their identities to one another and struggle with the desire to be together despite their numerous differences. Socioeconomic divide aside, there are difficulties looming in the couple’s future: Dade’s father, a powerful member of the Solizen, has forced his son into an engagement with a girl named Clarissa for political reasons. Arden’s brother, Niall, is planning a complete upheaval of the government and families in power, known as Project Blackout. Arden and other members of Lasair view Project Blackout as nothing short of a suicide mission. Will Dade somehow stop his upcoming wedding? Can Arden slowly distance herself from Lasair and Project Blackout? Will the couple ever find acceptance in a completely divided society?
It was easy to lose myself in the society Hansen created—a world that was terrifying, dysfunctional, and had eerie similarities to plights citizens face today. Dade, like celebrities in our world, is constantly hounded by paparazzi. And, while most claim to hate the Solizen, they do love to keep up with them via broadcasts on their datapads, hearkening to society’s current obsession with fame and social media. Furthermore, it’s not difficult to see the parallel between the lack of healthcare available to citizens of the Undercity and the terrible treatment of the impoverished in our own world.
While the concept and world building were outstanding, I did find the writing style a bit juvenile at times, even for a YA novel. This is most prominent whenever Arden thinks about Dade. In one section, she describes his “yumminess”, in another she describes a kiss between them as “raw, needy, and hot”. Sure, teenagers are hormonal, but the voice felt jarring for someone as cunning and street smart as Arden.
That said, I would be open to recommending this book to my students. It would also be a fresh addition to their Dystopian Unit where they choose books such as 1984 and A Brave New World to read independently. The Breaking Light also has some striking similarities to Romeo and Juliet which were fun to uncover as I read; I can imagine, then, that they’d be equally fun to discuss with a class. I was excited to learn that The Breaking Light is the first in a series—let’s hope Hansen continues the tale of her star-crossed lovers for many books to come.