In 2157, a mysterious gas known as Variant spreads across the globe, killing or mutating most organic life. The surviving humans take refuge in an underground city, determined to return home. But after generations of failures and botched attempts, hope is beginning to dwindle. That is, until a young scientist makes a unique discovery—and everything changes. Suddenly, there’s reason to hope again, and it rests within a group of genetically engineered children that are both human and Variant.
Terry is one of these children, modified and trained to endure the harsh conditions of a planet he cannot begin to understand. After years of preparation, Terry thinks he knows what to expect. But the reality is far stranger than anything he can imagine—and what he will become is far more dangerous.
I often do not pick up self-published novels. I don’t have anything particularly against them, but oftentimes they suffer from needing more editing passes and beta/gamma readers. This doesn’t mean the novels are always bad, of course – they just need more tender loving care. This is how I can describe most of my experience with The Amber Project, which was December’s read for a book club I am a part of. Riddled with continuity errors, scenes that seem out of place, and flat characters, this novel could have been so much more.
To me, J.N. Chaney’s book felt like a typical dystopian/post-apocalyptic novel. With so many of those released within the last ten years, I felt like each scene I had seen before in some sense. A breeding system? Check. Government falling apart slowly? Check. Some sort of deadly outside agent? Check. With generally cut and dry prose and only a couple really interesting action sequences, oftentimes I just felt bored. It did not help that every once in a while there would be an error here or there with the year the scene was taking place, and sometimes contradictory information was given. It could be jarring at times and brought me out of the story.
The Amber Project focuses on two sets of characters – the genetically modified children who are created to be able to traverse the Variant-ridden surface without special equipment, and the adults in power, such as the main character’s mother, Mara. I will be honest, the main storyline with the children was not nearly as interesting as the politics going on in the background with the Mothers, the Scientists, and the Military. Politics are often my favorite part of dystopian fiction. Transition of power, the breakdown of a checks and balances system, and how the separation of the sexes is handled are all topics covered within this novel. Especially as Ender’s Game-like schooling was happening with the children, the adults were just so much more interesting to read about and generally better fleshed out as people.
My other favorite part of dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels is the explanation as to why society broke down. While the Variant gas is covered and explained in detail (though the science felt off), how the city initially came to be before the Jolt and why there are a myriad of types of plants, farms, and a general higher standard of living is glossed over, if it was really touched on at all. A subplot about the slums was hinted at as well, but also was barely mentioned outside of two or three scenes. There seemed to be a lot this book wanted to do, and perhaps the author does in the following two novels, but as a first book in a series I felt there was so much left to be desired.
If there was any one word to describe what I read, it would be this: mediocrity. The main character Terry felt inconsistent and I had trouble empathizing with any of the cast. There were recycled topics. Shaky science. I felt this book had the foundation for something great, but fell below that on so many levels. For the interesting politics and premise, I give it three stars, but I likely will not continue with the series as I never got the emotional connection I wanted. Someone at least let me know how Mara does, though!