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Alex London
Philomel, 384 pages

Alex London
Alex London writes books for adults, children and teens. At one time a journalist who traveled the world reporting from conflict zones and refugee camps, he now is a full time novelist living in Brooklyn.

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A review by Michael M Jones

What if... your entire life was lived at someone else's convenience? What if you were held hostage for their good behavior? What if they could do whatever they wanted, while you suffered the consequences?

Syd is a victim of that system. Born into a debt he can never pay off, he's a Proxy, owned by one of the richest families in the Mountain City, one of the few civilized enclaves left after a series of apocalyptic disasters devastated the old world. Syd goes to school, struggles to get by in the overcrowded, underprivileged slums of the Valve, works in the back of an illegal repair shop, and dreams of the day, years off, when he'll finally be his own man. But he never knows when he'll be punished for the crimes and misdemeanors of his Patron.

Knox is a spoiled rich kid, used to getting his own way, heedless of the consequences. After all, if he breaks the rules, he's not the one who gets beaten, forced into hard labor, deprived of the bare necessities. He's never had to think about who suffers. Until now….

When one of Knox's usual stunts turns fatal, and an wealthy girl is killed, it's Syd who once again pays the price: he's sentenced to sixteen years of hard labor, an almost guaranteed death sentence. But Syd's tired of cooperating with the system. He engineers an escape from prison, and hatches a plan to get out of the city once and for all. As luck would have it, he ends up kidnapping Knox himself. And plunges headfirst into a conspiracy that dates back to before his birth.

After some initial complications, Knox and Syd discover that they need each other to survive. Teaming up with an idealistic young revolutionary, a drug-addled opportunist, an elderly conspirator, and a secret society dedicated to bringing down a corrupt system, they defy the powers that be and discover that some debts can only be paid in blood.

Proxy is a fascinating, complicated, riveting tale. At its heart, it stems from the simple concept of the "whipping boy" -- that is, someone assigned to accept punishment as proxy for a member of the royalty. Alex London takes that idea and twists it, inserting it into a corrupt, post-apocalyptic system where the poor grow up in debt, and the rich can buy whoever they choose. "Patrons owned the debt and proxies took their punishments. A simple contract, a free market. Debts had to be paid." And, of course, you can always accrue more debt if you want to buy a better education, flashier gear, more privileges. The market totally allows for that.

London doesn't go into a whole lot of detail about the death of the old world, merely alluding to the usual array of apocalyptic circumstances: global warming, flooding, plagues, and so on. The result is a small scattering of relatively isolated city-states amidst the ruins of the old, with most of the story taking place near the Mountain City, though references are made to Old Detroit as a wasteland, and Nigeria as another major bastion of humanity. The real focus here is on the society that's arisen, one flush with advanced technology even as it exists precariously in the middle of the wastelands.

Now, Knox is presented, at first, as an unrepentant jerk, an unsympathetic waste of space, feckless and carefree and careless, acting out against a distant father for unspecified reasons. And we're primed to hate him from the second he crashes across the screen in a "borrowed" car. It's a minor miracle of characterization and development that London turns it around and makes Knox tolerable, even likeable, as things go on. We find more reasons to put up with him, and fewer to hate him, especially when new information concerning his activities comes to light. This is important, given that we also see things from Syd's viewpoint.

Syd's the character who sold the story for me. Resourceful, stubborn, a survivor by any means, a good guy in a bad world, he's sympathetic from the get-go. Two factors which caught my attention: he's a character of color (described as having skin the color of a dark beer) and he's gay. Neither of these things inform and influence the story; they help define the character who's engaged in the action. In fact, apart from some teasing from the sort of people who'd be jerks no matter what, Syd's preferences seem to be a done deal, part of who he is without defining him. It even leads to some interesting moments that suggest Knox is bisexual, and again it's just something that happens. This is the sort of book I love to see: one with diverse characters having wild adventures.

Although I did have to wonder if there was more to read into this narrative than I expected. After all, Knox, the white guy, has the power of life and death over Syd, the minority…until the situation is reversed, the status quo is upset, and they start saving each other as the situation warrants. Honestly, the relationship between Syd and Knox is complicated, multi-layered, and nigh-impossible to define. Sometimes they're enemies, sometimes allies. They go from fighting to flirting, but you never really get the feeling that, despite a mutual attraction/admiration/appreciation, they're going to develop a romance. Or are they?

As another point of interest, London draws from his own Jewish heritage to further a major subplot. One of the concepts batted around is that of the Jubilee, the time of celebration when slaves are released and debts are forgiven. Naturally, it's a concept most of the poor support, while the rich aren't quite so interested… While the Jubilee isn't unique to the Jewish faith, the book makes it clear where the idea comes from. Again, we're seeing some refreshingly different elements at play here.

As the first book in a two-book storyline (according to my research), there's clearly more to the story than we see here. However, Proxy introduces an interesting take on the usual post-apocalyptic dystopia, gives us a handful of memorable characters, and throws a huge spanner into the works by the time it's over. I went into this expecting the same old same that I've come to expect from YA dystopian SF -- that is to say, not much -- and was almost instantly blown away. First by the realization that Syd was an awesome protagonist unlike most of his peers, second by the intensity of the storyline. I can't wait to see what London, previously known more for his middle grade Accidental Adventures series, has to offer next.

Copyright © 2013 Michael M Jones

Michael M Jones enjoys an addiction to books, for which he's glad there is no cure. He lives with his very patient wife (who doesn't complain about books taking over the house... much), eight cats, and a large plaster penguin that once tasted blood and enjoyed it. A prophecy states that when Michael finishes reading everything on his list, he'll finally die. He aims to be immortal.

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