Atlantia by Ally Condie. | My copy: Hardcover, 298 pages, Dutton Books (Penguin Group USA), 2014. | Source: Library. | View on Goodreads here.
I was skeptical when heading into Atlantia. I read Ally Condie’s Matched and Crossed, the first two books in her dystopia trilogy, and while I liked Matched, I thought Crossed was a tedious mess. Readers tend to have very mixed feelings about Ally’s books, but I was willing to try Atlantia, a fantasy/dystopia standalone. I’ll be up front and say I went into this book blind and thinking it had something to do with mermaids (I think a bunch of us did). Well, no mermaids–but sirens!
Basically, the world turned to crap. (That’s the dystopia part.) So the underwater city of Atlantia was built. The city is enclosed in “bubbles”, sort of dome-like structures (I kept visualizing giant fish bowls, haha), so it’s a city with air for people to breathe, only just Below. Every year the citizens of Atlantia are given a choice: they can either stay Below or leave for the Above; each decision is final. Rio is our protagonist, and she’s longed to go Above since she was a child. However, she’s made a promise with her twin sister, Bay, to remain together Below. Their mother, the city’s former Minister, recently died (though Rio thinks she was murdered), and the sisters have vowed never to lose each other, never to be separated.
Well. Bay decides to leave for the Above.
And that is the book’s premise. Because of the rules, only one member from every family can go Above, so Rio’s out of luck joining her sister. But she tries. Most of the book is her attempt to find a way to escape Atlantia (illegally) to be with Bay and understand why her sister would leave without any explanation. But then Rio’s Aunt Maire approaches her with an offer to help. Rio is suspicious and angry; Maire is the strongest siren in Atlantia–and possibly the person who killed Rio’s mother, Oceana. But then… Maire starts to subtly teach Rio how to use her own siren powers of voice and manipulation.
This book, while well written and whimsical, has an extremely slow start. Actually, most of the book is pretty slow. It took me a long time to get into it. I sympathized with Rio for the hurt and disbelief she felt, but I had no idea who Bay was. Since Bay was whisked away after the first chapter, we only heard about her. I didn’t get to see who she was and make my own opinions. That being said, Rio spent a lot of time wallowing in her sadness and trying to figure out why Bay would leave and not tell her. It was Rio who always wanted to go Above, not Bay.
In her plans to escape Atlantia, Bay meets a boy named True. His best friend, Fen, also chose to go Above. Rio and True hesitantly work together to try to uncover any facts about why Bay and Fen would leave without telling anyone. And, as predicted, Rio and True form a friendship that morphs into something more. I liked True. He was smart and kind and a little perfect. Maybe he was a little cookie-cutter, but I liked him very much and thought his and Rio’s relationship was very sweet. The romance is not the focus at all, though, which was refreshing.
Back to Rio being a siren… That was cool, but I wish there’d been more siren powers present in the book. Rio has to suppress her true voice because sirens are feared, and a lot of the back story concerning them was in blocks of italic text being delivered by Maire. I don’t think we ever were really told how and why the sirens first appeared. They just did. And were viewed as gods, and ruled Atlantia, but then were seen as a danger, so they were locked up… The whole siren thing was a little confusing and a lot unsatisfying.
Going back to Maire… I actually really liked her. She was mysterious, powerful, and a very conflicted character. Like Rio, I never knew if I could trust her, but she was a great puzzle to try to decipher. I loved the bit with the shells, too. I wish they’d been used more.
Two big themes in this book are family and religion. Both were very very prominent. I normally don’t read books that center on religion, even if the religion is kind of made up, like it is here. The people of Atlantia worship gods that take the forms of animals from Above. Some people even believe that Oceana, the former Minister and Rio’s mom, was a deity herself. It also seemed like Rio practically lived at the temple for large portions of the book. The whole faith-thing wasn’t exactly shoved down my throat (okay, maybe a little?), but I did get bored with it quickly.
The last thing I want to touch on is the world building. I really liked Atlantia and how it was described and the history about its conception and construction, but a few things didn’t make much sense. First and foremost, the people Above supply Atlantia with food and whatnot as long as Atlantians can provide minerals from the underwater mines. This seems like a very bizarre trade-off. The people Below are uber-dependent on the people Above. If the world is crap on dry land, why would anyone want to share limited supplies with those Below? And for the amount of time Atlantia has existed, you’d think those Above would have just cut off ties with them long ago. Also–why would the Above even allow Atlantians to join their world by choice? We learn that the Atlantians who choose to go Above, and who are not allowed to ever return Below, are scorned, given horrible jobs, and barely manage to scrape by. Why would the people Above even tolerate the rule that Atlantians can’t return Below if those Above hate them so much? None of the explanations seemed very solid.
Atlantia is an interesting book. It’s different, not action-packed, not full of magic or mystery. It’s really just about a girl finding her sister and uncovering secrets about her family and city along the way. It’s slow, at times predictable, and doesn’t have the most relatable characters, but I wouldn’t call it a bad book. Ally Condie’s works aren’t for everyone, so keep that in mind if you plan to read this. ♦