The Loop by Ben Oliver

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The Loop by Ben Oliver

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Category: Teens
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Tanja Jennings
Reviewed by Tanja Jennings
Summary: Ben Oliver's ambitious debut YA novel is a dystopian, speculative action thriller that revolves around teen Luka Kane's quest for freedom. It starts with a truly terrifying concept then spirals into a Frankenstein's monster mash up of cyber genetics, science fiction, horror and prison movie tropes with Artificial Intelligence as the ultimate villain. Compelling in parts and boasting dynamic characters it will appeal to readers who enjoy epic struggles for survival. Ending on a cliff hanger, it promises two more sequels.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 364 Date: April 2020
Publisher: Chicken House
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1912626557

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Set during the aftermath of a Third World War where methods of punishment for criminal activities have been amped up to a horrific level by machines, The Loop follows the precarious existence of adolescent Luka Kane. In a world of Have and Have Nots where Alts (cyborgs) have power over Regulars, he is trapped inside a living hell with no chance of escape. A detonator has been sewn inside his heart connecting him to a trigger held by the guards who can end his life with one squeeze. Luka is taunted by limited access to his memories and relentlessly drained of energy through a gruelling daily torture ritual. Doomed to Delay (a risky medical trial where he is a guinea pig for Alts in place of execution) after Delay he is in despair. His prison is based on the model of an infinity loop designed to make its inmates suffer. With the only glimmers of hope being the rumours of rebellion outside and the visits of sympathetic Alt guard Wren, can Luka ever be free? Why has he been imprisoned? What waits for him if he can break the loop?

What is evident about Ben Oliver is his love of reading. He counts Goosebumps and Harry Potter among his favourite series and prizes novels such as Life of Pi and The Left Hand of Darkness. Consequently, he uses intertextuality as part of his novel, opening with a strong apposite quote from The Call of the Wild by Jack London which describes the energy of being free. Books are what his protagonist Luka uses as a coping mechanism to break the inexorable tedium of his existence where he lives on a razor's edge of fear. To him they are "like a cup of ice water in a desert". Through them he can escape into alternative worlds like Tolkien's Middle Earth.

When developing The Loop Ben's central concern was to attempt to create fiction designed to "recapture the sense of immersion and excitement" he got from reading series like Harry Potter. His novel explores universal themes such as genetic experimentation, surveillance, technological consumerism, chemical weapons, drug dependency, inequality, treacherous politics, control, manipulation and what it means to be free in body and thought. There are shades of 1984 in the methods of state control, but these are crossed with aspects of the sentient computer Hal from Space Odyssey 2001, the confinements of Alcatraz, James Herbert's mutant rats and Zombie horror flicks like 28 Days Later. Add to that government controlled chemical rain. This results in a giant blender of genres which pulls the reader in different directions.

Oliver's characters are a disparate bunch who are bewildered and angered by the situation they find themselves in. They are ethnically diverse, exhibiting elements of cunning, bravery, ingenuity, loyalty and fortitude. Intrepid and stoical Luka is their centre as his decisions affect them. Often it is not clear whom he can trust as Oliver employs plot twists of cross and double cross. Luka also has a decision to make about whom he loves and whether he can rescue his family from the terrible fate that awaits them.

The Loop is part one of a trilogy. Ben's concept has already been optioned for a movie. Louise Sutton, producer at Lime Pictures commented, "I am absolutely delighted to be working on The Loop with Ben. He has created an irresistible world and filled it with characters who you care for desperately. The book marries big conversations such as crime and punishment, and artificial intelligence with universal YA themes such as love, friendship and betrayal. It is a riveting read that will be a joy to translate for the screen", while Barry Cunningham, m.d. at Chicken House, enthused: "I couldn't be more excited by this thriller series where drones, surgical enhancements and energy tech have created a divided world - unlocking the secrets of The Loop is going to be awesome."

In any event Oliver has certainly written an engaging YA novel with an intriguing premise. The only quibble is that there are too many ingredients. The Loop could also benefit from some fine tuning as the odd continuity error, cornucopia of genres, peppering of incongruous bad language and cliched plot devices might prove taxing for some.

For more thrilling and unsettling speculative fiction, you should try Unwind by Neal Shusterman, a fearsome vision of the future with teens who are sacrificed and disassembled for body parts and Clappers with explosive blood who strike their hands to detonate themselves. If your tastes are gory head to Panem with the courageous Katniss in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and for an intellectual look at the socio politics of a dystopian world you should check out 1984 by George Orwell or visit the Alphas and the Epsilons of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Conversely if you long for a bit of humour among all the chaos and destruction you should sample The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. You could try Walkaway by Cory Doctorow but we weren't all that impressed.

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