The Culling by Steven dos Santos (#1 in the Torch Keeper series) (Flux, 8 March 2013)
Okay, despite being a bit biased against this book initially because I unfortunately really dislike the cover, I LOVED THE BOOK. This book deserves a better cover, honestly.
So some people have said this is too much like the Hunger Games. I honestly don't really see that. I think the stakes are very different. I mean, I guess I could say it's like the Hunger Games, in that it's a dystopia where teenagers are forced against their will to take part in horrifying activities that result in lots of people getting murdered, but The Culling is even more brutal and soul-destroying. Also, the male protagonist falls in love with another boy.
On Recruitment Day in the Establishment, Lucian 'Lucky' Spark finds himself recruited as one of five teenagers to take part in the Trials. Each recruit has two 'incentives' picked for them before the Trials begin, loved ones who are supposed to motivate them to win the Trials: because in each round of the Trials, the loser will have to select one of their incentives to be brutally murdered before their own eyes. If they lose again, their other incentive is killed too, and the recruit is sent off to a labour camp somewhere, never to be seen again. And on this goes, until only one person is left standing. The sole survivor of the Trials gets to become an Imposer and play their part in the law enforcement of the Establishment. Lucky is determined to protect his little brother at all costs; but as training for the Trials gets underway, Lucky finds himself doing the unthinkable and falling in love with one of the other recruits, Digory Tycho...
So there you have it. And let me tell you, when I say 'brutally murdered', I mean brutally murdered. God, there are so many nightmare-inducing scenes from this book. This book is definitely not for the faint of heart.
But if you can handle the gory scenes, I highly recommend this. The one thing I was put off by was the writing style, which just didn't read fluently to me at all in the beginning. I found myself having to reread sentences a lot at first because the style felt so laborious to me. But I got used to it after a while, and soon I was racing through the book.
It was so intense and gripping. I felt like each of the five recruits was interesting in their own way, and we learnt enough about each of them that they felt like real people to me. I absolutely hated having to see them put through so much emotional trauma. Seriously, reading about them having to choose which of their incentives to get killed and then having to watch it happen was downright awful. I felt sick. But it was absolutely incredible. I loved the premise, I loved how twisted and cruel everything was. It was horrifying and I could not put the book down.
I thought the romance between Lucky and Digory was heartbreakingly well done. They had some really sweet and tender moments together, and I definitely rooted for them the whole way through. Digory was such a beautiful character: so courageous and selfless in his love. In this dystopian society, I should mention, homosexuality seems to be just as accepted as heterosexuality, and same-sex marriages are recognised, since one of the male characters has a husband.
There was honestly not a dull moment in this book. It was fast-paced and cinematic, and I never really felt like this was 'just another dystopia', owing to the outstanding plot, although it could have done with more worldbuilding. The world did feel quite vague and generic to me, but I'm hoping we will get to find out more about it in the next books.
Steven dos Santos kicked me in the heart many times throughout this book, and I can't wait for him to do it again when I read the sequel, The Sowing.