(nb: I received an advance copy from the publisher via NetGalley)
Rubric and Salmon Jo have a seemingly idyllic life. They are students at a top academy. They are ready to begin working with their mentors, and they have each other.
Rubric begins training with a noted artist, while Salmon Jo starts work in The Hatchery, the place where new babies are decanted.
Yes, decanted. Not “born.” Babies in this world are poured out of a tank when gestation is complete.
I should probably mention, there are no men in Society, only Pannas (socially proper women) and Klons, specially engineered quasi-human servant women. The idea of a woman allowing a baby to gestate in her womb is abhorrent in Society, thus the Hatchery. Legends tell that in The Land of The Barbarous Ones, the primitives still engage in such disgusting practices as pregnancy.
One night, Rubric and Salmon Jo stumble upon a disturbing piece of information about how Klons are engineered. This knowledge makes it impossible to return to their previous, comfortable life, and leads them on a dangerous journey that could see them both killed.
There is a lot to like in “Swans and Klons.” In Salmon Jo and Rubric’s native land, “Society,” author Nora Olsen has created a future without poverty or war, yet nobody seems to have any spiritual fulfillment or real happiness either. The Klons, in essence, do all the work. They raise the young Pannas, cook, clean, do factory labor, whatever tasks the Pannas deem beneath them. The Pannas live as goddesses, sans the Divinity. It’s fitting that this realm is ruled over by doctors. (A nurse friend used to half-joke that M.D. stood for “minor deity,” her commentary on the godlike egos many doctors have.)
Since babies are decanted in a Hatchery, there are no parents or siblings. Girls are raised in institutions and academies until time to move on to the largely sterile “real” world, where it’s clean and safe, but not especially rewarding.
There are some interesting dualities in “Swans and Klons,” and if I’m reading too much into it, please forgive me.
First, the main characters’ names are appropriate. Salmon Jo is a scientific braniac; salmon is “brain food”. Rubric directs the duo’s daring schemes; a rubric is a set of directions, or a list of required tasks.
Second, both civilizations–the one of Pannas and Klons, and “The Land of The Barbarous Ones”–refer to their land as “Society.” They don’t know enough about one another to realize this. They speak the same language, but there is no sense of shared humanity. The women in the Panna/Klon Society are galled by the thought of pregnancy and childbirth, while the women in the “Barbarous Ones” Society speak of it as a beautiful, rewarding experience.
Additionally, there is a high border barrier separating the two lands. When a person runs through that barrier, she receives one hell of an electrical shock. There is also one hell of a culture shock. In the “Barbarous” Society, everybody works to plant and harvest, but with everyone pitching in, it takes half the day. In “Panna/Klon” Society, the Pannas don’t lower themselves to do any chores or manual labor, while the Klons work ungodly long workdays to do it all.
I don’t want to over-analyze “Swans and Klons” as a social treatise. Its primary mission is to entertain YA readers, and I think it will succeed. I think female tween and young teen readers will feel empowered by this world without men. Some young male readers could be less-enthralled, but I think the story’s adventure–with massive explosions–is strong enough to keep them interested.
Finally, Rubric and Salmon Jo are “schatzies,” or girlfriends. Theirs is not a silly girly flirtation, either, where they ride ponies and braid one another’s hair. These two face danger together; they argue and annoy each other and make up, just like any other real couple–straight or gay. Author Nora Olsen has set a goal to write entertaining books where LGBTQ teens can see themselves in the starring role. In writing “Swans & Klons,” she has created a book where two girls can love each other, kiss and hold hands openly. The only pointlet I would make here is that in Society, there are no other choices. Their healthy, sharing relationship promotes a positive image for lesbian teens, but in Society, you’re either lesbian, or you’re single: it’s a totally safe world, unlike the worlds many LGBTQ teen readers inhabit.
Again, I’m over-analyzing.
At day’s end, “Swans and Klons” is a fast, imaginative journey through a unique fantasy world teens will love. Bonus points to Ms. Olsen for sneaking in additional depth we way-the-hell-beyond-Y-A readers can geek out over.
4 Stars out of 5 Recommended.