Proxy Series Book 1, Philomel Books, 2013, 379 pgs.
Syd only has two more years left to pay off his debt; two more years in which all he needs to do is keep his head down, keep his health good, and keep himself from racking up more in the red. Unfortunately, Syd is a proxy, meaning that whenever his patron gets in trouble, Syd does too. And Syd’s patron gets in trouble a lot. But now his mysterious patron has done something really wrong, something that won’t only earn Syd some shocks with an EMD stick, but will mess up everything he’s ever worked for in his short life. So instead of staying and accepting his punishment, Syd runs. He goes to find his patron, breaking every law and social rule his society has. Maybe then his can force the other boy to fix this.
I’ve always liked dystopian stories; 1984 and Brave New World were some of the first classics I fell in love with when I was younger, and the taste for futuristic despair has stuck with me ever since. As such, the current wave attempting to capitalize on the popularity of The Hunger Games has been good to me, even being as mixed a bag as it is. I can usually find at least something I enjoy, even in the most middling of the Young Adult dystopias.
I wouldn’t quite say Proxy is middling, though much like its genre it is a mixed bag.
This is a novel with flaws, to put it shortly. Some of them are small, simple things that are easily ignored, like the social commentary being a little on the nose or the action scenes needing a little more tension. Others are larger issues that carry through and affect the entire novel: the prose is clunky, as is the symbolism, and, in a fairly amateur move, the author has a tendency to jump between perspectives randomly to give reactions instead of allowing descriptions of body language or facial expression to do so.
The worst parts, though, honestly come from what appear to be the author’s attempts to bow to genre. Where London clearly has his own, more interesting ideas but sticks something in because that’s what you do in a YA dystopia. There’s a love story that feels generally unnecessary, and a chosen one aspect that has the same problem.
The setting, too, has some issues with this. The two main things that make this society dystopian are the presence of widespread poverty that leaves most of the population in horrible debt, and the proxy system that sprang up out of it, wherein a rich person pays off a debt in exchange for the debtor taking all legal punishments should their “patron” get in trouble. In my mind the simplest ways to get to that state involve either a general financial collapse or better technology leading to rampant unemployment, with no need for an apocalypse at all. But that’s there, as is the shining city in the center of the country, in some pretty direct nods to The Hunger Games.
And these are really only a problem because, like I said, the author does have his own, more interesting ideas to work from. In a book that was more standard I would have just accepted it, but here those nods took me out of the story and kept me wishing that he had pushed his vision a little further, really made it stand out.
Because as much as the story does have some technical flaws I did really like this book. Like I said, even with the genre conventions, London does have plenty of his own ideas and is able to create a take on a dystopia that I haven’t seen yet. This is largely because instead of focusing on a romance, or even on a strict revolution, it seems to care more about healing the rift between the haves and the have-nots and attempting to make things decent for everybody.
It’s a take that you really don’t see that often. Seemingly impossible fights against the bad guys are far more exciting for most audiences that mundane, day to day systemic reworking, so most novels focus on the former. As much as there are plenty of exciting fights and breakneck chase scenes, though, the heart of this story is in the latter.
This is a book about coming to see the humanity in everyone around you and then attempting to balance the scales as much as you can because of it.
Well done characterization and good interactions between the leads are absolutely necessary to make the sort of plot described above work at all, and London does it here beautifully, in a thousand little ways that make our three leads not only round but relevant. From moral crusader Marie, who means well but lacks the life experience to actually be effective in making a difference, to seemingly callous, thrill-seeking Knox, to wary, bitter proxy, Syd, who just wants to keep his head down long enough to get out of the system, they’re all huge, distinctive personalities. Their differences make for some amazing play between them, and there are so many details here that work so well.
The fact that Syd is black and queer is a bit of political statement that I think a lot of other authors would have shied away from, as is his continuous disdain toward, mistrust of, and lack of forgiveness for the two rich kids accompanying him, even after they’ve helped him quite a lot. I also like the fact that it takes Marie almost to the end of the book to stop thinking of him as an ideal and start thinking of him as a person. This seems so true to life to me; there are so many people who care deeply about making the world better, but aren’t willing to admit they don’t have all the answers.
And even Knox, whose background and issues I’ve definitely seen before, has his day in the sun. I pretty much always appreciate an author who is willing to make one of the leads both incredibly awful in some ways and incredibly kind in others. His journey is probably the most interesting in the book, as he goes from seeing Syd as a completely disposable tool to being the one who seems to care most about his humanity.
And as much as good characterization will pretty much make any novel for me, there’s plenty else to recommend Proxy as well. As clunky as the prose and symbolism can be, the themes of loss and debt, of what we owe to each other and to society, that grow out of them make for a powerful novel.
Learning to deal with the sort of wrongs that can’t be fully righted by a single person, both those we are born into and those we create ourselves, is a process that everyone needs to go through at some point.
Proxy is a wonderful representation of that process. This may not be the most technically proficient novel ever, but it is engaging, and it is timely. And, all in all, I really do thikg we could use more stories about learning to see the humanity in others and attempting to draw it out. You know, just in general.