Scott Westerfeld, Impostors (Scholastic, 2018, 405pp, £7.99)
Reviewed by Amanda Pavani (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais / University of Limerick)
Impostors is the first novel in a new series set in the same post-apocalyptic world of Uglies and its sequels (2005-7). The protagonist from the previous series has disappeared and the action is focused on Frey, daughter of the city leader of Shreve. Hidden from the public her entire life, Frey has been trained as her twin sister’s body double: while Rafi handles diplomacy, parties and learns fashion and etiquette, Frey is expert in armed combat and impersonates her sister in exposed public appearances. Their father, seeking to seal a deal with the city of Victoria, sends Frey as a glorified hostage to the first family of that city, the Palafoxes. She is, then, in a unique situation: she must impersonate her sister for weeks, without access to any weapons, while under constant surveillance.
One of the markers of this new series is in the protagonist’s dry narrative voice, which gains intensity as the plot progresses. Additionally, the sisters are very attached to each other, sharing a restrained hate for the use their father makes of them. Westerfeld’s dystopian society is immersed in a web of international politics which, ironically, marks a return to how the Rusties (the pre-apocalyptic population) handled resources. As Frey reflects: ‘Centuries ago, there were people called the Rusties, who loved metal. They dug mines, poisoned rivers, and tore down entire mountains to get it. They used the metal to build their cities, their cars, their tools, and – of course – the weapons they annihilated each other with. Now all that’s left of the Rusties is their ruins. The bones of the old world are their legacy to us.’ Although Frey becomes a rebel and plots to bring down her father, while other characters join her for freedom of expression or for independence, her main drive is to remove Rafi from the grasp of their father, who embodies unambiguous evil in the story.
There is an interesting aspect of world-building in Westerfeld’s universe regarding language: during the times described in the first series, with the use of lobotomies and body modifications to keep the citizens compliant, language also lost some of its complexity. Several terms are simplified in -ie ending versions, such as littlies, Rusties, uglies; in Impostors, more frequently, experiences are not ‘dizzying’ but ‘dizzy-making’; surveillance is not unnerving to Frey but ‘nervous-making’. The structure occurs quite often and, even though it can be repetitive to the reader, its existence in the discourse of the universe has an internal consistency.
Another positive characteristic of Impostors is the inclusion of at least one non-binary character. Yandre is referred throughout the novel by the pronoun ‘they’ and the narrator does not trip in the pitfalls of characterizing non-binary individuals: on occasion Yandre wears a dress, in others they are in battle attire. Yandre is fabulous and loyal; the narration does not comment on their physical features, denying a more conservative readership a classification as either man or woman. This portrayal is all the more appreciated because, sold as a Young Adult novel, Impostors promotes a healthy view of gender equality and of people who exist outside the binary system.
Impostors is composed of very short chapters, it is very plot-driven, and it speaks to its audience on a relevant theme: the construction of one’s identity. Until Frey was separated from her sister, she was forced to accept that the only things she could do were those prescribed to her since infancy. Left alone in a new environment, and after discovering that her father’s plan had been to sacrifice her for territory, Frey is driven to become her own person and to navigate new challenges. Frey’s unwillingness to participate in her adventure for ideology, but instead for family, resonates with Suzanne Collins’ character Katniss Everdeen, from The Hunger Games (2008), who is also put on the spot and whose only resolve to survive comes from a wish to see her sister again. Westerfeld, then, manages to displace teenage anxiety about identity and personal motives to a future in which humankind seems to take two steps forward and one step back: hoverboards and enhanced soldiers abound, but those resources are still used in power struggles not unlike those in politics of the world his readers inhabit.
As a result, Frey’s faults and insecurities draw the reader in. In the same instance as not understanding her romantic feelings for a boy, as a normal teenager would not, so she is also in the middle of a plot for territorial invasion. Frey acts as the fulcrum between a reality that the readership can recognize and the unreality of first families in new city-states, airships and warfare. As a novel, Impostors inhabits an interstitial space of technologically advanced warfare with a political system that is almost medieval. The city of Victoria is presented, from Frey’s point of view, as an impossible eutopia, where the leaders seem to foster a democratic debate on the best course of government. That the good place in Westerfeld’s world values privacy over state security reflects current concerns of data theft and electronic surveillance. Frey’s disbelief that there was no ‘spy dust’ anywhere echoes concerns about modern devices that record user data. The novel’s conclusion subverts previously assigned character roles, with an interesting hook to its sequel (Shatter City published in September 2019).
Impostors is an improvement both in character construction and in world-building, when compared to Uglies. Frey is more relatable than Tally Youngblood and more complex, more questioning of her surroundings. However, both protagonists take action after suffering a break in their personal lives, which adds greater realism to their characterisations. Heroic acts are shown as not existing in a void, but immersed in a web of events from personal, economic and larger political structures, all moving together at once. This adds greatly to the novel’s pace whilst also giving heft to what might otherwise be a light read.