The Survival Game: Heartbreaking Dystopia

The Survival Game by Nicky Singer is an intense, dark and heartbreaking young adult novel set in a dystopian world told with maturity and depth. I really enjoyed this book because it had such a strong sense of place and character, and I could feel as though I was in this kind of world, despite never having lived it myself. Singer gives an eerily realistic depiction of the world as it could be if we continue to enforce unrealistic and unhelpful borders all over the world. The Survival Game is out now from Hodder Children’s Books.

The Story
Mhairi is fourteen years old and travelling along the Scottish border to try and make it home to her grandmother. Her parents are gone, as well is everybody she has previously travelled with, until she meets a young boy on the road. He is stealthy and sharp, much like her, but in Singer’s version of reality, this may not be enough. Trapped by a world where papers are passports and the only valid form of identification, and you pay for your crimes by taking years off your life, Mhairi and her new companion must remain undercover until they can get to safety. However, Mhairi’s companion, mostly referred to as Mo, is an illegal immigrant, which causes many more unprecedented problems, especially as she grows to care for him like a brother.

What I liked…
The Survival Game by Nicky Singer is a sharp and well-structured novel. I enjoyed the realistic maturity of Mhairi as she navigates the world, as well as the clarity of the borders being made in this world, contrasting with the vague explanations from the older generations, who understand that it is ever changing and what was the law yesterday might not be today. Singer creates this world in such a way that you can see it happening in reality, complete with Theresa May at the heart of the red stone movement. Mhairi, Mo, Peter and her grandmother are all rather interesting characters and, while I took to Mhairi and Mo rather well, I felt that Peter was a strange personality with questionable intentions. I also did not like Mhairi’s grandmother who, quite frankly, made for a fun villainess but lacked some serious background in my opinion.
Mhairi was a well-developed character, who is misunderstood until a lot later in the novel. Her connection to Mo from the beginning may appear a little odd, but it all comes together to present her as loving and caring in ways beyond her own imagination. Mo comes across well, also, however this may be because of his sheer refusal to speak. All through the novel, I thought that he might just kill Mhairi out of nowhere or something, but his fierce loyalty towards her is a little unnerving in a way that shows how well Singer understands her characters from this novel.
As aforementioned, the sense of place in this novel is excellent. I really enjoyed being put in the woods next to the border, watching the boots of an officer appear before me, as well as the well-described, but not over-described detention facility for them to be held in. I felt that from point A to B, I understood the place I was in, where I had been before and how to navigate this novel simply. This, combined with the beautiful Scottish scenery and the comparison of the bustling city makes this book what it is at the end of the day.

A niggle or two…
The only things I really did not rate about this book were the beginning and Peter’s character. The beginning of the novel starts right in the middle of Mhairi’s journey to Scotland. This is the case for many novels nowadays, but for this one, it would have been a bit less sudden to give some background to the world that she is in. It starts slow with Mhairi quite often referring to ‘Castle’ when she gets bad memories and she is mostly just walking alone, and then with Mo. It only really picked up around the 25% mark.
Peter was not just an unlikeable character; he was creepy and strange and way too emotional towards Mhairi considering their lack of interactions. He is eighteen years old, while Mhairi is fourteen, so I find it very strange the way he is so sexually attracted to her, especially as she is so thin from travelling so far with little food, as this will keep her body prepubescent. As well as this, when she makes her decision, his reaction is a bit too egotistical for me, and I really hope that she doesn’t end up with him if there is another novel. It is as though he is trying to save her when she really doesn’t want or need to be saved.

Overall, I thought this book was mostly good. If there are tweaks to the beginning in the final version, and if Singer makes Peter less of an entitled, ‘oh I can fix everything’ man, then I believe it will be a five star read, as it is clever and intriguing to read. I would recommend this book to readers of dystopian and darker young adult fiction. Thank you to NetGalley and Hodder Children’s Books for my e-arc in exchange for an honest review.

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