This book was very interesting for a middle grade read in that it wasn't driven by an external plot. There was no quest, no exterior objective the main character, 12-year-old Mori, has to achieve.
You could even say there was no "typical" action for MG sci-fi -- no moon buggy races, no invading aliens, no 'splosions (the stick by which my son and husband judge every book and movie they've ever read / seen), no flying spaceships, although there is a house fire the kids watch from afar. In fact, the most "exciting" thing that happens is, of course, at the very end and sets the stage for the second book.
Instead, this book focuses on a philosophical journey undertaken by children, not adults (because the adults represent some very fixed ideas about the world and these issues), considering the following questions:
If your parents could design you, pick and choose genes for attributes they wanted in you, would you want to be designed? Or be a "natural" kid, with all the limitations that implies?
And if your parents also had the ability to alter your brain through surgery, say release a hidden talent or dampen a negative or self-destructive trait, would you want them to? Would doing so change who you are?
And finally, what makes a friend? Flesh and blood? Or is it possible to call an artificial intelligence, around which flesh and blood are grown, a friend, too?
Mori is 12, on the cusp of having her brain-altering surgery to "release her latency," a technique pioneered by her Baba (grandmother) in the super technologically advanced settlement of New Harmonie.
The bulk of the book takes place on Firefly Lane, in a cul-de-sac, as the kids ride bikes and visit each other's houses / pools, or in Mori's case, the woods just outside the town but inside the fence that keeps them safe from the hordes and diseases outside their town.
One day a new girl appears, Ilana. She whisks into the empty house in the cul-de-sac with some amazingly trendy parents, high-ranking in the Krita Corp., which runs the settlement, and Mori, on a whim, takes Ilana to her place in the woods. It's the one place Julia, Mori's best friend, doesn't get. Mori is a naturalist at heart, and loves drawing the plants and naming the trees and just spending time surrounded by foliage and greenery. She's also a true "natural," not a designed kid, and was born with a retinal impairment. Her parents have used up almost all of her 30% allotment for enhancements fixing her eye, with a combination of a surgically implanted new lens and special prescription, adaptive glasses that enable her to see. Mori and Ilana click, the way friends do at that age, sparking Julia's jealousy.
Julia is the exact opposite of Mori -- she's a designed child, exceptionally physically fit and capable of amazing feats of running, jumping, etc. She's hyper-competitive about everything, more so this year than ever before, and of course Julia doesn't like Ilana from the start.
Ilana, Mori is convinced after they bond over the moss in Oakedge, Mori's forest oasis Ilana helps her name, is all-natural, like herself. Mori's been taught that nature is gorgeous, and Ilana is too, so of course, Ilana must be a "natural."
Mori is determined to integrate Ilana into their circle of friends -- including Theo, another "designed" kid, and Benji, a genius and a "natural." (Although you learn later to not trust what the kids have been told by their parents, at all.)
Then Theo has his latency surgery, and he comes back...changed. He has bad headaches. He's downright nasty, for no reason, to Mori, with whom he's always been very protective and gentle. He has to go back, for more brain surgeries, to "fix" him, because they (Krita Corp.'s doctors) got it wrong, the first time. Eventually, he evens out, but...Mori pauses to think about what's been done to him.
At the same time, Mori's putting together some not-so-subtle hints that Ilana may not be what they all think she is. They go into her Baba's house at #9, which has been abandoned all these years, and find a closet packed with humanoid android parts and an old computer they boot up, with files about a scuttled project named, "Alana."
And then there's a near-drowning in Julia's pool, in which Ilana just "shuts down" and then, once rescued, suddenly "reboots." And there's the fact that Ilana's never quite meshed with any of the other kids, except Mori.
When they go back to the house for more answers, Ilana hurts Mori, grabs her arm way too tight and leaves a painful bruise, to prevent her from going inside. The house burns down, destroying all evidence inside and any chance the kids could get solid answers to their questions. Still, Mori isn't sure Ilana is natural at all, or if she's even human.
But does that mean, Ilana isn't a friend? And when Ilana's in trouble, when Krita Corp. decides to "scuttle" the experiment that is her, can Mori convince all the kids to come to her rescue?
I won't spoil the ending. You'll have to read to find out what they do, which I will say is the basis for Book 2.
A thoroughly enjoyable, if uncharacteristically quiet, science-fiction middle grade read.
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read Book 1, The Firefly Code, don't read this review. It takes up where Book 1 left off, and it will explain a few things that will ruin Book 1 if you read this.
Twelve-year-old Mori is determined to undo the damage her parents did to her by giving her brain surgery to "dampen," or take away, her bravery, even if that means charging outside New Harmonie with only a half-baked plan to get Ilana to safety.
Mori and the kids figure out Ilana is an artificial intelligence (AI), an experiment by the Krita Corp. extending work done by Mori's Baba and Dr. Varden, early pioneers of New Harmonie.
Benji, using his genius, figures out which wires to cut to get them beyond the perimeter fence that protects the town from the outside world. Theo steals a very old, paper map of the outside from Mr. Quist's shed. It shows a railroad line leading into Cambridge, where Mori believes (with no real proof) that Dr. Varden, who is a professor emeritus at MIT, will help and protect Ilana from the Krita Corp., as Alana was her original project and responsibility.
Julia comes along, despite her dislike of Ilana, more to protect Mori than anything else. The kids think they'll make the 24-mile hike to Cambridge in 11 or so hours, but they quickly run into obstacles.
And here the book becomes more like a traditional middle grade book, in that a series of physical obstacles or events impedes the kids from reaching their goal, MIT and getting Ilana to safety, easily. But Mori and her friends learn about the "outside" world, and how it's sacrificed a lot so Krita Corp. could build New Harmonie, but it's also not quite as bad as their parents have warned them it was.
First, the train tracks run into a lake. It's the reservoir for New Harmonie, and not on Theo's map at all. They find a causeway, big enough for two people to walk abreast, and when they're hiding from surveillance drones, Mori falls off and into the water, where she encounters a statue. Initially it frightens her, but after they've had a few moments to consider everything, the kids figure out Krita Corp. must've flooded an entire town to create the reservoir.
On the other side, they encounter a town and observe the dirt roads and the kids playing in poor, ragged, clothes, in the streets, etc. They aren't spotted and keep going, following the railroad tracks again, and are chased by a pack of feral dogs. Theo gets Mori to safety, but when a dog knocks Julia down, Mori rages back in her best friend's defense and scares the dog off -- but not before it's taken a chunk out of Julia's leg.
That's when they're found by the local kids, including Tommy and Amnah, who sneak Julia and the others into town in two wagons. Once they're inside, they meet Mouse, another "natural" genius like Benji, but who has acute anxiety and finds it really hard to speak to anyone, so Amnah does most of the talking for her.
Tommy informs them the railroad tracks go way out of the way, adding miles and hours to their journey on foot, where they'll likely encounter more dogs and dangers. He proposes, instead, they "borrow" a car from his uncle's junkyard.
Even the car's not a fool-proof method to get them to Cambridge. It gets a flat tire, due to Tommy's distracted driving, and the kids spend a night in the woods, when Mori and Amnah are forced to put aside their prejudices toward each other and discover they have more in common than they thought possible.
When they finally get to Cambridge, to MIT, and find Dr. Varden...she's been waiting for them, and not in a good way.
I won't spoil the ending, but know Mori makes a choice no one expects, and later, once returned to New Harmonie, she finds a sign that perhaps, just perhaps, some part of Ilana escaped.