I’ve just finished reading Neal Shusterman’s UnWholly. This is book two in a trilogy. I read the first book, Unwind, a number of years ago. I’m presenting the review I wrote for that first book on a message board back in the day — originally posted April 13, 2009. Please forgive the personal references; at that time I wrote the review for friends on the message board. Most of my opinions I still stand by, particularly the summing up: Don’t read this book unless you have time and some incredible emotional stamina. My review of UnWholly will be posted sometime in the next week after I’ve had some time to absorb it. 

by Neal Shusterman

Do not read this book.

Yesterday I did something I don’t think I’ve done since high school. I stopped everything and read the entirety of a novel in one day. I would likely have done it in one sitting, but there was this pesky Easter lunch thing with family. But before and after, all I did was read. I devoured the book, a mere 335 pages. At my reading speed, that means I spent about five hours reading when I really should have been memorizing a sermon or working on a paper or <gasp!> spending time with my family.

The book is good. It constructs a scarily realistic world of the future where abortion is no longer an issue. Where harvesting the body parts of teens is a major industry. Where medical science has all but stopped, because if you can just replace any body part, why would you ever have to cure disease or fix injury?

Spoilers on. 

There are many books that I have read that create realistic worlds within their own settings. This is not such a book. It creates a realistic setting taking today as a starting point. The attitudes and reactions of the people read real.The world is lived-in and dirty and wonderful. The characters, minus one, are very well drawn.

That minus one is one of two things in the book I was disappointed in. There are three main characters. Each is a teen marked to be unwound for different reasons. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, a parent may retroactively abort a child by having them unwound. They are taken, escorted by guards, to a harvesting facility, where their body parts are taken to be used for others. The teen never technically dies, and is in fact conscious for the entirety of the procedure.

One teen, Connor, is just too much trouble for his parents. A second, Risa, is a victim of a budget cut at a State Home. The third, Lev, (short for Levi) is a tithe, the tenth child of a family that takes seriously that a tenth of theirs goes back to God.

All three take very difficult journeys. All three change quite a bit in the book. Connor’s and Risa’s journeys seem to make sense to me. They feel real. Lev’s… well, his change is more drastic. His character growth is off the chart, and it didn’t sit quite right with me. It felt more like Anakin from Episode II: he had to turn evil, so he turned evil. There’s more to it with Lev, and his story is not cut and dry, but it left me disappointed.

The second aspect that left me disappointed was the clappers. This is a mysterious terrorist group that destroys things by clapping. The idea is introduced perfectly. Shusterman knows how to set things up early in the book to deliver payoff later on. Yet, when more was revealed about the group, it felt like they were prerequisite bad guys that merely fulfilled the role, and not the well-drawn characters that nearly every other person in the book was. Bad move on the author’s part, in my opinion. Sure, they might be different than all the other characters, but they felt like cardboard cut-out villains once they came out of the shadows.

Their method of destruction was incredibly creative and strained the realism of the rest of the novel. In any other setting, I would applaud (heh) the idea of it, but here it once again seemed that they needed a way to destroy buildings without having any kind of equipment on them, and so this device was created.

Those two complaints aside, the novel kicks ass. There’s a reason I was drawn in. Kit, you mentioned you were reading the book, I believe. If you didn’t finish or I misheard you, you’d love this book. Lots of great turns of phrase, lots of great characters. Sonia is one of my favorites, saying things like, “You are a caps-lock IDIOT!” She’s a little old lady, though, and I tend to enjoy those in stories.

The plot twists keep coming and there is never a solid status-quo in the book for longer than fifty pages. At one point there is a murder mystery, and the obvious culprit was obviously a red herring to me. However, I fingered the wrong person and learned of my folly exactly when the author intended. Well done, sir.

There is one scene, though. One scene in particular that blew my mind away and haunted me much of last night, and even now I’m trying to keep it walled off. And that is the reason you may want to avoid this book.

One particular teen marked for unwinding receives it. And is conscious for it. And there is one chapter dedicated to what he experiences as he is unwound.

It’s not gory. You don’t have to worry about blood splatter. Rather, the psychological playing out of what is in his mind is intense. Somehow, I suspect that Shusterman built the entire novel around that scene. I won’t ruin it for you here, but I will say: if you read the novel and you’re the type of person haunted by strong images, you may want to skip that chapter. You’ll know exactly which one I’m talking about by the chapter title and the events of the previous chapter.

Anyway, strong novel. Sucks you in. Doesn’t let you go.

Don’t read this novel unless you have some time or willpower.

Of which I have neither, apparently. Alas.


3 thoughts on “Unwind

    1. Mike — I will warn you, it is intense. If you’re sensitive to kids getting hurt, DO NOT read it. On the other hand, the world it portrays in incredibly real. As I’ve continued reading the series now — I just devoured the entirety of a novella set in the world today — it’s… well, frightening.

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