In the distant dystopian irradiated future of Cradle and Grave, Dar Lien is a professional scout for scavenger runs into the Scab, a ruined urban-zone badly infected by heavily mutagenic phenomena called the Change. When Yusuf and the mysterious Servertu employ her for an unorthodox run into the Scab, she finds herself embroiled in a conflict she didn’t expect.
Title: Cradle and Grave | Author: Anya Ow | Publisher: Neon Hemlock Press | Pub Date: 5/4/2020 | Pages: 115 | ISBN13: 9781952086021 | Genre: Dystopian Science Fiction Horror | Language: English | Source: Review Copy Provided by Publisher | Starred Review
Cradle and Grave Review
Dar Lien runs a shop in Basa’at, but occasionally makes supply runs through the Scab, into the city. When prefab halfer Yusuf offers her more taels than she can refuse to take Yusuf and another customer to the City, she is tempted. She’d have to do the run alone, and that’s a risk. But Lien did make it out of the City once on her own, and that is why they’ve come to her. She can do this. The question is, will she?
Anya Ow throws readers in the deep end. She doesn’t take time to explain much about the world she’s built. There are no info dumps or significant chunks of backstory inserted so that we’ll understand—or even like—the characters. Readers have to figure the plot and character motives out as they go, as well as the lingo and dynamics at play in this bleak world.
Cradle and Grave is set in a future Earth, but it is unrecognizable. Eventually, the pieces come together to create some understanding of what happened in the past, but that isn’t even the primary focus. The question is, can the damage be undone? Is there hope for the planet? For humanity?
If there is hope for the future, Dar Lien must first lead her customers through the Scab safely. Will she?
From the outset, Ow makes Lien’s motives clear. The money can enable Lien to get surgery to correct her changes and save her life. Lien is a pragmatist. She is aware of her situation. For her, business starts off with a calculation. Is the payoff worth the risk? It is.
Ow does a great job of building the mystery around Servertu, Lien’s second customer, who appeared UnChanged. Information about Servertu and why he wants to go to the City is sprinkled out here and there. It adds to the reader’s understanding, but it also adds to Lien’s interest in her mission. Servertu presents her with a picture of her at the place of her ‘death’ at the age of two, and she is intrigued. How could he possibly have this? And what does he know about the Change? Does he know how to reverse it?
The worldbuilding is strong in Cradle and Grave. Ow presents readers with numerous threats, including the ghulkin, psychons and crows with razor-sharp beaks that are as long as Lien’s arm and can cut through metal.
The only way to avoid the creatures that threaten them in the Scab is to travel near the Rinse, which has its own risks. The Change runs hot near the Rinse, and poses a constant threat.
As though the Change and the creatures in the Scab aren’t enough to contend with, Ow raises the stakes with a new Change. What was once baseline for the Scab isn’t anymore, and Lien’s concern mounts as their journey continues. Then she learns there is another crew heading for the City, and this group could jeopardize her customers’ mission. She has to choose between risks, but what if the greatest threats come from those she thinks she can trust?
Cradle and Grave is a compelling cat-and-mouse story with characters struggling to assess motives and think on their feet as they are faced with unknown risks. In this respect, it can feel like the journey moves slowly at times, but that is actually a strength. Ow doesn’t feel the need to rush the narrative to action, but builds the atmosphere for each turning point that shapes Lien’s choices and her growth. Ow delivers some masterful sleight of hand in written form. What you think might be important isn’t always. Characters don’t always process what’s significant because they are also focused on the wrong things.
I did wrestle with how to rank this novella because of the use of world immersion from the start. Some readers may be deterred from reading the book because Ow doesn’t take the time to hold their hand or give extensive explanations. Deep into the book it was possible to still theorize that this could be about people on a different planet or an entirely different world because, until Chernobyl is mentioned, nothing was clearly recognizable. That speaks to the strength of the world Ow created. It might lose half a star only because I recognize that many readers might be confused or frustrated. Personally, I was intrigued. This is a book where you must pay attention and build this world in your mind layer by layer as new information is presented.
It’s a story that seemed straightforward on the surface, but it continued to surprise and delivered a conclusion that felt both earned and unexpected. I am sad to leave the world of Cradle and Grave, but I guarantee this will not be the last work that I read by Anya Ow.
You can find this book at many retailers via clicking on the appropriate link on Goodreads. (Buying direct from retailers is a good way to support indie authors); however, in the spirit of supporting literacy programs, we would like to point out that you may be able to purchase this book through BetterWorldBooks.