What if our future lies 40,000 years in our past? Subject Twenty-One is an astonishing debut novel in which a young woman’s refusal to accept the status quo opens her eyes to the lies her society is built on. Elise’s world is forever changed when she is given the opportunity of a lifetime – to work at the Museum of Evolution and be a Companion to the Neanderthal, Subject Twenty-One, a member of a previously extinct species of human restored to life. As a Sapien, a member of the lowest order of humans, and held responsible for the damages inflicted on the world by previous generations, this job is Elise’s chance to escape a stagnating life in an ostracised and impoverished community. But it doesn’t take long for Elise to realise that away from the familiarity and safety of her home, her secrets are much harder to conceal. Every day presents a new possibility for being exposed. And the longer she stays the more she comes to realise that little separates her from the exhibits . . . and a cage of her own.
My thoughts: this was a really interesting and thought provoking read. A little alarming when you think of the human zoos of the late 19th century and early 20th, where people were taken from their homes and put on display for white European audiences to marvel over the “savages”.
This book has Neanderthals being treated the same way – as displays in a rather sinister museum, alongside animals, rather than being treated like the cousins of humans, like people. Sapiens (us) have been supplanted as the dominant species but cruelty is bred in the bone and even the supposedly more evolved Medius and Potier aren’t immune. Punishing the ancestors of the humans who damaged the planet is petty and largely pointless – the sins of the father and all that.
Elise might be a sapien but she’s faster and smart too, her innate skills come in useful as she bonds with Kit, aka subject twenty-one, a Neanderthal. She sees him as more than a curiosity and wants to help him, to teach him things and let him develop, whereas the museum authorities want to preserve him – like a relic.
The book throws up lots of questions and explores the idea of what it is to be human, and whether we can live alongside each other without feeling the need to be “better” than anyone else. I’m keen to see where this series goes as Elise and her friends search for a new way to live.
*I was kindly gifted a copy of this book in exchange for taking part in the blog tour but all opinions remain my own.