What happened to threats in a threat-weary world?
Aspiring teenaged filmmaker Sara Paige Christie questions this and much more in Mark Falkin’s gripping look at a privatized dystopia, Contract City. In the year 2021, Tulsa, Oklahoma is run by private security firm Free Force Tulsa in the shadow of a conspicuously powerful uberchurch, Chosen Hill. But under the glossy face, disease and corruption fester, as evidenced by the mysterious graffiti tags, WH2RR? that manifest from nowhere, only to vanish at the hands of the private police. With an eye to film school, Sara sets up out to make a documentary about the graffiti, but finds herself blurring the lines between subject and filmmaker, risking everything to uncover the truth.
Falkin’s approach to the young female protagonist in dystopia is refreshing because Sara is not a superhero in awkward girl clothing (sorry Katniss and Tris). One of the most successful elements of the novel is how normal Sara is within the given context. Her speech patterns realistically shift depending on her company; Sara’s struggle to find her voice as a filmmaker and a young woman arches throughout, a satisfying way to drive the plot. And she is blessedly not one of those girls too wise for her years. That being said, her intelligence is evident even as her emotions sometimes cloud her ability to discern truth from fact. She is not immune to normal teenage misbehavior and rebellions which perhaps might not make her the tween heroine poster girl in the manner that has become so popular. What it does do is give the novel depth and complexity that facilitates the success of the other components, including characters both major and minor. Sara’s ex-police officer in particular elevates the tension whenever he appears on the page.
The Tulsa setting, fitting considering the premise, comes alive under Sara’s narration. Given that Oklahoma is one of the most red, conservative states in modern society, the choice to use it as a background to the privatized future makes Contract City an engagingly realistic slice of speculative fiction. Falkin’s style is clever, blending the lines between genre and literary without ever sacrificing the fundamental punch of good storytelling. For the reader it is an enjoyable balance that few books accomplish.
If the novel stumbles, it is in the pacing of the ending. Any mystery walks a fine line as it unravels to propel the story forward without losing steam. Contract City feels a bit too rushed, particularly in the last chapter when Sara fully embraces her role in the revolution she is witnessing. Another chapter before the satisfying epilogue would certainly be welcome, if only to stay with Sara in her world just a little longer. Saying goodbye to her as the book shuts is difficult.