YA Cli-Fi Done Right: Joan He – The Ones We’re Meant to Find

I was always going to read Joan He’s enxt book after the amazing Descendant of the Crane, even though this is a total departure from that book in content. I’m glad it has such a stunning cover because I believe that made lots of other people aware of this book as well and the more people get to enjoy this fantastic book, the better for everyone. Can you tell that I’m about to be all fangirly and gushy? Because I am.

ones were meant to findTHE ONES WE’RE MEANT TO FIND
by Joan He

Published: Roaring Brook Press, 2021
eBook: 384 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: I wake on my feet, wind tangled in my hair.

One of the most twisty, surprising, engaging page-turner YAs you’ll read this year—We Were Liars meets Black Mirror, with a dash of Studio Ghibli.

Cee has been trapped on an abandoned island for three years without any recollection of how she arrived, or memories from her life prior. All she knows is that somewhere out there, beyond the horizon, she has a sister named Kay, and it’s up to Cee to cross the ocean and find her.

In a world apart, 16-year-old STEM prodigy Kasey Mizuhara lives in an eco-city built for people who protected the planet―and now need protecting from it. With natural disasters on the rise due to climate change, eco-cities provide clean air, water, and shelter. Their residents, in exchange, must spend at least a third of their time in stasis pods, conducting business virtually whenever possible to reduce their environmental footprint. While Kasey, an introvert and loner, doesn’t mind the lifestyle, her sister Celia hated it. Popular and lovable, Celia much preferred the outside world. But no one could have predicted that Celia would take a boat out to sea, never to return.

Now it’s been three months since Celia’s disappearance, and Kasey has given up hope. Logic says that her sister must be dead. But nevertheless, she decides to retrace Celia’s last steps. Where they’ll lead her, she does not know. Her sister was full of secrets. But Kasey has a secret of her own.

I’m going to nominate this book for a Lodestar (the YA not-a -Hugo-Award) next year because it not only tells a great science-fictional story but also shows what YA literature can be. That it is so much more than love triangles, dystopian societies with random factions or tales of political rebellions led by teenagers. Not that I don’t like that kind of story, I do. But there is a lot more to explore than the same old themes that keep coming back. Joan He is an author who dares go there, who puts her characters through terrible ordeals that don’t necessarily have to do with physical obstacles, but rather with ethical or moral decisions. The Ones We’re Meant to Find was everything I had hoped for and so much more. Let me warn you, though: When you pick this up, expect to stay up late for the “just one more chapter” routine. Probably until you’ve finished the book.

We first meet Cee stranded on an island with no idea how she got there or even who she really is. She does know some things, however. She has a sister named Kay and she desperately needs to get back to her, so Cee’s island life consists of collecting scraps for building a boat to take her out to sea. Her dreams (or are they memories? Visions?) show her a city in the sky, her beloved sister, and a world in color, as opposed to her greyscale island existence. But occasionally, very very occasionally, flashes of memory come back to Cee and she’s hoping to unravel the secrets of her past and find the way back to her sister.

Kasey does indeed live in a city in the sky but life hasn’t been the same since her sister Celia disappeared several months ago. Kasey isn’t exactly what you’d call an emotional person and that very fact makes her feel guilty, different from the others. She loves her sister, so why doesn’t she cry when it’s a near certainty that Celia is dead? Why didn’t she cry when their mother died years ago, for that matter? Kasey’s only really passionate about science and while she knows the odds are ridiculous, she keeps looking for her sister, for any sign of life, or at least for closure. In the process, she discovers some secrets of her own. Things Celia kept hidden, people she knew, and memories she lived.

This is one of those twisty books that’s super difficult to talk about without spoiling, so I shall tread carefully. I loved many, many things about it, starting with the most obvious: the mystery of Celia’s disappearance, life on the island, and what exactly happened in the girls’ past. In addition to a missing sister, Kasey has another secret, one that “took science away from her” and it’s a good while before that bit is revealed. But there are enough intriguing questions right from the start to glue anyone to the pages and make them ignore reasonable bed times. There are hints everywhere but Joan He did a fine job holding just enough back to keep her readers guessing.

Unravelling slowly, the world building was one of the coolest I’ve ever read. I’m not a big cli-fi reader (yet) but I found the ideas presented here very interesting. People – well, some people – have retreated to floating cities in the sky where they are not only somewhat protected from the Earth’s terrifying climate (tsunamis galore, earthquakes, poisonous air and water, you name it) but where they are also taking measures to not make things worse. That involves spending a considerable amount of time in virtual spaces, lying in a tank. There are many more details to discover, like who gets to live in a floating city in the first place, how people are ranked (because of course they are) and what the implications of such a system are. Technology is much advanced from our standpoint and society functions differently, all of which are aspects that you discover kind of on the side while following an exciting story. There’s also the problem of much of humanity still living outside such cities and the climate getting worse and worse…

illustration by Eduardo Vargas

Although this book is gripping from the very first page, there are clear kick-off points for both Cee and Kasey’s stories and they each involve the appearance of a boy. Now don’t go thinking you’ll get half a sci-fi book and half a romance. That’s not how Joan He rolls and if you’ve read Descendant of the Crane you’ll know. But whether there are romantic feelings involved or not, meeting someone and maybe kind of befriending them opens entire new worlds to them. For Kasey, it’s a boy named Actinium (or so he says, his personal data is clearly hacked and fake) who can help her find out more about Celia’s past and why she went missing in the first place. He also appears to be just as driven by logic and perceived as cold as Kasey herself is.
Meanwhile, Cee’s lonely existence (well, except for the little robot) is interrupted by a nameless boy who has even less of a clue how he got to the island than her. On the one hand, that makes them kindred spirits, on the other… let’s just say it’s not entirely clear what his deal is.

Very similarly to her debut novel, I loved, loved, loved the characters and the immensely tough decisions they have to make and the way they grow over the course of the story. Joan He effortlessly shows us who her characters are and makes us feel for them, even when they do stupid things or make decisions we wouldn’t agree with. It’s like a masterclass in writing three-dimensional multi-layered characters without ever telling us outright what kind of people they are. After reading this book, I feel like I know them and could tell you how they’d act in a given situation. And although I definitely don’t agree with them on certain things, I wanted them to achieve their hopes and dreams. I wanted the sisters to find each other, I wanted them both happy, I wanted them to magically find a way to save the world. But things aren’t that simple, even on a fictional Earth, and the shocking revelations keep on coming.

The ending was as perfect as it could have been for a story like this. I suppose I’d call it dramatic and emotional and that will get across what it’s like without giving you any hint as to whether things end well or badly or something in between. The Ones We’re Meant to Find cements my opinion of Joan He, namely that she is an author to follow closely, especially if you like YA but would like it to go in new and fresh directions. This book will be haunting me for a while yet. In a good way.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

5 thoughts on “YA Cli-Fi Done Right: Joan He – The Ones We’re Meant to Find

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