Burrowed - Book Review
by Mary Baader Kaley
Jan 10, 2023
I received this book from the wonderful people at Angry Robot in exchange for a fair review!
An intelligent, science-based novel featuring a woman in STEM, Burrowed is also a fast-paced and fun book that you just want to burrow under the covers with.
If you had to endure a debilitating condition of body or mind, which would you choose? In this world, everyone suffers.
In the far-future aftermath of a genetic plague that separated human society into two different groups – sickly yet super-intelligent Subterraneans and healthy but weak-minded Omniterraneans – a brilliant Subter girl is tasked with fixing the broken genetic code to reunite the two groups in the next generation.
But when a newer plague turns fatal for the surface-dwelling Omnits, the only group able to reproduce (giving birth to both Subter and Omnit children), Zuzan must find a cure or humanity won’t simply remain divided, it will become extinct.
But there's more conflict at hand than a broken genetic code. The fragile connection between Subters and Omnits has frayed to the point of breaking – to the point of war – and it will take more than genius to repair; it will take heart.
While a fun and engaging novel, Burrowed's world-build is not fleshed out enough for me. While I love the concept - where society has broken into underground and above-ground populations - I had many questions about the logistics and infrastructure. The thing is, this book felt very YA to me, so if this was a YA book then I can overlook this stuff - because often YA books are character-focused with the setting being a backdrop. But if this book is meant for general adult trade, the worldbuilding is lacking complexity (at least to me).
That being said, nothing about the story really needs complexity to move forward. The plot itself is very fun and it was great to follow along with Zuzan as she discovered what life was like in different parts of her underground world and as she learns more about herself. The novel has a great momentum that drives it forward, as well as quick turns. One of the best things about the novel is that it’s also a medical thriller. A massive chunk of the latter half of the novel deals with the characters attempting to find a cure for a disease (that’s putting it very simply but I don’t want to give anything away), and that aspect was really interesting to me. I don’t have the science background to tell you if the procedures and practices make any sense or if they were resolved too quickly or slowly, but the fact that this was the crux of the novel, rather than the protagonist fighting someone, was a nice change. There is a lot of medical and science lingo in the dialogue, but it’s still easy to read and is not dry. The characters were fine. Zuzan was a bit of a Mary Sue, but not in a bad way if this is YA. I think YA requires its characters to have overwhelmingly positive qualities because YA stories are insertion stories. When we read as children, we tend to need to heavily identify with a character, as we aren’t reading consciously - we’re reading mainly for story (we don’t actively notice the prose, the themes, the structure). When we’re adults, we can enjoy stories about characters we don’t like or are villains, because we understand the story isn’t meant to be interpellated. YA, though, still retains that “heavy identification” factor, as many younger teenagers are still reading novels mainly at face value. So, if this is YA, Zuzan is a typical YA heroine - brilliant, discovers her beauty as the story progresses, has multiple dudes fawning over her, it turns out her faults are actually strengths, has a special power/gift (in this case, eidetic memory), and is tough - because we want teenagers to experience those things vicariously as it gives them confidence. Is this a flaw of the novel? No, if it's YA. But, like the world-building, if this is a novel for adults, then Zuzan is a bit flat. She’s inexplicably competent at everything she does. Her struggles are mainly external against the forces that see her low life expectancy and disability as a problem. This a relatable and important issue, but it also leaves her feeling very surface level.
One thing I didn’t like about the novel at all was the love story. On top of not understanding what they saw in one another, as they never talk about anything other than work, there’s a major power-dynamic issue that I found a bit icky, especially given Zuzan’s young age. An age gap if there was one (I'm not entirely sure how old buddy was), is not the problem, but the fact that he’s her boss is not healthy. There’s also a part where the man, to get the young woman to do what he wants, literally picks her up and carries her. That’s kidnapping. Yes, I understand the context isn’t nefarious, but that scene felt like it fell out of the 1950s and rubbed me the wrong way. The relationship also fell flat to me - there was no real tension between them. To get back to stuff I really liked though, the book is very easy to read and follow. Most of the scenes (not romance scenes) have wonderful tension and I was never sure where the story was going next. The story definitely isn’t formulaic and it was wholly engaging. I loved the gender parity and the whole slew of women in STEM in the book. The focus on female friendships was excellent, as well as the messages around accommodation for disability and on childrearing that focuses on openness and learning rather than rules and controlling behaviour. This book has so many great things going for it; there were just a few things that made it less than a 5-star for me. And that’s fine - I think a lot of people will really love it and I’m still so happy to have received an ARC.
I do recommend it, though perhaps more to the YA crowd.