A gripping near-future dystopian page-turner set that’ll have you rooting for the characters as they battle against the tyrannical powers that rule their world.
I was supposed to be reading Don Quixote. I am reading Don Quixote. But when The Stranded popped up on my debut-novel radar, I read the blurb and was intrigued enough to give Cervantes the (temporary) cold shoulder. I fancied a little page-turning action that didn’t involve knights, errant or otherwise. (I reasoned that Cervantes has been around long enough – and had enough readers given Don Quixote has sold pretty well over the years – to avoid feelings of jealousy.)
It was something of a surprise to me that a “young adult” novel would hold such allure. I haven’t knowingly read many novels that fall into that category, and certainly not since becoming an “actual adult” – my “young” days are long gone. But I loved the premise of the debut by Sarah Daniels: a near-future dystopia in which a once-luxury cruise liner is stranded in the Atlantic Ocean having been refused permission to dock … for forty years.
So, did the novel live up to the initial intrigue I felt? Actually, it surpassed it. As I’ll explain shortly (and don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers). First, to whet your appetite, let’s take a look at the cover and the blurb.
Welcome to the Arcadia.
Once a luxurious cruise ship, now it is home to the stranded. For forty years, they have lived, and died, on the water.
A place of extreme haves and have-nots, gangs and make-shift shelters, its people are tyrannized by a country they can see but can’t get to. A country that says it doesn’t want them.
Esther is a loyal citizen, working flat-out for a rare chance to live a life on land. Nik is a rebel, intent on liberating the Arcadia once and for all. Together, they will change the future . . .
The Stranded – Review
As you have probably already worked out, I rather enjoyed The Stranded. It is perfect for younger readers (probably from around 12 years upwards) as it is thought-provoking and eye-opening but also gripping, whilst there is more than enough complexity to make it captivating to an older audience too. The most important thing, however, is that the characters – and the choices they make – are believable and I found myself really a caring about what happened to them.
What is The Stranded about?
In an all-too-believable future, civilisation has been brought to the brink by a deadly virus. (So far, so real-world 2020!) But the virus plays something of a peripheral role in the narrative of The Stranded and this fine novel centres on the struggle for survival of the majority of the inhabitants of the Arcadia, a now-dilapidated cruise liner that has been anchored off the coast of what was the United States. It is a struggle for survival that is made evermore arduous by the tyrannical abuse of power by the few who attempt to keep control in the name of the Federated States, the merciless Commander Hadley in particular.
The majority of the novel is set on the Arcadia, which has 14 residential decks, a market and even an arboretum (“where we come to forget we live on the ship”). There are also various corridors and lower decks occupied by the “Neaths”, those who live below deck. Some of the Neaths also live in and around the flotilla, which spills out onto the water alongside the ship, as the majority of residents of the ship face the day-to-day difficulties of their isolation and suppression.
As the pressure to conform grows and freedoms are increasingly curtailed, rebellion begins to brew and then bubble over on board. But will it be crushed by the brutal Federated States forces, as has happened on other vessels? Or the rebels (new and old) find a way to rid the Arcadia of the tyrants who would rather see the inhabitants drown than let them set foot on land?
The story is told from the points of view of three characters:
- Esther – A medical student on the ship who toes the line and chases the grades she needs to give her a future away from the Arcadia. Intelligent, loyal and able to see the good in people, Esther develops in ways that are surprising and impressive as the narrative develops (and Esther’s life gets more complicated and darker).
- Nik – Part of the rebellion on the ship that is attempting to disrupt things for the Federated States and their enforcers (the Coalies). Nik is in love with Esther’s sister, May. A practical and sometimes impatient character, Nik wants to get things done and he doesn’t mind breaking rules or upsetting the wrong people if it will help his cause.
- Hadley – The insidious commander of the Special Task Force on the Arcadia who uses his army of Coalies and network of drones to keep tabs on and control the inhabitants of the vessel. With a sadistic penchant for enhanced interrogation techniques and a chip on his shoulder bigger than the iceberg that sunk the Titanic, Hadley is a bad guy you will love to hate.
There are several other notable characters, not least Esther’s older sister, May. She is following a similar course to Esther in that she is attempting to follow the rules (or at least she’s appearing to!) to earn ticket off the ship and a life on land. Instead of being a medical student, however, May is a cadet and is therefore lined up to fight for the Federated States once she graduates, defending their southern border. But perhaps she has other ideas …
In addition to the three key storytellers, there are lots of other characters that play their parts in the narrative but these are some of the most pivotal.
- Alex – Esther’s best friend and potential love interest who will do anything for her (whether she wants him to or not).
- Corp – The medical tutor in charge of Esther, Alex and the other students, Corp (“we know agonizingly little about the woman who has taught us for the past five year. No name. No details of her life.”) pushes them to achieve the best grades they can and doesn’t tolerate slacking.
- Grimson – Hadley’s long-suffering deputy who give hints of having a semblance of a conscience, certainly more so than her boss.
- The Coalies – Essentially the police force on the ship, but with a propensity towards violence, they regularly harass the ship’s inhabitants and generally do the bidding of Commander Hadley.
- The Neaths – Those who live in the various corridors, flotillas and rooms below deck. A mixture of gang members, smugglers, petty criminals and those simply trying to survive, the Neaths appear to represent the downtrodden and displaced. They are a mixture of pickpockets, muggers, gang members and those who generally have little power or opportunity on board. They are seen as a nuisance and expendable by Hadley and the Coalies, who harass them whenever their paths cross, arresting them for the slightest infringement or even if they don’t like the way they look.
- The Captain – A calm, steady presence on the ship. Hadley resents him and suspects him of … something. But even he begrudgingly accepts that the captain keeps the ship in good shape.
- Enid – A gang leader with a dark sense of humour who’s in charge of the flotilla, an area of floating debris, wood, old lifeboats and general rubbish.
- Silas – Another one of the main gang leaders who controls things below deck. Someone not to be crossed … something one of the main characters discovers.
- The Admirals – Those pulling the strings for the Federated States from the mainland. They control the fate of the Arcadia, its inhabitants and the ever-resentful Hadley.
What’s the verdict?
Cutting to the chase, The Stranded was a brilliant read. It is gripping but also regularly surprising with a couple of rather hefty shocks along the way (as I said, no spoilers!). Despite it being ostensibly aimed at young adults, there is plenty in here for older readers to enjoy, to be moved by and even to be quite disturbed by (the scene with the worm was particularly gruesome). The characters are well-rounded and engaging and have been developed with believable personality traits based on their backstories, which are woven into the narrative without ever appearing clunky or forced. Even the secondary characters have enough about them to make you feel something about them rather than simply noting their existence in passing.
The setting of the cruise ship can feel quite claustrophobic at times, which adds to the tension in certain scenes, and the regular reminder that there is no escape for the majority of people is literally and symbolically powerful. The tension is also ramped up by the believability of the whole premise of the novel – a near-future in which tyrants play games with the lives of the innocent to suit their own agendas. At times it brought to mind the BBC drama Vigil (that is set on a submarine) with a similar atmosphere of isolation being created by the author.
There are hints of The Handmaid’s Tale in some scenes in terms of the powerlessness of the inhabitants of the ship and the unbending sadism of those who wield the power. There were also sections that reminded me of Total Recall (the original 1990 film directed by Paul Verhoeven, starring the inimitable Arnold Schwarzenegger). Indeed, there are many cinematic elements to this novel that suggest it would work well on the big screen (or on the little screen for that matter as an extended drama series).
Set in the year 2094, there are various technologies that are woven into the story (most obviously the “comgloves” that everyone wears and through which they communicate). The drones also play their part and there are one or two other gadgets that pop up. But unlike some novels set in future, Daniels finds a good balance in how much time in spent explain what various technologies do or how they work and letting the story flow. We never get bogged down in the minutiae of the science behind the technologies in question, which might come as a disappoint to some, but this reads more of an adventure thriller than a science fiction novel and the story takes precedence.
It is easy to empathise with the main characters as they battle against overwhelming odds to achieve something they’ve never experienced: freedom and justice. And as well as being a fantastically good read, The Stranded will no doubt resonate with many people who are facing such battles today … or fear they will be in the not-too-distant future. Without wanting to give the game away – or rather games, as there are various interwoven strands to the narrative – the action builds steadily in the first half of the novel and then ramps up significantly in the second half to the point at which it became difficult to put the book down.
The crescendo of the novel is brilliantly paced to keep you hooked and keep you guessing. Several twists and betrayals caught me off guard as the story reached its climax and even as the end approached it was impossible to be sure of who might survive and who might perish.
Sarah Daniels is a former archaeologist and when reading this novel I certainly got the impression she took plenty of care and attention when excavating this fine story and we look forward to seeing what she writes next.
In summary, The Stranded is a brilliantly entertaining book that is packed full of tension, twists and page-turning action. It almost seems like an anti-climax to go back to Don Quixote after all that!
If you’d like to purchase a copy of The Stranded, it is available from all the usual booksellers but here’s a link to get it from Waterstones (who will give us a modest kickback if you go through that link).
Fancy winning a signed copy of The Stranded?
(Competition is now closed)
How to be in with a chance of winning:
- Closing date: 23.59 (UK time) on 30th September 2022
- We’ll pick the winner at random
- Open to UK residents only (sorry international friends!)
Signed Copy Of ‘The Stranded’ Giveaway Terms and Conditions
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