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BOOK REVIEW: Control by Lydia Kang

REVIEW SUMMARY: A light, fun, young adult medical thriller that serves as a good gateway book for YA fans looking for something SFnal.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After the death of their father, sisters Zelia and Dylia are separated. In this dystopian future, genetic mutations (be them natural or not) are illegal, and it’s believed Dylia has a secret genetic trait that can be exploited. Zelia needs to rescue her sister from a dangerous organization and come to terms with their father’s secrets.

PROS: Excellent scientific explanations of genetics and biology without infodumping; empowered teenaged characters; interesting world.
CONS: Many plot points felt rushed; over-the-top villains; story never quite reached that “Wow” moment.
BOTTOM LINE: A light, fast SFnal thriller with some fun hard science aspects and a satisfying (if somewhat telegraphed) twist at the end.

After the car accident that killed their father, teenage sisters Dylia and Zelia are quickly processed through social services. Hopefully they will be placed with a foster family soon, and won’t have to spend too long at the New Horizons Center. Older by four years, Zel is very protective of her thirteen year old sister, Dylia. When their father was alive, his medical practice kept him working long hours and moving around the country, so it often fell to Zelia to raise her little sister.

Although she loves her sister dearly, Zel can’t help but feel jealous of Dylia’s perfect, curvy body, her bouncy hair, and the way all the boys look at her and never give Zel a second look. It’s not unusual for people to mistake Zel for the younger sister, because she never had a growth spurt, she never “filled out”, she never hit puberty. Even worse, Zel suffers from a breathing disorder called Ondine’s Curse, where a special machine she wears helps her lungs breathe. Pre-pubescent body and half the time she can barely breathe, what guy would ever want to date her?

The story gets going quickly, with Dylia being forcibly separated from Zel at the New Horizons Center, and Zel being just as quickly adopted by Marka, a mysterious woman who claims to have know the girls’ father, and promises to explain everything as soon as she can. When they arrive at Marka’s compound, Zel finds herself with more questions than answers.

Marka’s secretive home, known as Carus House, is a safehouse for genetically manipulated children. Children who, thanks to draconian laws meant to stop crossbreeding of human genetics with plant or animal genetics, would have been killed at birth. After meeting her new brothers and sisters, Zel has never felt so normal. She meets Hex, born with four arms; Vera, whose photosynthesizing cells gives her green skin and a love for laying out in the sun; Cy, whose daily tattoos (he’s got a wicked Kafka-esque tattoo machine) heal and disappear within hours thanks to his amazing healing abilities; and Wilbert, the electronics genius who has a second brain. Marka encourages all her “children” to explore their own scientific interests and live as normal a life as possible. It feels a little like Xavier’s School for the Gifted. What’s Zel doing here? It’s no wonder the other teens will barely give her the time of day, she’s got the plainest DNA around.

But Marka isn’t the only one looking for these children. An opposing group, Aureus, is also seeking children with genetic mutations, with the goal of identifying and commercializing the mutations, known as “traits”. The kids are off the grid anyway, so Aureus doesn’t mind if their special-traited children die during the process. Did Dylia have some secretive trait? Zelia has to get her back before something terrible can happen.

As Zelia gets to know the other residents of Carus House, she also receives strange messages regarding Dylia’s whereabouts. It’s dangerous for Zel to leave the safehouse, so she’ll have to sneak out, or convince one of the other teenagers to go with her. At first, the other residents of Carus House are indifferent or downright mean to Zel. What did she ever do to them? As it turns out, everyone seems to have known Zel’s father, and people are blaming her for her father’s sins. The more Zel learns about her father, the more she realizes she never really knew him at all.

My favorite part about Control was how the science was presented. Lydia Kang is a physician, and there is a lot of real medical science in the book. There is in depth discussion about Zel’s breathing disorder (Congenital Central Hypoventilation Syndrome is a real thing) and how genetic sequencing and telomeres work. It never felt like infodumping, and everything is discussed in layman’s terms.

There is a growing romance between Zel and Cy, but I had a tough time buying into their relationship. Their relationship proves important to the plot later, but to me it never felt like more than a rushed plot device. In fact, many of the plot points felt incredibly rushed, and many elements in the story would have better survived my suspension of disbelief if given weeks, rather than days, to gestate.

It’s good and all for the teens to make their own way and solve their own problems, but I was surprised at the lack of adult intervention during traumatic times. Zel receives absolutely no grief counseling after her father’s death, and two other characters go through horrifically traumatic events and there is no evidence that they are given any kind of mental health treatment or assistance whatsoever. With all the well-researched medical science, an oversight in the mental health department was surprising.

Even thought it never quite wowed me, Control is a light, fast thriller with very well researched hard science aspects and a satisfying if slightly telegraphed twist at the end. It’s a good gateway book for teens or other fans of YA fiction who are interested in something SFnal.

About Andrea Johnson (99 Articles)
Andrea Johnson also blogs over at where she reviews science fiction and fantasy novels and talks about other nerdy stuff. She's also an interviewer at Apex Magazine. Her apartment looks like a library exploded, and that is how it should be.
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