As someone who grew up reading crime novels and obsessing over the Hannibal Lecter series (a hobby that has transcended into my adult life thanks to the TV show), I’m surprisingly comfortable with on-page depictions of violence, more so than I am with it on screen. The kind of darkness young adult novels tend to go for isn’t one so focused on this kind of violence. There are exceptions, such as Barry Lyga’s “I Hunt Killers”, and Lindsay Cummings’s debut hopes to make a similar splash with a high concept story and comparisons to Joe Wright’s teen killer movie “Hanna”.
The central concept is where the issues start. The world of “The Murder Complex” is one where all natural illnesses have been cured thanks to a series of nannites created to counteract a plague. This has had the unfortunate side effect of leaving human beings invulnerable to all illnesses, diseases and the like, meaning the only way one can die is through so-called “unnatural” means, mainly murder. While it isn’t unforeseeable that society would react to this news with a growing epidemic of violence, it is somewhat far-fetched that it would be the only reaction. The role of government is barely touched upon other than the stock dystopian unseen bad guys and the constant anti-science angle became exhausting. It may be a concept as old as science-fiction itself (the moral of “Frankenstein”, after all, is “don’t play God”) but it’s a lazy trope to create instant tension and an antagonist that can easily be blamed. It’s all science’s fault! Even though we as a current society gloss over violence and its consequences as well as the true horrors of war and therefore such attitudes are engrained in our psyche, it’s still all science’s fault.
As the novel progresses, the biggest comparison my mind kept making was that of “Reboot” by Amy Tintera, a YA novel that came with a lot of hype, many comparisons to “Divergent” and a similarly cavalier attitude towards violence (Cummings, to her credit, deals with this somewhat better than Tintera, but it takes longer than one is strictly comfortable with). Both novels also have a similar attitude towards the central romance, and both examples drag the story down significantly. With Meadow and Zephyr, the love they develop comes out of nowhere. He dreams of her but it later turns out he’s programmed to kill her. That is literally the extent of the development of their relationship. While the romance doesn’t derail the plot entirely, its very inclusion is questionable at best. Toss in a few glaring elements that echo “Divergent” so loud that you’d think this was a tribute novel and the central concept becomes less original and interesting with each passing page.
Side note but can we please stop using tattoos as a marker for how edgy and dangerous someone is? Tattoos are no longer counter-cultural, they’re part of the mainstream. My mum has 11 tattoos!
The novel itself makes for a fast paced read, although the interchanging narratives of Meadow and Zephyr are nigh on indistinguishable, and the prose is serviceable for what it hopes to accomplish. However, the violence has to be talked about again. “The Murder Complex” is a novel trying so hard to be dark and edgy and dangerous yet ultimately it feels relatively safe. The novelty of having a novel saturated with violence wears off quickly and one is left with a bad aftertaste as the consequences of said violence are barely touched upon until the final 20%.
It is in this final fifth of the novel that the true potential hinted at in the synopsis shines through, but it’s just not enough. Too many questions are left unanswered. Why would the government immediately turn to murder as a means of population control over something like euthanasia? How does one keep the barest semblance of order in such a society when everyone is as psychotically violent as those in charge? What about new births? How are they controlled, if they even are? Such unanswered questions become distracting to the reader.
The biggest question I was left with was why on earth did the author decide that using very graphic violence for a cheap shock tactic was okay but swearing was not? The characters say “flux” instead of “fuck” and “shit” is swapped for “skitz”. As well as being laughably juvenile, it presents a staggering hypocrisy that reminded me of the South Park movie: horrible violence is okay as long as you don’t use naughty language. I was seriously offended by this ridiculous double standard.
While “The Murder Complex” hints at Cummings’s potential as an action writer, there are too many questions left hanging, too many plot holes gaping wide open and a whole barrel-load of problematic content that tries to be shocking but ends up being distasteful. While the so-called originality of this concept may be amplified continually until release day, the story is ultimately too familiar to keep one’s attention held for long.