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When We Wake by Karen Healey

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My name is Tegan Oglietti, and on the last day of my first lifetime, I was so, so happy.

Sixteen-year-old Tegan is just like every other girl living in 2027 – she’s happiest when playing the guitar, she’s falling in love for the first time, and she’s joining her friends to protest the wrongs of the world: environmental collapse, social discrimination, and political injustice.

Until the day she dies and wakes up one hundred years in the future, locked in a government facility with no idea what happened.
~~~~~
Liz Bourke raved, last year, about When We Wake for Tor.com; it’s a fantastic review as usual, so go and read it. But since you’re here, you presumably want to know my take on this fantastic piece of young adult near- and median-future science fiction…

That Healey shows both of these periods in the novel is impressive. That she does her near-future worldbuilding in only a few short chapters before simply letting it vanish except by comparison to her century-hence median-future is fantastic; for something that plays so minor a role explicitly in the story, When We Wake presents an incredibly vivid image of Australia of 2027, albeit in some ways a pessimistic one (no equal marriage?) and in others highly optimistic (sadly, camps to huddle refugees into aren’t as alian an idea to a child of the 21st century as one might hope). Her median-future world is fascinating; both the social and technological changes Healey predicts, or plays with, are ones that have their obvious antecedents in the modern world, and which look like logical descendents of modernity. When We Wakes shies away from neither the bad (climate change, an increasing xenophobia and closed-offness in the West) nor the good (increasingly socially liberal societies) of the future; the one place they fall down is that assuming the centres of power won’t change seems rather flawed – familiarising, perhaps, but all the same strange.

The plot of When We Wake is similarly impressive; focused less on Tegan, our narrator-protagonist, than the events which go on around her, it nonetheless gives Teeg an inner life of her own, and one which interacts with those external events. Teeg is not simply, as the blurb might imply, the average teen bounced from pillar to post, but someone who takes agency and makes decisions; hence her resurrection leading not to imprisonment but, despite the implication of the blurb, to very quick integration into society. It’s here that the plot really takes off, although Healey spends much of the book setting up the sequel(s); the grand reveals and important twists, some of which I was completely blindsided by and others which seemed rather obvious, make When We Wake a racy, enjoyable read.

What really drives that, though, is Healey’s amazing command of voice. From Teeg herself, the narrator, protagonist, and girl out of time, to Bethari, the matter-of-factly sexually active bisexual headscarf-wearing Muslim; from Joph, the drug-brewing pixie trans* girl who is in fact hiding secrets under her absentminded exterior to Dr Marie, the woman who resurrected and cares for Teeg at the expense of herself; When We Wake has a cast that is not only believable but that is interesting, varied, diverse. The full range of humanity exists between the covers of this novel, and that’s a beautiful sight to see. It’s especially so with such a strong command of voice combined with style; When We Wake is first-person and uses that to its great advantage; asides to the reader from Teeg do interesting things with the third world, bringing one into the story, commenting on one’s reactions, and more. It’s a device that is rarely used to its full potential so to see Healey do so is wonderful.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that it’s a queer book. Healey herself largely covers this in passing – not as unimportant, but as no more important than any other element of a person’s character; Joph’s trans*ness gets less than a page of discussion significantly after we have first met her (indeed, towards the end of our time with her), while Bethari’s sexuality is relevant only insofar as it affects the story. It’s a wonderful bit of normalisation of the queer and I really appreciate the way When We Wake does that.

The highest praise I can give this novel is to tell you how I read it: in one sitting, virtually unbroken, staying up late into the night to finish it and yet not wanting it to end. When We Wake reminded me of all the things I love about reading; a truly brilliant novel, and a demonstration of Healey’s stunning authorial abilities.

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