My 2 Cents on The Block by Ben Oliver

What’s new, folks? Last year I read The Loop, a YA dystopian novel by debut author Ben Oliver that kicked off in the future on first-person narrator Luka Kane’s sixteenth birthday. But he couldn’t really enjoy himself while behind bars in the Loop, a death-row prison that the World Government used to run experiments on and harvest energy from the prisoners whom it deemed as lower-class Regulars, all for the benefit of the cybernetically-enhanced and privileged Altereds, or Alts for short. The thrills never let up as Luka and his fellow inmates committed a jailbreak and struggled to survive the crumbling world that exists outside. Perfect for fans of The Hunger Games, The Matrix, and The Maze RunnerThe Loop turned out to be one of my top books of 2020.

This summer, we’re reunited with Luka in the sequel, The Block, which is named after yet another torturous prison that drains energy from its captives and is overseen by Happy, which began as a simple operating system, then evolved into a HAL-9000-like A.I. and seized control of the World Government in its quest to wipe humanity off the face of the earth. The Block is actually more excruciating than the Loop, subjecting Luka to a daily twelve-hour energy harvest that draws from his fear and fuels Happy. However, the system can’t utilize him like a battery if he loses his mind from being put through such a procedure for too long. This is why he’s allowed to take six-hour breaks in the Sane Zone, a Matrix-like simulation built from Luka’s memories. Aside from keeping him right in the head, it also creates a space in which Happy tries to manipulate Luka into leaking intel as to where his insurgent companions are hiding after the Battle of Midway Park, but to no avail.

Having already broken out of the Loop, it shouldn’t be a shock when Luka, soon after the book starts, escapes the Block with the help of his allies and resumes the revolution against the Alts and Happy. The plot never quits from that point on, throwing everything at the rebels—Mosquito surveillance drones, human “hosts” whose eyes glow when Happy possesses their bodies, tunnels that are just as harrowing as the ones in the previous book, and much more. The macabre violence with which our heroes have to contend certainly isn’t for the squeamish, so make sure you’re ready for that going in. Personally, I felt my stomach twist on itself in response to someone’s eyes being pulled right out of their sockets.

Amidst all the doom and gloom of this despotic society, I appreciate the author lightening things up by introducing Apple-Moth, a children’s toy that retains its flashing colored lights, adoration of jokes, and exuberantly childlike personality, even after Luka’s friends have refashioned it into a rebel drone with instruments like a face-changer app and a signal scrambler. I don’t always go for the Cute Creature trope (except in the case of Baby Yoda/Grogu, whom no one should ever disparage in my presence), but Apple-Moth quickly grew on me, especially since it became much more important plot-wise than I would have expected.

Another nice touch is the stance against classism that Oliver weaves into the novel, which features a dark-skinned protagonist and his ethnically diverse friends, all of whom came from impoverished upbringings, as they work to overthrow Happy and its wealthy, white-coded Alts. At one point Luka observes in the narration, “I think about what the Alts were: a walking advertisement to the poor; look what you could achieve if you just worked harder! But the opportunity didn’t really exist, not to Regulars; you had to be born into the right family to have what they had.”

Honestly, my biggest (if not my only) issue is with this book’s usage of the Bury Your Gays trope. Without getting into spoilers as to who dies, I’m tired of gay characters being constantly killed off in books (Insurgent, Armada), movies (The Hours, Cloud Atlas), and TV shows (The 100, The Walking Dead). Burying Your Gays is a damaging and unnecessary device that equates being gay with trauma porn, and storytellers need to stop falling back on it.

Overall, this is a strong offering in the young adult dystopian genre, wrapping up on a clutch-your-chest cliffhanger that leaves me keen for the third and final entry in the Loop Trilogy. As always, stay healthy and stay strong!

Windup score: 85/100

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