7 Rated Books Book Reviews Joint Review

Joint Review: Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan

Title: Lightborn

Author: Tricia Sullivan

Genre: Science Fiction, Apocalypse

Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: 7 Oct 2010
Paperback: 464 pages

Stand alone or series: Stand alone

Lightborn, better known as ‘shine’, is a mind-altering technology that has revolutionised the modern world. It is the ultimate in education, self-improvement and entertainment – beamed directly into the brain of anyone who can meet the asking price.

But in the city of Los Sombres, renegade shine has attacked the adult population, resulting in social chaos and widespread insanity in everyone past the age of puberty. The only solution has been to turn off the Field and isolate the city.

Trapped within the quarantine perimeter, fourteen-year-old Xavier just wants to find the drug that can keep his own physical maturity at bay until the army shuts down the shine. That’s how he meets Roksana, mysteriously impervious to shine and devoted to helping the stricken.

As the military invades street by street, Xavier and Roksana discover that there could be hope for Los Sombres – but only if Xavier will allow a lightborn cure to enter his mind.

What he doesn’t know is that the shine in question has a mind of its own …

Why did we read the book: We heard about online, liked the cover and put it on our radar.

How did we get the book: Review copies from the publisher and author.


First Impressions:

Ana: I first heard about Lightborn via writer Karen Mahoney’s enthusiastic response to the book, and when I saw its sleek, minimalist cover, I became even more interested in it. Lightborn is hard Scifi, a post apocalyptic story and even though I am not usually a fan of the former or have read many of the latter, I found myself really enjoying the book for its intriguing, clever premise and its characters. More than that actually: I don’t think I ever read anything like its premise and during the time it took me to read the book, I spent quite a few hours awake at night thinking about it.

Thea: I’m not sure that I’d classify Lightborn as “hard” science fiction (though the science of lightwaves to stimulate or even (re)program the human brain is a cool idea, it’s not exactly delineated in any sort of technical depth or with any true scientific accuracy) – although it certainly is full-blown science fiction (which means I can cross another goal off of my “list of genres I will get Ana to read before I die” list! Muwahahaha! Ahem). As Lightborn isn’t being distributed by Orbit US, I didn’t hear about the book until Ana via Karen brought it to my attention, and when author Tricia Sullivan wrote us with a review query, I was thrilled. And for the most part, Lightborn delivers. A surrealist post-apocalyptic future in which all the “shined” adults in Los Sombres are damaged in one fell swoop, Lightborn is an enjoyable trip. Though the book operates on a fairly basic, familiar scenario (plugged in humans ravaged by some form of malware), Tricia Sullivan’s vision of this alternate world is good stuff.

On the plot:

Ana: In alternate-America of 2004, a new technology called Lightborn or better known as “Shine” has revolutionised the world. Using beams of light, shine acts directly on the brain by improving and enhancing ones abilities. It is about education, self-improvement but also entertainment. Everyone becomes responsive to Shine during puberty and it is now a common part of society: everybody does it.

Then one day, chaos strikes the city of Los Sombres when the AI that oversees the local Shine Field goes loco and starts beaming uncontrolled (bad) Shine. The system crashes, society collapses after most adults break down due to the faulty Shine, and a quarantine is imposed.

The story is set two years after the breakdown, when the government is mounting its increasing attack and destroy missions on Los Sombres. The book follows two teenagers: Roksana, a 17 year old who is stuck inside Los Sombres helping the people stricken by Shine and who is for all intents and purposes completely unaffected by it; and 14 year old Xavier on the outside of the city, but still in the quarantine zone. Xavier looks like a much younger kid due to his attempts to keep puberty at bay by taking a drug called Kiss that inhibits its onset. But when Kiss becomes scarce, Xavier decides to go scavenging in Los Sombres, and he discovers that the town is not the “zombie” infested zone that outsiders seem to think it is.

Where do I even start? Plot-wise, Lightborn is deceptively simple, about the breakdown of a “dystopian” society, and the first years after said breakdown and the ensuing attempts at rebuilding Los Sombres. I use the world “dystopian” tentatively here as I am not exactly an expert (perhaps Thea can back me up?) but this is what this world is, right? Everybody takes Shine to “improve” meaning that it is a society aiming to perfect itself. But what happens when you don’t want to be a part of this or if you can’t be a part of this (like Roksana)?

But the way the plot is constructed and how it interacts with the worldbuilding is what makes Lightborn rather complex. The point of view alternates between Xavier and Roksana and it follows them in both separate and conjoined storylines. The result is different experiences of the SAME occurrences and what each of the characters brings to it.

What is most striking about the writing itself is how those elements of the worldbuidling, the explanation of what happened, how Shine works are not handed out by the author in any way. There is zero exposition or info dumps. Although I will admit that at first, I struggled a bit to grasp the concept of Shine and how it works, I also admired the author for trusting that the reader would be able to do so on their own. I really liked that aspect of the writing especially because it allows for a more powerful reading experience, as the lack of complete knowledge of what exactly is going on somehow mirrors that of the characters themselves.

Thea: From a basic plotting perspective, Lightborn operates on a familiar (hi-tech) science fiction trope – we have a technologically evolved society, its inhabitants happily plugged in and tuned out, selfishly preoccupied with the sensory, virtual experiences that their programming affords them. Of course, the danger with being so plugged in means that any malicious software – be it from a rogue AI, a disenfranchised (and usually robot) class, or a destructive individual or group – can take out this happy society of Eloi with incredible ease. Such is the case of Los Sombres; all adults using lightborns (which is to say every adult, besides dangerous criminals that have been “burned out” as part of their rehabilitation) are given a dose of a supervirus. With their brains corrupted by the bad shine, these adults go berserk and thus cause “the Fall” by either killing themselves, repeating the same tasks endlessly, losing the ability to speak, reason, etc. Not everyone is so affected, however, as children that have not yet reached puberty are safe from the faulty lightborns, but have to deal with their loco parents. There are some adults, too, that are unaffected by the lightborns, namely the aforementioned burnouts (mostly criminals), a few of Hopi Indians in the quarantine zone, and a strangely un-shinable teen named Roksana, whose father is at the root of the Fall.

Ana asked, is this future world a dystopia (prior to the Fall)? I guess it depends on perspective. Something these “doom by technology” apocalypse novels tend to share is a cautionary tone, i.e. beware of interconnectivity, lest we lose our humanity! and all that jazz. In this case, dystopia really comes down to perspective. Just because a society was easily positioned for a dramatic fall does not necessarily mean it was a dystopia (by all accounts, our own society could be classified as a dystopia – hello, world-wide recession). It’s all a matter of opinion. But I digress. Back to the plot.

First, the good. I truly liked Tricia Sullivan’s writing style, especially her no-handholding approach. Like Ana, I do think that Lightborn could be marketed to a YA/hesitant or new to SF reader audience, and though there may be some initial confusion in regards to how the technology in this world works, I love that Ms. Sullivan understands that readers are smart folks. We can figure it out without those terrible, jarring info-regurgitations (an egregious offense that many YA/SF-for-non-SF-reader books commit on the regular). I also loved the tense air to Los Sombres and its relationship to the outside world, from the quarantine zone to the country (and probably world) at large. To the government, Los Sombres is a blemish; a huge, disgusting zit on the face of their happy, controlled country, and they would like nothing more than to wipe the city of the Fallen from the map. From the outside, the city is represented as a wasteland of crazies, led by a dangerous militant radio broadcaster that calls herself “FallN” (Roksana). There are two sides to every story, though, as young Xavier discovers when he makes his desperate trip to the city. He discovers that though damaged, the fallen in Los Sombres are still people, and the “terrorist” FallN is broadcasting shine to help the damaged adults. Wiping out the city and all its inhabitants becomes a much more complicated affair.

Like Ana, I do agree that the overlapping character perspectives is an effective tool, and I also generally liked Ms. Sullivan’s prose and tone, in the later chapters, especially. Things get delightfully trippy, for example:

He swallowed the food and he swallowed the answer, pondering. Then the old woman opened her compact and showed him all of the information about Los Sombres that she had collected. It poured into his eyes like visual oxygen. Charge. Communion. A rushing wave of specific information. […]

Some other awarenesses:
Great men are witches who fly through the night and kill you in your sleep if you don’t believe in them.

Surfaces melt. Animals turn into people and buildings turn into drugs.

Numbers sing.

See? Trippy. But cool.

But, there were also lesser developed aspects of the book. The science of Lightborn is an interesting idea, but is not really fully developed or explained, and the actual use of shine is a bit…questionable. Do humans have implants actually implanted in their heads? Do these happen at birth, so brains are hardwired for lightborn reception and feedback? Does this mean that newly born children after the Fall in the quarantine zone will not be susceptible to shine? It one scene receptors are GLUED to a character’s forehead, which seems neither effective nor even plausibly workable with the technology. How does lightborn technology work on blind people or the colorblind, or those with different types or low-receptive retinas? How is there no way to turn off reception to shine? How exactly are people exposed in the city? There are these important “lights” all over the place, but unless they are aimed directly into someone’s eyes (and/or receptors), I can’t see how this would work to help the poor folks of Los Sombres. There’s also this concept of hiding lightborns in radio broadcasts (as FallN, aka Rocky does) – so does that then mean that lightborns are auditory too? If so, how come people that hear the broadcast over the radio outside of the city aren’t affected then?

For all these reasons and more, I’m not sure I “buy” the technology. Lightborn‘s technology is largely conceptual and has some serious plausibility gaps…and yet, because of the strength of Ms. Sullivan’s writing, I was certainly willing to suspend my disbelief for the duration of the novel (it is only afterwards when reflecting upon the book that the technological aspect in particular begins to fall apart).

Beyond the application of Shine, my only other main qualm with the plotting of Lightborn was with the book’s pacing. There is an insane amount of setup in this book; the majority of the novel follows a few characters running around, kind of haphazardly looking for a drug, and hiding from bombs and a few crazy dangerous (and deranged) individuals. The actual reason for the Fall, the impetus for the entire novel (Roksana’s father and his “fix”) is only started to be revealed in the last 100 pages or so, and the bulk of the dramatic action hastily resolved in the last 50 pages or so. How I sorely wish there was less time spent on lengthy setup (which felt needlessly long and at times dragging) and more time spent on the central conflict and resolution of the novel (which felt rushed and undercooked)!

On the characters:

Ana: To me the most important aspect of a novel is the human element. And I think that is especially when it comes to a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel. How do the characters behave, react and interact with each other under those circumstances?

In that sense, Lightborn completely succeeds at showing several different sides of the coin, not only Xavier’s and Roksana’s. From the government’s need to shut down Los Sombres, to the creepy AI to the different types of survivors including the burnouts, the “zombies” and even the unaffected. But all of that is observed by Xavier and Roksana, as the narrators, of course and therefore coloured by their own lenses.

Part of the plot is the horrendous repercussions of the rogue shine and how it affects people in the most elemental way. It examines the problems around it, the reality of becoming hostage to an AI that cares only about itself at the same time that it provides an insight to what must feel like living without any of those things. It is horrific yet extremely heartbreaking how these kids are living the outcome of something that is clearly NOT GOOD, that affects their ability to live, to decide, their very freedom, but at the same time, they have the very human desire to be part of it.

Xavier in particular, is in the cusp of being a teenager with all the wants and needs of one (and he thinks a LOT about sex for example) but having to live in the body of a short underdeveloped 12 year old with the mind of a 14 year old. He is both terrified of Shine and attracted to it and he wants nothing more than become an adult. Similarly with Roksana, her life is surrounded by broken people which include her father and her mother and yet she always had the frustration for not being able to use shine. Always.

The most horrendous thing though is how both of them DO have a choice. They could simple leave Los Sombres and its environs behind but the fact that their parents are incapable of living on their own. Eventually both also find they have a larger role to play and that too, involves making a choice and this time it involves the greater good.

Lightborn is also an incredibly diverse book not only in terms of the different experiences but also in terms of race: several characters are Native American (with their own unique relationship with Shine), Xavier is of Mexican descent and Roksana is of mixed race (part African American).

Thea: I do agree with Ana in that a novel of Lightborn‘s type is only as strong as its characters, and I do think that the core duo of characters, Xavier and Roksana, are generally well developed and believable. Xavier, with his inner struggle of growing up and going crazy versus prolonging life in a body that does not match his mind, is a fascinating character. Rocky also goes through the grinder in Lightborn and is a fascinating heroine. All her life, Rocky has felt inferior to her friends because of her inability to interpret Shine – which, ironically, is her salvation when the Fall occurs. Her struggles with her abilities, her father’s research and plans, and her wasted mother, is meaty stuff.

However, beyond these two characters the other voices in Lightborn are lacking the same depth. For example, Elsa, Rocky’s surrogate 9 year old sister and broadcast assistant, sounds nothing like a 9 year old. Yes, this is overtly addressed in the text, but even allowing that Elsa is an extremely precocious child, she sounds an awful lot like every other character in the book. There also are a number of important secondary characters with some screen time that we never really get to know beyond a superficial level, which is a shame. As Ana mentions, the cast is ethnically diverse – Powaqa is Hopi Indian, Irina Ukranian, Xavier Mexican, Roksana African-American and Turkic – and that is very cool. I did like the Native American tie in with the pathwalking possibilities of the shine, and I also liked the strange glimpses we get of the former housemaid Irina (and her fixation with almaz). However, these Hopi parallels and tantalizing glimpses at Irina’s character are never really developed to their full potential – in both cases, these characters almost become throwaways, tossed in that truncated conflict-and-resolution. The result is a disjointed cast that, with the exception of Roksana and Xavier, look colorful and eye-catching on the surface level, but with nothing to sustain the flash of initial interest.

Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating::

Ana: As I said, Lightborn is unlike anything I ever read and the idea itself of Lightborn is tremendously clever. I would definitely recommend the book for SF enthusiasts but I am not sure it is a book for everybody. The more I think about it and all the small threads that make up the book, the more I like it. Some books have this effect on me.

Thea: I genuinely enjoyed Lightborn for Ms. Sullivan’s vision and tone. Although the plot was unevenly paced and I have my own doubts concerning the actual technology of lightborns and effectiveness of secondary characters, the overall concept is strong and the book’s leading duo are wonderfully textured. Recommended – and I disagree with Ana, as I think Lightborn is a book that is also well suited for readers that are less indoctrinated with familiar SF tropes.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From chapter 1:


KZ didn’t say hello. She was like that anyway. Sometimes she answered her phone in mid-sentence. Sometimes she expected you to read her mind. Sometimes she didn’t bother to tell you that some of the conversation was actually not directed at you, but at her pet iguana, Monty. Roksana figured this was all part of KZ’s manic appeal.

Today KZ was laughing too hard to say anything at all.

‘What’s so funny?’ Roksana said, when she could make herself heard.

KZ gasped and choked. ‘Sorry,’ she managed to gasp.

‘Do you want me to call you back when you’re done peeing yourself?’

KZ panted some more and then said, ‘I’m really sorry, my peri-menopausal mother just did something incredibly bizarre. It’s really not even slightly funny but I just . . .’

She was weeping with laughter.

‘OK . . .’ Roksana sighed. Today was obviously going to be one of those days. She glanced at her watch. 11:34 am 19 July 2004. Day from hell. Server down, A/C apparently broken, no plans, her father probably sleeping it off after another all-night work jag. All her friends away on vacation, except for KZ being a shiny fool.

‘’Snot just me. Josh’s anger management is also so-’ snort ‘-fade of mail. I mean, made of fail. I thought he was gonna run over the dog this morning. Hey, Rocky, did I tell you about the extra colours?’

‘No. I was just wondering if you wanted to go swimming later.’

‘But I can see so many of them! I think I could be turning into a bee or something. No, don’t laugh.’

Roksana wasn’t laughing, but KZ was. Then her cell cut off. Scowling at the phone, Roksana headed for the fridge. She passed the kitchen window and saw Irina out by the pool. This was odd. Irina was only responsible for the inside of the house; Roksana’s dad used a pool service. Irina stripped off her uniform, exposing a thin, pale body with Playboy breasts that balanced uneasily in a flesh-pink lace bra. Eyes wide, Roksana watched while Irina went into the pool house and came out with a net on a long pole. She put the net over her head, then twisted it several times using the torque of the pole. Roksana’s heart was beating faster. There had always been something vaguely pornographic about Irina. But . . . shit!

Nobody else was home. According to the note Amir had left on the fridge, he had gone to his office on campus.

Irina can drive you and your friends to the mall later, the note had finished. I have a crazy day – Dad.

Crazy day? If Amir’s day was crazy, what did you call this?

You can read the rest of chapter 1, as well as chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5 here.

Additional Thoughts: Tricia Sullivan blogged with us earlier today on the inspirations behind the book and we have a giveaway still going on: three copies of the book up for grabs, open to all. Go here to enter.


Thea: 7 – Very Good

Ana: 7 – Very Good

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  • Karen Mahoney
    October 5, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    Dudes, I am SO happy that you both took some great stuff from the book. I read sections of the work-in-progress, and it’s wonderful to get a chance to revisit the finished product. (Though I just got sidetracked into reading another of Tricia’s novels-in-progress – lol!)

    Also, I HIGHLY recommened Someone To Watch Over Me to both of you. I have a feeling you might connect with it – both of you for different reasons, I think. 🙂


  • Mrs. DeRaps
    October 6, 2010 at 11:01 am

    I’ve never heard of this book. From your descriptions, I think I’d like it. Thanks for the lead.

  • Priya
    October 6, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    Definitely “Enders’s Game” by Orson Scott Card, or “I-Robot” by Asimov. Literary geniuses!!

    Thanks for the opportunity. =]


  • Carole
    January 6, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    I have just finished Lightborn and really enjoyed it – don’t want to regurgitate all your comments as I agree with all of them ! I also appreciated TS’s trust in the reader to gain understanding without being handheld through it – and as Ana wrote I have been thinking on some of the elements and it brought to mind the mythology of the biblical Fall – even calling the town The Shadows, the Angels, the Light – rejected by Perfection…I have read the Author’s blog and she doesn’t reference the Bible so I am probably just over thinking it ! What are your thoughts ?

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    November 3, 2012 at 12:01 am

    […] next title kind of reminds me of Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan, which was a solid SF/Dystopian read. I’m […]

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