Unison is the first fully immersive social network, wildly popular and totally addictive. Mistletoe, living below the canopy that separates the haves and the have-nots, has never been in it; Ambrose, heir apparent to the Unison empire, has never wanted for anything. When the two are thrust together by violence and conspiracy, they discover a shared secret past – but even that is less terrifying than what the shadowy figures behind Unison have planned for their future.
I kind of feel like Becky should be reviewing this one, since dystopian sci-fi is way more her bag than mine, but I’ll give it a shot.
There’s some great stuff going on here, mostly with the hook and the worldbuilding. “All-encompassing and secretly evil social networking site” seems like a thing that should be all over YA sci-fi, but I haven’t actually seen it before, so good call to Marino for jumping on that. Unison itself comes off as simultaneously really cool and really creepy; at times I found myself wishing I could experience it and then going, “No, that’s just what they want!” Really, really well done.
The split between Mistletoe’s world in the slums and Ambrose’s life of privilege was really well executed, too. Mistletoe’s world always feels frantic and noisy and full of both grubby, patchwork tech and too much human life piled on top of itself, even though almost no other characters appear, which is an impressive feat. By contrast, Ambrose’s world is sterile and empty and half in a virtual dream; even though he interacts with more people than Mistletoe does, he feels vastly more alone. I was also fascinated by the commerce and agriculture in this world and would love to have all of its basic systems explained to me.
And yet story-wise, it fell a bit flat for me. There were a few major problems:
1. The villain’s motivation never seemed terribly clear to me. We find out that he show, but the book never explains why he’s seeking this end. More power? Scientific curiosity? In stories like this, where everything the heroes do is a reaction to the villain’s actions, the villain’s actions have to make good, solid sense, and this villain’s actions simply don’t.
2. Mistletoe doesn’t have a heck of a lot of personality or anything to do once she rescues Ambrose towards the beginning of the book. I see what Marino was going for – a boy and a girl from opposite sides of the track finding out about a shared secret together is hardly a new concept – but because Ambrose is already so immersed in the world of UniCorp, it feels much more like his story. Mistletoe’s chapters tend to spin their wheels, and even when her guardians are killed, the loss doesn’t seem that intimate because it’s so early in the book we barely know them. Also, the emotional connection between Mistletoe and Ambrose doesn’t ring quite true – they’ve barely met, but they instantly care deeply about each other. I guess we’re supposed to chalk that up to the fact that they have this shared secret, but it doesn’t quite work.
3. Speaking of Mistletoe’s dead guardians: they’re both implied to be South Asian (I believe), and Mistletoe’s neighborhood is called Little Shanghai, but there’s no indication that Mistletoe is anything but white, and Ambrose and pretty much all the other main characters are explicitly white. I’m deeply uncomfortable with the noble guardians of color being killed off to further a white hero’s story, and also with the appropriation of an “exoticized” setting like Little Shanghai.
As one further nitpick, while I’m here: there are quite a few odd language choices in the book. Eating is described twice as “muching greedily,” such an awkward phrase that it took me out of the book both times. Much is made of Mistletoe’s “blue pigtail,” when the word Marino actually wants is (I think) braid. Characters repeatedly “palm open” doors, whatever that means, and “podcast” is an insult, for reasons that are never explained.
For the most part, though, the prose is gripping and the story fast-moving and compelling. It’s not a bad book – there were just some elements that really didn’t work for me. If you’re more of a sci-fi person than I am, these issues may bother you less. With that in mind, I’m giving Unison Spark a middle-of-the-road rating: three cupcakes.