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Readers Advisory: Nil by Lynne Matson

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Henry Holt and Co, $17.99 hardcover, ISBN-10 0805097716, March 2014

On the mysterious island of Nil, the rules are set. You have one year. Exactly 365 days–to escape, or you die. Seventeen-year-old Charley doesn’t know the rules. She doesn’t even know where she is. The last thing she remembers is blacking out, and when she wakes up, she’s lying naked in an empty rock field. Lost and alone, Charley finds no sign of other people until she meets Thad, the gorgeous leader of a clan of teenage refugees. Soon Charley learns that leaving the island is harder than she thought . . . and so is falling in love. With Thad’s time running out, Charley realizes that to save their future, Charley must first save him. And on an island rife with dangers, their greatest threat is time.

Okay, I’m going to try to explain how this world works. Bear with me.

So, Charley’s at Target returning some skirts that she decided are too short (she’s Southern and therefore very modest, a laugh if you’ve been to the South), and some shimmering air hits her. She passes out and wakes up naked in a field. As she slowly, slowly, slowly finds out, she’s on an island called Nil. No one knows where or what it really is. Only teenagers wind up on Nil. Well, teenagers and every imaginable animal, especially African animals. Apparently the “gates” as they call the shimmering air transport things are extremely discriminatory about human age but don’t give a poop about other species. They just hoover up the zebras, hippos, and cheetahs indiscriminately. Anyway, these shimmering portals only work in one direction. Some are ingoing, some are outgoing. The only way out is to catch an outgoing portal, but they only appear at noon and always in a different, random place. If you don’t catch one within a year of your arrival, you die, but no one knows how because by then, the portal chaser has gone off on his or her own, and later the others either find abandoned clothing or a dead body. Teens on Nil band together, pooling skills and resources to free up time for hunting these gates, with the kids who’ve been on the island longest getting first shot at gates.

Got all that? Okay. Let me make it worse.

Charley figures out, from the presence of a couple of ancient carvings, that the gates are not random and that Nil somehow exists to help people learn valuable life lessons. We never really find out what any of those lessons are, though. We never find out why Nil exists or how it works. The best info we get is that it may be related to a mid-19th-century solar flare. Maybe. Somehow. It all gets very new agey toward the end and the solar flare feels like a lunge toward linking the story back to reality.

Basically, what I’m telling you is that a handful of teenagers who all look like supermodels are trapped in a cross between Lost and Survivor. The rules of the world are so many and so confusing that great swaths of plot are spent in demonstrating them, which doesn’t move the narrative very quickly. Charley’s obsession with Thad also takes up a vast amount of plot real estate, and the “they almost kiss but not quite” scenes repeat so many times that I started to feel that maybe, just maybe, if they would finally make out, the rest of the book would hurry up and happen already. I mean, things happen. Animals attack. Kids arrive and leave or die. However, it’s all very episodic, not your traditional story arc structure. When things finally picked up in the last quarter of the book, discoveries seemed random and not entirely believable, and the ending takes sappy to a new level. I have no idea whether readers are going to call this romantic and original or bloated and boring. Based on past experience, though, I predict my opinion (bloated and boring) will be in the minority.

Recommend to: Fans of Lost and/or Survivor who also love Simone Elkeles and Lauren Kate

To buy or not to buy: Additional purchase. By which I mean I think this book needs a huge re-edit, but I think that about a lot of books that become bestselling sensations, so I’m taking the average.

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