Friday, August 6, 2021

"A Girl Called Ari" by P.J. Sky--Fiction Review

Today obscurists, we’re talking about P.J. Sky’s “A Girl Called Ari,” a post-apocalyptic adventure and journey to get back home—where ever that may be.

P.J. Sky

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***  

What I love about this book:

This story isn’t a reimagining or even directly references this at all, but “A Girl Called Ari” reminded me of the feel of “Journey to the West.” I feel this way because of the relationship between the two protagonists and their adventures together. Characters from different worlds must travel together, in this case over a post-apocalyptic wasteland—and there are numerous challenges and setbacks that must be overcome. 

I like Ari, the character the story is titled after a lot. I’m always a big fan of a practical person who can—albeit sometimes with a bit of coaxing—see the value of empathy. Plus, Ari shows herself to be tough, resourceful, and creative in her own ways—typically when she’s employing violence, but hey, she’s lived almost all of her life out in the wasteland.

I also appreciated that P. J. Sky never feels the need to info dump or over-explain how the world has gone to shit. They just throw you into the story, and the details come in time when pertinent to the story.

What I don’t love about this book:

Without spoiling anything, directly at least, one of the protagonists at the end of this story makes a decision that just baffled me. It’s kind of telegraphed in an earlier conversation, so it’s not totally out of left-field. Still, it wasn’t a conversation that the character initiated, so I guess my problem is I had a break in understanding this character’s motivations, which I wasn’t a fan of at basically the conclusion of the novel. I’m guessing it’s addressed in the sequel.

Dogs are present in this book, and it doesn’t work out well, and that always makes me very sad. It’s effective in terms of getting me to instantly despise a character—so there is that. But if a character hurts a dog—I hate them. Rarely can I see beyond that point and be understanding.

Like Starla, I don’t really understand the antagonists’ motivations in this story. Power and influence over her father, maybe? But why did it involve a kidnapping plot that relied on leaving the city? There might be good reasons why keeping a hostage in the city wasn’t desirable compared to out in the wasteland, but I missed them. This meant, for me, the reason we’re out in the wasteland is that the plot demands it and not that it was logically inevitable.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

Starla Corinth, daughter to the mayor of “the city,” goes to a party on her 18th birthday. Despite her privileged position, she’s dissatisfied because she feels as if she’s trapped in an ivory tower—with no real control over her life. Not much is revealed yet about this “city” other than it’s surrounded by a wasteland. Shortly before her father gives a speech at the celebration, a mysterious young man cryptically warns her that she’s in danger.

The danger turns out to be real because toward the end of the party after she meets with members of a rival and powerful family in the city—Starla is kidnapped. She wakes in the back of a van and barely escapes her kidnappers after a disagreement breaks out between them. Starla is injured, though, having been struck in the head, and ends up collapsing in a small cave. 

In the cave, Starla is eventually discovered by a girl named Ari, who lives there and eeks out a life by digging up salt. At first, Ari’s inclination is to just get rid of Starla, but eventually pities her, deducing that she’s an exile from the city. They work out a deal that if Ari can lead Starla back to the city, then Starla will get Ari into the city with her.

Their travels are first met with hardships when the kidnappers come after Starla. Ari, using dingos as cover, rescues Starla from them. Later on, Starla returns the favor by saving Ari from drowning in a river. The two girls get to know each other better, and Starla learns that Ari was born in the city but that her parents left, taking her with them when she was very young. One day, Ari’s father disappeared, and then her mother grew sick and died. Ari has been scraping by on her own ever since.

After Starla is grievously wounded in the leg by a crocodile, Ari tries her best to keep Starla alive, but it’s a losing battle. Luckily though, some tribesmen find them, and despite all Ari knows about how violent the people of the wastes typically are, these people only seem to want to help. They move Starla to their village and treat her injuries, all while Ari watches over everything. As Starla is recovering over the weeks, Ari finds herself enjoying her time in the village.

One day, shortly before their departure on their quest to the city again, one of the tribesmen takes them to an old pre-apocalypse building with equipment that can still connect to satellites in orbit around the Earth. One such satellite that people on the ground refer to as the star that never moves, or the maker’s star, is broadcasting a message on a loop. It talks about the meteorite that caused the apocalypse.

On the final leg of their journey to the city, some tribesmen accompany Starla and Ari to a dam, which they intend to blow up. They believe the dam prevents the river from flowing as the maker intended and therefore needed to be destroyed. Once there, however, Starla finds she’s close enough to the city to call for help using an implant in her arm. When she does, though, and aircraft shows up, they open fire and Kill Starla’s and Ari’s companions. The rival family at the beginning of the novel is responsible for Starla’s kidnapping and subsequent journey through the wasteland, and it’s them who show up.

After fighting for their lives—again—the dam is destroyed. Starla and Ari are saved by some unforeseen allies. One such ally that accompanies them the rest of the way to the city is one of the men the kidnappers brought with them to the final showdown at the dam. It turns out he was the young man at the beginning of the story who tried to warn Starla. Once at the city, Starla convinces her father to let her bring Ari in with her, but Ari surprises Starla. She decides not to go into the city after all. Starla returns to her old life changed and missing Ari profoundly.


Like other post-apocalyptic stories I’ve read, despite its grim view of the future, “A Girl Called Ari” is more about hope than despair. The end of civilization is no picnic, to be sure, resulting in a vacuum in authority and power. But what I think this novel does well is to show that no matter what, people do still cohere—even when there seems like no reason to do so from a practical point of view.

The acts of mercy and kindness amongst the world’s violence demonstrate why our species is capable of civilization, ironically even in its absence in some places. Sky strikes a nice balance constructing the world of “A Girl Called Ari.” The setting of Australia is a nice Mad Max-Esque touch and gets away from the heartland of the United States, which I’ve seen and read many depictions of as a wasteland, typically one of nuclear fallout. Another thing I appreciated about this novel that makes it stand out is that the end of the world did not come about because of human folly—but just bad luck from a meteor strike.

The setting and world behind this novel speak of a complex mixture of hope and great expectations vs. stark contrasts and thwarted ambitions. The world leader’s endlessly repeating message, talking about the meteor, hoped that the world after the meteorite might build back better, but clearly, that isn’t yet the case in Ari and Starla’s time. Still, despite all the pain and suffering from experiencing the outside world, in Starla, and maybe in Ari too, there is hope that perhaps the future could still be better.

Parting thoughts:

In the beginning, according to our best scientific understanding, so far as I know it, shortly after the big bang, all the matter and energy of the universe were created—or came into being. Simultaneously, nearly as much antimatter was made, and the two inverse things did what they do, collide and annihilate each other, releasing vast amounts of energy.  In the end, there was just slightly more matter than antimatter, and that “slightly more” went on to be all of our observable universe. There is also a bit about dark matter and energy, which is different, but we’re skipping ahead and moving on.

After all of that annihilation, eventually, galaxies formed, including ours, with our sun and solar system. In that solar system was our home, our Earth. Everyone throughout history until now has been born here, lived here, loved here, and died right here. But before us, life started on this planet via mechanisms we cannot yet describe—and maybe we never will be able to explain how it happened. What we do know, through the fossil record, is that it nearly came to an end five times before we ever showed up.

And sure—entropy is an unavoidable quality to thermodynamics; everything, everywhere, eventually falls apart.

But—and this is me at my most mystical—every time one of these tremendous cataclysmic events happen, these paroxysms of rampant wanton destruction, even before life began, something has always remained, to cohere, to bind together, and to build upon what is available. Life, and people, as part of nature, are like that too.

Over our short time as a species on this planet, we too have seen civilizations rise and come crashing down—ages of triumph and ages of bitter darkness. But each time it all burns down, something has always survived and rebuilt. The arc of history is long, but it seems to me, universally, things tend to trend upward in complexity and improvements as time goes on.

I think apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories are and always have been popular in one form or another because it’s easy to imagine the collapse of our world and a descent into another dark age. It’s a kind of horror we’re all collectively aware of on some level.

Maybe this is the optimist in me, but no matter what happens over the next few years, decades, or even generations, I believe someone will survive to continue our story. And if not one of us—people, I mean—something will. Who knows, the world that generated us might generate something like us again in terms of curiosity and intellect. After all, we share roughly 60 percent of our DNA with bananas, the point here being that all life on Earth is related. So, who’s to say, what comes next won’t do better than us?

I hope we don’t ever have to find out, though. I hope with time, our powers of empathy win out over our less noble impulses. I hope for a story of life, creation, and improvement—for everything.

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