When Toni, Joseph and Charlie arrive at their new boarding school, they are glad to leave their families — and respective problems — behind.
Isolated as boarders, they meet a handsome senior with a personality like iced snake’s blood, teachers with a penchant for physical punishment, and four other outcasts who reveal that their being brought to the Academy wasn’t random at all.
When the arrivals discover that their new school is engaged in “behavior modification” through electric shocks, isolation, restraints, and an ever-evolving set of methods to “fix” them, they declare war on their Academy. During their campaign of sabotage, they fight, hate, scorn, love, and begin to uncover the reasons why they were brought to the school.
But as their war against the school escalates beyond their control, will they become the very things the Academy believes they are: dangerous, delinquent — and mad?
Altered has the running theme of nurture vs. nature, a subject of which I’ve always been interested in, and it’s one of the elements that attracted me to the story. I also found the environment issue was an aspect to make me question allegiance to characters and certain groups; who undoubtedly are the bad guys and good guys? I enjoyed this idea because so often in fiction, unlike the real world, there is a clear division between whom you should be cheering for and while you begin with an obvious side here, that question of nurture vs. nature can throw you off by showing there are alternative sides to everyone. In Altered the focus on an alternative side is more about the students rather than the apparent villains, something of which is less common than the other way around, nonetheless I found it refreshing being able to read a story where the ‘good’ characters are not completely spotless themselves.
Of course the school is a horrible place in many ways, but at the same time I was pondering if these teachers had a point in how they delivered their ultimatums to their students. On the other hand all the students are given choices on how to behave, but the methods of punishment are downright unsettling. I was left asking myself the question; have these kids gone too far or were their actions justifiable?
The concept, granted a harsh reality for the characters, is an excellent way to make the reader question what is right, what is wrong, and to show each decision incurs a consequence whether it is good or bad. These are all ethics everyone, young adults especially, should be taught to question and realise yet there’s a certain age group I would say Altered is marketed towards and it is not of the younger side of adolescence.
The age of the characters in Altered is what surprised me the most, I’m not sure what to make of it as yet, but their ages were not apparent to me in the beginning. It probably doesn’t help that I’m not completely familiar with the American school system either, what age is allotted to freshmen, juniors, and seniors for instance, but I was still surprised when their ages were specifically mentioned later in the story. I don’t feel this is because of the language content, which is on the high side (one reason why I would recommend it for an older audience), but more because of their emotional maturity and behaviour. I’ve read a lot of YA over the last few years, most of it written by adults, and I believe the students reactions may be fitting to reality compared to assumptions about innocence adults eventually create for youth in their own minds.
As for the writing itself, there is a lot of dialogue in Altered with the majority of the story, plot twists and motives, being delivered in this way. Personally I don’t have a problem with this technique to help further a plot, especially if the dialogue gives the reader a chance to learn more about the characters, and when done right I find it can quicken the pace.
In this instance I found it difficult to differentiate between characters at first because you can’t always tell when there is a switch, I’m so used to a clear cut marker of some sort like *** or a character’s name, but I attribute this more to the formatting. However I would have preferred more descriptive details to help introduce characters and distinguish between scenes, even more so to get a better feel for the setting and atmosphere, but once I got used to the separate personalities and the way the story is written, I was engrossed.
Unfortunately there was also a discrepancy with the font* because it would alternate between one that was slanted and a standard one. At first I struggled to find a rhyme or reason to it, but then realised there didn’t appear to be one. For the most part the font didn’t tamper with the story, but every now and then when it would crop up in big blocks it threw me off just that little bit.
Apart from those minor setbacks, I really enjoyed reading Altered. The issues it broaches, the concept of a school like this that could very well exist, and the characters were very entertaining. I found this showed in the dialogue, their interactions with each other were cohesive, believable, and it can take a lot for me to have a physical reaction such as a chuckle or something like that, but this is what happened with Altered, I found myself having a chuckle, gasping, wanting to hug certain characters out of a need to protect and nurture them. Ah, yeah, getting emotionally involved with fictional characters!
If you love a sinister dystopian theme, but want something other than nation based stories or fully fledged science fiction, with the refreshing factor of being written by someone the same age as their audience and that adults can appreciate too, then you might just enjoy Altered.
*Update: The author has assured me that new copies should not have an issue with the type