Essence by Lisa Ann O’Kane
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“Neutrality is the key to longevity. This motto has governed 16 year-old Autumn’s life in the mid-21st century Centrist cult, which believes that expressing emotions leads to Essence drain and premature death.
But Autumn’s younger brother’s death casts her faith into question.
While sprinting through a park in violation of Centrist teachings, she encounters Ryder Stone, an Outsider who claims Essence drain is nothing more than a Centrist scare tactic. She agrees to join his Community, a utopia of adrenaline junkies living in the abandoned remains of Yosemite National Park.
Autumn learns about sex, drugs, and living life to the fullest. But as she discovers dark secrets beneath the Community’s perfect exterior, she realizes that this illusion of paradise could be shattered…”
The short form of my impressions about this book can be summed up in four words: Divergent goes to Yosemite. The basic elements are all there: sheltered girl hides herself in a group of thrill-seekers and learns to find her courage while doing death-defying stunts. There are, of course, quite a few differences as well, the biggest being that the conflict in this book is between two small groups instead of a society-spanning struggle for dominance. Admittedly, I reacted the same to both books—they seem to be thinly-veiled excuses to write about cool stunts while pushing through a romance.
I did feel the same way about Autumn that I did about Tris—a combination of admiration for their guts and annoyance at their recklessness. At least in this book, I can understand the lure of her forays into adrenaline-junky territory, because Yosemite is the perfect playground for letting your inner daredevil run wild. The author apparently spent a summer in the park, and I can attest that her descriptions of locations and scenery is spot-on. For me, Yosemite itself was the most vivid “character” in this story, interacting with the people in a way that you can’t really appreciate unless you’ve been to the High Sierras. But Autumn’s reasons for running to Yosemite are understandable to just about anyone, since teenage emotions are something we all go through to one extent or another.
I found myself more focused on the setting than on the characters or plot. That comes of how fond I am of Yosemite, I suppose, but it really did seem that the setting was more vibrant and alive than those inhabiting it. A couple of characters stood out, young companions of Autumn and Ryder who help Autumn learn to “slackline”, which is a kind of tightrope walking. Beyond that, I wish I’d gotten more of a sense of the rest of community as a whole. It seems like the author rushes past that to get to the Community.
The biggest problem I had with the premise was the basis for the changes in California society: a massive earthquake has apparently struck and caused a great deal of destruction. The author, however, states that the quake destroyed roads into Yosemite (high in the Sierra Nevada) and also caused damage in San Francisco (a few hundred miles away). An earthquake with the ability to cause damage in two such disparate locations would have barely left anything standing in the entire Central Valley, and yet readers are given to believe that there are still plenty of “pre-quake” structures standing, and towns and cities seem to be much as they always were. Quakes here, no matter how big, can’t radiate too far into surrounding areas due to the geography beneath our feet—it would have to be a cataclysmic event to do so, and as I mentioned, the destruction would be much worse. Since the quake was talked about from nearly the beginning of the book, I had trouble getting into the rest of the story with that hanging over the narrative.
The description of a cult based in San Francisco, though?… that, I had no trouble believing. Counterculture will likely be alive and well no matter the circumstances, so Autumn’s early upbringing was plausible enough. I kind of wish we’d seen more of it before the story moves to Yosemite.
Essence is an okay book, one that you’ll likely enjoy if you’ve ever been lucky enough to spend time in Yosemite. The story’s strength lies in its evocative setting and the vicarious thrill of wild parties and daring stunts in one of the most beautiful natural areas in the United States. It’s weak in character and plotting, true, but if you can handwave aside some inconsistencies, you’ll probably like this quick and action-packed read.