Book Review: January Black by Wendy S. Russo

As a freedom lover myself, I absolutely adored this book! Yes, I know I just ended that sentence with an exclamation mark, but this book deserves it. This is a futuristic/dystopian novel set in a future civilization that loosely follows the traditions of the earth we know. The book follows Matty, a seventeen-year-old living in this futuristic society, as he is tested by the king to solve the mystery of “What was January Black?”

It’s going to be hard to provide much summary of this book. Since the whole thing is a mystery, anything I include is likely to spoil the fun of solving the mystery yourself. But I’ll give you a few important points: Matty is somewhat rebellious and is ashamed to have his father hold the rank of commandant. He prefers living freely, not under the watchful eye of the government, which his father only helps condone and enforce. Matty finds himself becoming friends with the king (and from the start, you will wonder about this. The king seems overly nice to Matty. Is there something up with that? Is Matty being set up? What are the king’s motives? You will wonder this, but you won’t find it out completely until the end).

Throughout the novel, there are references to artifacts and snippets of items from the Old World that have been all but lost: a snippet of Patrick Henry’s famous speech. A “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. Aging books in a world of e-readers. Matty seems naturally drawn to these artifacts of the Old World, and the king’s challenge only pushes him further into his obsession with books and research.

As far as everyone in the society knows, January Black is the name of the ship that was used to bring people to Columbia, the land where everyone now resides. But when Matty turns in his report explaining so, the king tells him he is wrong, and Matty spends the rest of the book trying to uncover the hidden truth. There’s an element of romance in the novel as well: Matty falls in love with Iris, a gardener (gardening is not approved for someone of Matty’s high social class, but he defies society and dates her anyway).

Without spoiling any more, I will say that we slowly learn that Matty’s society is a controlling one. Everyone is being tracked by the government, and it’s implied that this first started with “good intentions” such as the government being able to more effectively track citizens for medical reasons benefiting said citizens. But it seems things have swung too far toward a “Big Brother” government. I enjoyed watching Matty discover the hidden truths about his own government (which controls the country’s media content) and about the history of the country and why it is hidden. This is a great read for lovers of freedom and fans of American history. It’s fun but frightening to imagine how easily our world might turn in to Matty’s one day.

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