Sunday, April 15, 2012

Starters by Lissa Price

Starters is Lissa Price's debut novel set in America decimated by war and a deadly sickness. Lissa Price has created a fascinating post-apocalyptic world in her debut novel, Starters.  America is comprised of very elderly people, Enders, and very young people, Starters. Price's post-apocalyptic world arose after the Spore Wars between America and unnamed Pacific Ocean countries (does she mean China?). Fearing a bio-war, America began vaccinating it's citizens, with those considered most at risk, the very young and the elderly, being the first to be vaccinated. When the spore bombs were unleashed earlier than expected, all people between the ages of 20 and 60 died, leaving many children orphaned and uncared for.

Callie Woodland and her brother, Tyler, are two such children, orphaned and living in an abandoned office towers with a friend named Michael. They spend their time hiding from the Marshals who capture unclaimed children  and scrounging for enough food to eat. With Tyler sick, Callie decides to pay a visit to Prime Destinations. She has heard about this company out on the street and knows that she can earn a great deal of money but she needs to know more.

Prime Destinations is a company run by a mysterious man known only as Old Man, that enables Enders to rent the body of a Starter for a period of time. The renter has a cap with electrodes fitted on her/his head which connects them to a Body Computer Interface. The Starter has a neuro-chip embedded into their brain. The renter and the Starter are connected via a computer and once the connection is made, the renter simply uses her mind to take over the body of the young teen, whose conscious mind is put to sleep. The Ender can then use the teen's body for however long the rental period is. The teen-donor remembers nothing of what happened while his/her body was being rented. It's almost the same concept that was used by humans in James Cameron's Avatar.

Callie eventually decides to become a donor. Prior to renting, every Starter gets a complete body makeover, with all scars and imperfections being completely removed. Everything goes well for the first two rents, which are short. Callie knows nothing about what has happened to her body during the rentals. But during the third rent, something unusual happens. Callie wakes up a week into her rental  to find herself in Club Rune in Los Angeles. Confused, she is helped by a boy who another renter claims is "all teen" named Blake.

Even more strange, Callie discovers can communicate intermittently with her renter, Helena Winterhill inside her head. Helena who is close to one hundred years old,  warns Callie not to return to Prime Destinations. Callie returns to Helena's home and continues living as though she is Helena renting Callie's body. She also begins dating a teen named Blake whom she begins to fall in love with. They go horseback riding at Blake's family's ranch. She also meets Blake's grandfather, Senator Clifford C. Harrison. Believing she can trust Blake who is not an Ender, she sends him with money to the abandoned office building Tyler and Michael are living in.

Callie blacks out in Helena's car and awakens eighteen hours later in her renter's bedroom holding a Glock 85 with a silencer.  When she hears the warning voice again, Callie decides to check into Helena's background. She discovers that Helena's granddaughter Emma lives with her and that she has rented her body too. At Club Rune, Callie meets Helena's friend, Lauren who is renting the body of a girl named Reece. Lauren reveals that they are using the body's of teens to stop Prime Destinations from victimizing teens. From Lauren she learns that Helena is planning a murder but Helena hasn't told Lauren who the target is. Lauren's grandson, Kevin, and Helena's granddaughter, Emma, signed up at Prime but never returned. They lied and did it to get the body makeovers, not realizing that Prime takes Starters who have no living relatives. This way if they do not return, they have no family who will investigate their disappearance. Some Starters are released to recruit more teens. Callie learns that many Enders besides Lauren and Helena,  have lost grandchildren who have simply disappeared after becoming body donors for Prime.

Callie receives a memo from Helena on her phone warning her not to return to Prime. She does not know that Callie knows about her plans. When Callie finds herself in the lobby of an office building and realizes that Helena is preparing to kill Senator Clifford Harrison, Blake's grandfather, but she doesn't know why. As Callie grows closer to Blake, she is determined to find out why Helena wants to kill his grandfather.

On the day he is scheduled to present at an awards ceremony, Callie finds herself with an assault rifle scoping the ceremony. She suddenly is able to communicate with Helena who tells her that she needs to go through with the assassination. Helena reveals that Callie's biochip has been altered and the stop-kill switch which prevents renters from killing while they are in a Starter's body has been turned off. Helena wants to stop Senator Harrison because of his connections to Prime Destinations. Harrison is hoping to persuade the president to use Prime to conscript teens for government use. But she also discovers that Prime has a far more insidious design for the teen donors.

Helena and Callie begin working together to try to determine what has happened to her granddaughter Emma. Helena gives Callie money to get a place for Michael and Tyler to stay and asks Callie to visit Institution 37 to talk to a girl named Sara who may know about Emma. In Institution 37 Callie learns that only the prettiest Starters will be chosen by the body bank. 

The next day at a news conference in Washington, the head of Prime Destinations, the Old Man informs his Titanium Premium subscribers that they will soon be able to own the body of the Starter they rent while their "birth body" is kept safe in the chair at Prime. Callie is now convinced of what Helena has been telling her. However, a major setback occurs when Callie discovers Helena has been killed.

When Helena gone, Callie is now on her own to prevent Prime from gaining control and implementing its evil plan. It becomes increasingly difficult to for Callie to know whom she can trust. As she works towards destroying Prime she comes face to face with the mysterious and creepy Old Man, who asks her to join him.


Price does a good job of portraying the post-apocalyptic world Callie inhabits. Especially well done is the explanation of the body donor and renter concept. Each donor has a complete makeover team, so that the 100 year old renter gets a pristine teenage body to live out their youthful fantasies once more. There's something definitely creepy and indecent about someone inhabiting the body of another person as Callie soon discovers. After her first two rentals she discovers that Prime Destinations views her body as belong to the company. When she requests a break before her final rental, Tinnebaum reluctantly grants her request but warns her "Keep this body exactly as it is. Because right now, it still belongs to us."

There's not much in the way of character development in this book, because the story is action driven. The protagonist, Callie Woodland is carefully sketched as a caring, moral person who tries to do the correct thing. At first she refuses to kill even though Helena is determined to go through with the assassination. Callie needs proof about what is happening before acting. Callie is also a strong female character, who fights for what she believes in. She's loyal and responsible, determined to save her younger brother, Tyler.

The Enders were especially well done and it was clear that Callie and her generation  deeply fear and despise them. Most Enders in the novel are portrayed as self-absorbed, superficial people concerned only with living longer and experiencing as much as possible, preferably in the body of a teenager. The also have no qualms using other people's bodies. When Callie learns of the Old Man's plans to permanently steal the bodies of Starters, she recognizes it as murder, in contrast to Madison who is occupied by an Ender who sees it only as kidnapping.

Callie recognizes what the body bank does is a form a slavery where the bodies are used for the pleasure and the whims of the Ender's.

 While Starters has an interesting concept, its complex storyline meant that some things weren't always clear or explained. Price never really expanded on why the government should or would get involved in using the bodies of teens supplied by Prime. We don't know why the Enders live to be so old. We also don't know the outcome of the war for other parts of the US or for the Pacific countries involved in the war. Readers know very little about the Old Man, his true identity and how he came to be. It's possible Price will develop this further in the next book, filling in the details as required.

Starters is a suspenseful, intensely satisfying book that will leave readers anxiously anticipating the next installment.

This novel  has a magnificent book cover that was brilliantly designed by Melissa Greenberg.

Book Details: 
Starters by Lissa Price
Random House: Delacorte Press    2012
336 pp.

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