Book jacket cover for the Lissa Price book "Starters." (Random House )
Random House Children's Books: 352 pp., $17.99, ages 12 and up
It's often been said that youth is wasted on the young. In "Starters," the outstanding young-adult novel from debut author Lissa Price, that premise is pushed to an apocryphal limit that's only possible in sci-fi as wealthy geriatrics rent the bodies of nubile teens.
In this clever and creepy tale with faint echoes of "The Stepford Wives" and "The Hunger Games," 16-year-old Callie Woodland is desperate. She and her 7-year-old brother, Tyler, along with quasi-love interest Michael, have been squatting in a vacant apartment building, having lost their parents a year earlier to the Spore Wars. The genocide spores killed everyone between ages 20 and 60, leaving only the very young and very old to coexist. Callie's brother is ill, but she doesn't have the funds to take care of him, so she does what many teens with strong family values would do. She investigates ways to provide.
Unfortunately, there aren't that many options in a dystopian society with such lopsided wealth. Teens have been forbidden from work and are so poor they're forced to steal, whereas the so-called Enders, most of whom are more than 100, have guaranteed employment, live in mansions and indulge in plastic surgery. For Callie, the best option to help her family is Prime Destinations in Beverly Hills — a body bank that pairs moneyed Enders with good-looking teens who are willing to rent their bodies by the day, week or month. Callie could earn enough money to buy a house and feed her family for a year simply by renting her body three times.
The author is an Angeleno, and her story line seems to have been influenced (at least in part) by L.A. car culture. When Callie signs the contract to rent herself, she's immediately stripped to bare skin and sent through a human carwash to rid her of street grime. She's then outfitted with something akin to an engine control unit — a neurochip embedded in her brain — and detailed with a manicure, pedicure, haircut and makeup that transform her into a flawless beauty. Looking in the mirror, Callie notes, in this story told from her perspective, her new and improved appearance is "what every girl could look like, if she had endless resources."
The Enders, meanwhile, treat their rented teen bodies as if they were Hertz loaners. Prime Destinations strictly forbids car racing, sky diving or sex in rented bodies, but that doesn't prevent many Ender renters from behaving recklessly. The rentals have no idea what's happening to their bodies, which are being controlled via neurochip by the Enders, whose bodies are on life support at Prime Destinations and whose brains control the action.
Callie's chip, however, is defective. Callie is supposed to wake up at Prime Destinations only at the end of a monthlong rental. Instead, she wakes up in a nightclub where she can hear the voice of her renter, and the two wrestle for control of Callie's mind and body.
"Starters" simultaneously exploits the comedic and nefarious possibilities of old minds inhabiting young bodies: There's the fact that Enders in rented teen bodies prefer hanging out not with real teens but with other renting Enders, so they can talk about knitting and other senior fare. In her rented life, Callie begins to fall in love with a teen she meets while living like a rich person. She also uncovers the real motives behind Prime Destinations in a fast-paced, high-stakes narrative in which few characters are what they seem.
The only thing better than a terrific concept is one that is as well executed as "Starters." Readers who have been waiting for a worthy successor to Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" will find it here. Dystopian sci-fi at its best, "Starters" is a terrific series kickoff with a didn't-see-that-coming conclusion that will leave readers on the edges of their seats, waiting for the second and final book, "Enders," which will be out this year.