“Dystomance” doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon, and the appetite for YA romance playing out against a backdrop of government oppression remains healthy, judging by the titles storming my goodreads feed. I’ve had varying degrees of success with this particular subgenre, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I prefer those where the romance takes a back seat to the plot and worldbuilding. It’s a personal preference, but I find that the opposite scenario, with the romance centre stage and the world set up to fuel romantic angst, makes for less of a satisfying reading experience.
by Kristen Simmons
So while I approached Article 5 with some trepidation, and I would still shelve it along with its apocalyptic and dystopian romance companions, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I liked this book. I don’t love it and it’s not without issues, primarily of the worldbuilding variety, but this is a solid contender with more substance than a case of tru luv gone awry.
Lately, it only takes accessing the internet or broadly keeping up with global political developments to see that Simmons’ vision of an ultra / neo-conservative United States is not exactly unimaginable. While the book is somewhat sketchy on the rise of this government, the Moral Statues and the war that preceded, the underlying ideas make for a plausible, interesting premise. If the book is rather lacking in explanation (and it is), it does a decent job of creating a stifling atmosphere of control and surveillance by a regressive right-wing government.
During a systematic sweep of the nation to reinstate strict moral codes and “reform” its citizens to traditional gender and family roles, Ember Miller and her mother fall afoul of article 5 of the Moral Statutes, by virtue of Ember’s illegitimacy. Present at their arrest is young officer and Ember’s former neighbour, Chase Jennings, apparently having been completely indoctrinated by the Moral Militia.
The sparseness of back story will doubtless be a major roadblock for some, and that’s understandable. However, to Simmons’ credit, she has crafted a compelling dynamic between the main characters that keeps the book engaging. Rather than relying on an instant connection born out of inexplicable chemistry, Ember and Chase’s relationship is tied to their shared history and complicated by their present circumstances. Ember is an impulsive, scared teenager fearing for the life of her mother and her own safety. Chase is a conflicted young soldier suffering the effects of PTSD and a burdened conscience. While the development of their story is predictably hindered by one of my pet peeves – a willful lack of communication – the plot maintains a brisk pace and the focus is not entirely on the will-they-won’t-they element.
The characters are better fleshed out here than some comparable reads of late, and Simmons’ incorporation of mental health issues is insightful without being obtrusive and bludgeoning the reader with cumbersome messaging. Chase, in particular, is strong, well-developed character, gradually revealed in more detail throughout the story. And while Ember was not always a character I cared for, I appreciated the fact that she had agency and motivation independent of the romance subplot. As she gains understanding she becomes a more sympathetic character, and one that I warmed to as her story progressed.
The writing of Article 5 is brisk and even – and as the conduit of Ember’s voice, it’s articulate and aware. It’s a fast paced story and a relatively quick read, with compelling stakes and an ending that avoids cliffhangers, yet leaves the way open for Simmons to further develop her characters and the world they live in.
While I would have preferred more detailed development and solid explanation for the premise, I still found Article 5 held its own in a crowded field, and I look forward to reading the sequel.