First off, I must add, that Helen Brain's The Thousand Steps (the first of her Elevation trilogy) has scored what I think is quite possibly the best-looking cover for South African youth literature that I've seen in a long, long time. Wow. It's the kind of book that just begs to be picked up and admired.
The story itself stood out for me because while it plays on the usual "chosen one" riff that is so common in SFF, it does so with originality and nuance that I find is so often lacking in the genre. There's a lot going on under the skin.
Ebba den Eeden, our protagonist, starts out life in an underground bunker, where she and two thousand other young people are set to work shifts producing food for their community. Or so they think. She's led to believe that the world outside their bunker has been destroyed during a great cataclysm. That is, until she is miraculously "Elevated" at the eleventh hour before her execution, that is. (A rescue in the nick of time that seems awfully convenient, if you ask me.)
Ebba's Cape Peninsula is vastly different to the one we know today, and I loved seeing an environment I know defamiliarised. The higher sea level means that the mountain chain of the region has become a string of islands, and the communities living there have a hard life: food is scarce and the disparity between the haves and the have-nots is tremendous.
Coping with this sudden turnaround in her world, from being but a lowly drudge to one of the elite, is not easy, and while on one hand I felt that Ebba herself lacked agency in book one, this was, I believe, in keeping with her character development – she is way out of her depth and struggling to know her place and understand the power that she can wield.
Yet her intentions are good, even if her naïveté is painful, and though I cringed often as I saw her trying to navigate this society in which she found herself, her words and deeds come from a good place. It cannot be easy for a girl who's followed orders her entire life to kick against an authoritarian regime has infiltrated nearly every facet of the people's lives. Ebba is very much in a gawky phase in this story, where she hasn't fully grasped her power – so expect her to make mistakes and flounder a bit, and for others to take the initiative.
There are some lovely secondary characters, like Isi the dog and, of course, Aunty Figgy, whose special brand of magic happens in the kitchen. The world Helen conjures up feels tactile, as if it could possibly just exist in a slightly left-of-parallel universe. Yes, yes, in case you're asking, there is a kinda love triangle. Well not quite. But you'll have to see. I did feel as if the love interest was a bit quick on the draw, but then again there's a lot happening, and we get to the end of book one at a rapid rate.
I must add that much of book one does come across like an extended introduction to the setting, giving us all the main players and an indication of conflict – so don't expect any closure. There are loads of threads left hanging, and I'm looking forward to seeing how Helen will weave them together.
My verdict: This is a super awesome story. It reads quickly, and there's much to unpack, and I'm looking forward to seeing where Helen takes this. Five bats squeaking out of auntie Nerine's hat for The Thousand Steps.