Review – Welcome to Orphancorp and Psynode

***Warning: spoilers ahead!***

So it’s been a while … welcome to my first book review for 2019! I’ve decided to write a combined review of Welcome to Orphancorp (2015) and Psynode (2017), two awesome sci-fi punk novellas by Marlee Jane Ward, published by Seizure/Xoum.

Survival in the face of brutality  

Welcome to Orphancorp is a gritty, gut-wrenching story of survival, friendship and enduring love in the face of brutality. Set in a not-so-distant future where unwanted children are raised in corporate institutions, seventeen-year-old Miriiyanan – Mirii – refuses to let her spirit break. Yet just one week before she’s due for Age Release, Mirii is transferred to Verity House, where she must abide by the rules … or face the Consequences.

From the very first page, we see the grim world of Orphancorp through Mirii’s eyes. She is shackled and gagged, but that doesn’t prevent her from goading the ‘Aunties’ and ‘Uncles’. I love Mirii’s sassy, smartarse comments. She brings humour to the cold concrete floors and snotty-nosed toddlers of Verity House, highlighting the absurdities of their situation.

 “I mean, they call them ‘the Consequences of movement violations’, but shackles is what they are.

 ‘It’s been a pleasure,’ I say, but it comes out all garbled.”

Ward is a master at building narrative tension and playing with the vulnerabilities of her characters. Mirii’s story unfolds as a countdown from ‘Seven Days’ to ‘One Day’ until her Age Release. Momentum builds as Mirii attracts friends and enemies, and meets Vu, a total babe. Mirii and Vu engage in some late-night shenanigans, and soon profess their ‘like-like’ feelings for one another.

Yet it’s a short-lived romance. When Vu is transferred from Verity House in suspicious circumstances, Mirii and the gang are caught trying to hack her file. Mirii must then deal with the Consequences of her actions: Time Out.

Throughout the story, Mirii’s authentic voice grips you more and more tightly. There were moments when I held my breath in anticipation – like when Mirii shifts in and out of consciousness in the cells, and when she mulls over the injustices of her existence, tattooing herself with a ‘V’.

 “I keep my shirt hiked up and stare at the tattoo in the mirror…

 V. For Vu, of course … Yeah, maybe for vengeance, too.”

The characters’ colloquial language, violent outbursts and erotic ‘cuddle parties’ create a convincing world of undereducated kids where “the hurt and the good feelings get all mixed up”. Ward is also very progressive in her explorations of sexuality and gender fluidity. No labels are used, but Mirii is 100% queer. She’s attracted to people of all genders, including Ara, a non-binary character.

 “I can’t tell if they’re male or female, but it doesn’t matter because sweet babes need no gender.”

Overall, Welcome to Orphancorp is a gripping, gruelling tale of what happens when children are deprived of love, empathy and opportunities in life. It has many parallels with the plight of asylum seeker children on Nauru – which may be why it’s so unnerving to read.

Fighting for love, injustice or both?

Psynode is the follow-on story from Welcome to Orphancorp, set just a few months after Mirii’s Age Release from Verity House. Here, we are dipped into the underworld of semi-futuristic Sydney, with its boarding houses, illegal tech, grubby street markets and secretive corporations.

Similar to its predecessor, each chapter of the novella depicts a single day. It begins with Mirii’s plot to rescue Vu from her suspected prison: a powerful facility called Allnode. But first, Mirii must go undercover as an employee in Allnode’s Logistics division and experience its slave labour conditions firsthand.

 “…what if there was more? More than just trading my labour for some faceless bunch of rich jerks who’d work me until I died and just fill my spot with the next desperate babe.”

Throughout Psynode, Mirii’s colloquialisms and fierce determination felt so familiar. As always, I was hooked by Mirii’s plight; Ward’s writing style has an immediacy and urgency that draws me in.

However, I wasn’t completely convinced by Mirii’s love for Vu. Mirii endures appalling circumstances and almost gets suspended half-dead in a body bag – all for the sake of rescuing Vu. To me, Mirii’s motivation is less about Vu herself, and more about fighting for injustice. Vu is a symbol of hope for the future, and Mirii must keep on fighting, keep risking everything for a chance at that future.

 “That’s why I’m here. Not to build a cosy life for myself, but to find Vu and make sure she gets the chance to try and build one for herself.”

I also found it a bit unrealistic that Mirii is befriended by Rowe, the daughter of Dr Singh, head of Psynode’s Neuro unit. Rowe is a smart, striking character, but why would a young woman accustomed to the high life want to work at Allnode?

Rowe’s character progression is very rapid, as she discovers the truth of her father’s human experiments and promptly joins the rebels. Again, I wasn’t convinced about her motivations, but the characters are erratic in general, matching the fast-paced tone of the story.

The final two chapters become nail-bitingly bloody. After the chaos of the Psynode breakout and Mirii’s near-death experience, I felt frustrated and hungry for more when Mirii merely glimpses Vu in the distance – and then she’s gone! Wahhh. Fingers crossed they’ll be reunited in the third book, Prisoncorp, due for release in April 2019. How exciting!