Fans of dystopian romance will likely find much to enjoy in Under This Forgetful Sky, Lauren Yero’s debut novel and a classic tale of star-crossed lovers on a mission who become caught up in the dirty politics of their homelands. Through alternating chapters voiced by 16-year-old Rumi, from the Upper City town of St. Iago, and 15-year-old Paz, from the Lower City town of Paraíso, Yero paints a vivid portrait of divergent lifestyles and world views. More than high walls separate the two territories.
The citizens of St. Iago are pampered and protected but psychologically manipulated. They literally see the world through “rose-colored” glasses, which they are forbidden to remove in public. Rumi explains, “The last time I’d seen the world without the filter of my specs, I was too young to remember. Were the houses real but the colors fake? Was the grass real but not the trees? … The unreality of it all had started getting to me lately. It reeked of nostalgia for life before the Breach. Life before the walls.”
Also forbidden is an “unhealthy” attachment to one’s family heritage: “From the earliest days of my Citizen Training, I’d been taught that any connection to my family’s history and traditions was unpatriotic. To be a good citizen of Upper City meant to leave behind the ugly baggage of the world that came before.”
Paz’s concerns are more life-and-death, as she experiences the daily suffering of her people, including her own family. “None of us had been safe since before the Breach,” she says. “The chemfields and the minefields, the poisons bleeding their filth into the river — all of them shared the same name. And that name was Upper City.” Lower City residents see the physical world as it really is, but the natural beauty of their surroundings has been nearly destroyed by Upper City’s wanton poisoning of their environment with its own trash and toxins. As a result, many children, including Paz, are born with birth defects such as withered arms or twisted legs. “Why did the people of Upper City get to stand on our backs and live a life of dreams when we were out here wasting away?” demands Paz. It’s enough to attract her to the vicious rebel group Las Oscuras, which promises to make the people of Upper City pay with their lives for what they have done.
After his father, a government official, is the victim of a politically motivated poisoning, Rumi decides to travel to Lower City in search of an antidote. Once there, he’s captured and tortured by Las Oscuras. Paz is also captured but decides to pledge her allegiance to the rebels. Her first assignment? Pretend to befriend Rumi, guide him to his destination, and obtain the antidote for Lower City instead. Before long, Paz’s grudging respect for and attraction to Rumi begin to complicate the plan. “I tried to remember my anger,” she says. “Anger had gotten me into this, and anger was the only thing that could see me through. If I could just keep hating him — if he wasn’t a boy with thoughts and memories and a family, with a smile and hands and a wounded leg. If he was just a mission I had to complete.”
As Paz struggles with her feelings, Rumi develops a new perspective on the web of lies he left behind in Upper City and the terrifying, violent world he sees before him — one that he is only able to navigate without dying because of Paz. He finally questions whether the founders really built the walls that divide them in a time of unprecedented scarcity, violence, and disease to protect humanity’s achievements, as he was taught. Perhaps the reasons were less noble: “So we wouldn’t have to hear the voices outside, the screaming. So we wouldn’t have to ask ourselves why we weren’t helping.”
Yero, a Cuban American from Florida who now makes her home in western North Carolina, has built a complex and fascinating world, beautifully rendered. The setting is loosely based on her travels in Chile, and she weaves touches of South American culture and language throughout the novel. It’s the perfect backdrop to a journey from ignorance to enlightenment for Rumi and from hatred to compassion for Paz. Luckily, the author leaves lots of room for further exploration of the troubled world and its citizens, which will come as good news to readers of this gritty yet tender adventure with a conscience.
Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.