Title: Don’t Turn Around (PERSEFoNE #1)
Author: Michelle Gagnon
Publisher: HarperCollins on August 28th, 2012
Sixteen-year-old Noa has been a victim of the system ever since her parents died.Now living off the grid and trusting no one, she uses her hacking skills to stay anonymous and alone. But when she wakes up on a table in a warehouse with an IV in her arm and no memory of how she got there, Noa starts to wish she had someone on her side.
Enter Peter Gregory. A rich kid and the leader of a hacker alliance, Peter needs people with Noa’s talents on his team. Especially after a shady corporation threatens his life in no uncertain terms. But what Noa and Peter don’t realize is that Noa holds the key to a terrible secret, and there are those who’d stop at nothing to silence her for good.
Michelle Gagnon’s first YA offering has been lauded as The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo for teens – and not undeservedly: both novels sport computer hacker protagonists, themes, and a break-neck pace. As far as I’m concerned, that’s where the similarities end.
While Don’t Turn Around is narrated by several characters, protagonist Noa is obviously the star of the show. A brilliant hacker, Noa sets up a fake foster family and a new identity to escape the miserable conditions of The Centre (an ominously named group home for troubled youth). The death of her parents and the subsequent horrors of the foster system have made Noa aloof and fiercely independent…an independence that’s threatened when she wakes up captive on an operating table.
To solve the mystery of who abducted her – and what they’ve done to her – Noa reluctantly teams up with Peter, a fellow computer geek responsible for the hacktivist group /ALLIANCE/. Through this anonymous online forum, Peter and other talented hackers (including Noa) target and reveal perpetrators of social injustice. Initially Noa finds Peter’s affluence and privilege grating, but she warms up to him when he proves both clever and trustworthy. The fact that he’s good looking probably doesn’t hurt either.
Peter wants answers, too. Answers about his parents’ involvement with the top-secret “Project Persefone.” Answers about the Project’s thugs tracking his every move. Most of all, Peter wants answers about the lethal virus PEMA – the virus that killed his brother.
Gagnon’s portrayal of the fear and paranoia associated with PEMA was really well done, and it actually reminded me of the reaction to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. Noa’s fear that her abductors may have infected her with PEMA was palpable and contributes a sense of urgency that keeps the pace of the storyline moving forward even in slower moments.
And boy, were there some slower moments! Despite being a thriller, the plot of Don’t Turn Around really lurched around in some places. The chapters narrated by Peter’s girlfriend Amanda were particularly dull and sometimes her perspective annoyed me; of course social justice initiatives and advocacy are important, but it’s difficult to connect with a character when they use those activities to justify their judgemental and self-righteous attitude. I got the sense that Gagnon intended for Amanda to come off as a bit snobby, but since her attitude never changed she just became unbearable.
As much as I disliked Amanda, I loved Noa. Her street smarts and general badassery made her seem cool and admirable, while her loneliness and vulnerability kept her from becoming too unrealistic. A dry sense of humor is a must-have in a protagonist, and that was definitely in abundance. Peter also had some pretty good one-liners, usually mocking Noa’s trademark aloofness.
Despite some flaws in pacing and character development, I enjoyed Don’t Turn Around and will probably read the sequel. Noa was spunky and smart, and I think that Peter definitely has potential for growth in the sequel. But is it wrong to hope that in the next installment Amanda either has a lobotomy or tragically contracts PEMA? I really couldn’t stand that girl.