The Prey by Tom Isbell HarperTeen 2015

In the wake of a nuclear war, after an electromagnetic pulse has rebooted civilization, Book is an orphan living at Camp Liberty. All the boys there are not only orphans, but were born with birth defects: One of Book’s legs is shorter than the other.


Book is one year away from the Rite, when all 17-year-olds pledge allegiance to the Republic of the True America, and are then bussed to leadership positions elsewhere in the territory.

Meanwhile, Hope and her twin sister, Faith, are hiding out with their dying father. The three have been in hiding for 10 years because the new government wants twins. Their father wants them to separate in order to increase their chances of survival, but the mind and heart are going to respond differently to such a demand.

Sooner or later, the Boy from chapter one meets up with the Girl in chapter two. That is a given. But it is Camp Liberty, and its counterpart Camp Freedom, that really drive the story

The Prey is a dystopian young adult novel—billed by the publisher as “The Maze Runner meets The Hunger Games”—but The Prey clearly skews towards the younger half of that prized demographic.

School Library Journal pegs the target audience as grades 7 to 10, which strikes me as right on the mark. This means the hero and heroine have strange new feelings, more along the lines of kindred spirits than star-crossed lovers. The romantic relationship is appropriate to this age group, with author Tom Isbell—a UMD theater professor—keeping things to the infield singles.  

The Prey touches on various notions of heroism, represented by more characters than the main pair, which also avoids the trap of the obvious love triangle.

The chapters alternate between Book and Hope, with his story told in first person and hers in third. Having a male first-person voice is certainly different, and switching is quite unusual. I don’t recall an author who’s taken that tack since Stephen King’s Christine in 1983.

The Prey avoids going into detail about the new political order of the Republic of the True America, so the focus is on the characters and not on the how and why behind it all.

This fits right in with the extremist view of political ideologies that calls Democrats liberals and socialists, while Republican conservatives cannot wait to reveal themselves as Fascists. Certainly there are way more dystopian novels predicated on the latter than the former, perhaps because after the end of the world, conservative Republicans will have more guns.

The book’s title is going to make readers of my generation think The Most Dangerous Game more than The Hunger Games, even before the front jacket blurb gives the game way: “In the Republic of the True America, it is always hunting season.”

From that perspective, the main thing The Prey has going for it is that it echoes some familiar historical horrors, but this begs the question as to whether the target audience is going to recognize the allusions. I doubt most young readers would know who Winston Smith or Joseph Mengele were if you explicitly referenced them.

So, assuming you are not a young teen, why would you read this novel? Because there are a whole bunch of elements that adults are going to recognize. Just the names of the characters made me think of Pilgrim’s Progress and the movie Zulu. More contemporary comparisons that come to mind are the novel/movie Holes and one season of the television series Jericho.

The Prey is the first in a trilogy, because what young adult dystopian novel is not these days? The second volume’s direction is not revealed until the end, and it is certainly unexpected, which is another plus.

The most important thing a story can do is to keep you wanting to know what happens next, and on that score, Isbell succeeds. Bonus points for having his students worried that he might put them in his next book.


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