Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Books: "The Life Below" By Alexandra Monir

The Life Below
By Alexandra Monir
HarperTeen, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; hardcover, 320 pages, $18.99; ages 14 and up; available Tuesday, February 18

Iranian-American author and recording artist Alexandra Monir has written several popular young adult novels, including the renowned The Final Six, which debuted in 2018 and hit the top spot on the Amazon bestseller charts in multiple categories and was named a Barnes & Noble 2018 Summer Reading List selection.

Sony Pictures acquired the film rights to The Final Six - the start of Monir's science fiction series - which was the result of Monir's extensive research into the inner workings of the space program, combined with her daring imagination and ability to write authentic characters who resonate with young people.

Monir left readers with a major cliffhanger at the end of The Final Six, and the highly-anticipated sequel, The Life Below, is here.

Set in a near-future Earth that's been largely destroyed due to climate change, the series features a group of twenty-four teens from around the world who have been handpicked by the United Nations and the international space agencies to compete for six spots on a mission to fins a new home - on Jupiter's moon, Europa.

With the Final Six selected and drafted to space at the end of Book 1, The Life Below is a next-generation 2001: A Space Odyssey, as the teens set on a harrowing, one-way journey, where everything is not as it seems.

The stakes are higher than ever, which will thrill returning fans, as well as new ones. This kind of science fiction feels eerily possible, with questions about the future of the world in the news nearly every day. 

In addition to the larger-than-life storyline, the beating heart of the series is the grounded and poignant love story between the two leads, Naomi and Leo, who must overcome extraordinary obstacles to find their way back to each other.

Monir shares her pride in and passion for her series' protagonist, stating that, "In Naomi Ardalan, I got to create a character truer to me than any I've ever written before. Growing up an Iranian-American teenager in a post-9/11 world, I was constantly questioning my identity and where I fit in, and I would have given anything to find a character like Naomi in one of the many books I read. Now, in some ways it feels like I'm giving my younger self a present: a lead character of my heritage, in a story where the focus isn't her ethnicity but instead places her as the heroine of a sci-fi adventure."

The chapters alternate between Leo and Naomi's voices, and in this part, Naomi describes the trip to Europa, "The view is what makes it real. I could almost pretend, during liftoff, that I was simply on the most terrifying roller-coaster ride of my life, squeezing my eyes shut and freezing my emotions cold for those eight and a half minutes. But now we're here, well above the stratosphere - and with the sounds of celebration bursting through my earpiece, I have no choice but to look.

"I unlatch my safety strap, and my body begins to rise. The feeling of weightlessness is a heady rush, like swimming with no water. I float toward the cockpit's cupola window, bumping and jostling against my crewmates along the way, as the six of us fumble through the first minutes of zero gravity. It doesn't matter that we practiced this half a dozen times in the Vomit Comet at space camp - everything becomes trickier once it's real.

"I gaze out the window, and the sight sends goose bumps crawling across my skin. It's like I've woken up inside one of the posters that used to hang on my wall as a kid, with the all-encompassing darkness, the silver specks of stars peeking through the black. And then, just below our ship, I see the massive curve of blue and white, shielded by nothing but the thin, glowing ring of the atmosphere. Earth looks so fragile, so defenseless from up here. And suddenly, everything I've bottled inside rises to the surface. A sob lodges in my throat, a wave of grief so intense that for a second, I can't breathe. Until a familiar voice shakes me out of my thoughts. 

"'Well done, crew! Congratulations on a successful launch.'

"It's General Sokolov, our commander on the ground, speaking to us from Houston's Mission Control.

"'Your loved ones and the public back home are all thrilled to see you achieve this critical first step in our mission,' she continues, sounding uncharacteristically delighted. 'Once you reached 330,000 feet, the Pontus Habitation Module attached to our booster inflated automatically to its full size. Your home in space is now open, and accessible through the airlock. Aside from Jian Soo and, of course, Cyb, the rest of you won't be seeing this flight capsule again until Mars.'

"I glance across the capsule at each of my crewmates, wondering if any of them feels the way I do - this growing sense of panic as we cut our ties to Earth - or if they're all just thrilled to be getting away, escaping our dying planet before it kills us too. It's impossible to guess what the others are thinking, when I barely know all but one of them...the same person I wish I'd never met.

"Beckett Wolfe hovers near me, steadying himself on a handrail, and I inch away from him, gripping the back of one of the launch seats to keep my body from drifting. I know what he's capable of, how he wouldn't flinch before sabotaging any one of us - just like he did to Leo. And as I glance at him now, my nausea returns. His face just rests in a smug expression, like someone whose daily life consists of getting his way. I guess that's the perk of being rich and power-adjacent, the privileged nephew of Mr. President."

Alexandra Monir and HarperTEEN will be celebrating the publication of The Life Below on Thursday, February 20 at Barnes & Noble Tribeca (97 Warren Street; (212)587-5389) at 6:30 pm. There will be treat! For more information, click here.

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