Sugar Skulls

Sugar Skulls

Last week, I reviewed at a novel set in a fascist dystopia. Today, let’s take a look at something a little different.

Sugar Skulls was written by Lisa Mantchev and Glen Dallas and first published in 2015. It is a science-fiction novel set in a city powered by the energy of teenagers. The book is a stand-alone story, so you don’t have to have read any of Mantchev or Dallas’s other work to fully appreciate it.

Cyrene is a prototype city, designed to solve the planet’s energy crisis. People under the age of twenty-one are offered a life of luxury based on their ability to produce energy to power the city grid. Those that provide the most are rewarded with all the credits, alcohol and drugs that they can dream of. Luckily, everyone is implanted with nanomachines that take care of the worst side effects, ensuring that no one suffers overdoses, STDs or unwanted pregnancies.

Vee, lead singer of an all-girl rock band called the Sugar Skulls, is the latest pet project of the Corporation who run Cyrene. Her band is the most popular in the city and Vee’s voice has the power to whip up crowds into a frenzy, producing record amounts of energy. However, Vee is little more than a prisoner. Her overbearing manager, Damon, controls her entire life and she’s just starting to get tired of this fact.

Things change when Vee meets Micah – a young man who found himself permanently severed from the grid when he was nearly killed by an illegal street drug. The two grow obsessed with each other at first sight and soon embark on quest in the name of freedom and justice, to take down a ruthless ring of drug dealers and find out what secrets hide in Vee’s fragmented memories…

Before I begin, I feel obliged to post a trigger warning. Although Sugar Skulls is listed as a teen novel on Amazon, I don’t really agree with this classification. The story contains very adult themes throughout. Bad language, depictions drug and alcohol use and sex scenes can be frequently found within the story. On top of this, there is also some violence that takes the form of torture and rape. While the novel isn’t overly graphic, these events are ever present and so this is definitely not a book for younger teenagers. It’s certainly more of a new adult novel.

I bought this novel on the strength of its blurb (and its rather beautiful cover). Really, who couldn’t be attracted to this premise? Dystopian novels are now dime a dozen and so it takes a really unique concept to stand out from the crowd. At a glance, Cyrene seems more like a utopia. I mean, the people that live there are offered the life of their dreams. It’s kind of an adult Pleasure Island. They are encouraged to party and live it large in order to produce the greatest amount of energy possible (a process that does not seem to harm the teens in any way). Regardless of your views towards recreational sex and drug use, the freedom to be paid to enjoy yourself is something that anyone could get behind.

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel that the novel handled these themes all that well. Readers are really thrown into the deep end of this story. The early chapters are pretty relentless, flinging new words and concepts at the reader left, right and centre without ever stopping to explain how the mechanics of the world work. While I did slowly begin to piece things together, I felt that this really did detract from the underlying plot. I spent so much time trying to suss out what the grid was, what thrum collectors were for and who the greyfaces were (I’m still not sure about the latter) that I couldn’t really focus on the bigger picture.

Even as I finished the novel, I realised that there were still holes in my understanding. A good example of this is Vee’s voice. Over the course of the novel, Vee proves that she can do incredible things by just singing. She causes the grid to blackout more than once and even controls a whole army of ravers like some kind of cyberpunk Pied Piper. Yet I never understood why. Is it something to do with her malfunctioning nanotech? Are we supposed to believe that Vee is just that good a singer? I felt that the novel just wanted me to accept that this was possible but I found that I couldn’t. This wasn’t a world where magic existed. I really needed an explanation of how Vee came by these superpowers.

The structure of the story itself was also not without its problems. Firstly was the use of language. The novel is very lyrical which sometimes did work. It lends itself nicely to the cyberpunk aesthetic, adding the melodrama and neo-gothic imagery that suits this kind of setting really well. Yet it also seemed to go a little too far. At times, the prose was just too purple for my taste and so the tension was muffled by all of the flowery descriptions.

Because of this, the story sometimes lost sight of its focus. A good example of this can be found in Micah’s story arc. Micah is supposed to be hunting for a drug dealer but this is frequently swept aside within the story. I didn’t even realise that this was his motivation until I was over half way through the book. Vee’s plot is a little stronger but never really feels that connected to Micah’s. I didn’t even really understand why they were drawn to each other, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

The story was also a little too fragmented. It was told entirely in first person, switching between two narrators (Vee and Micah). Particularly towards the start of the story, the narrative voice changed every few pages and, as both characters spoke in a very similar way, this quickly grew confusing. However, this did seem to settled down after a while. The second half of the novel flowed a lot better than the first, taking more time to develop the plot and ending with a rather exciting climax. While I still felt as though this was too little, too late, at least it didn’t drag in the same way that the first half did.

In terms of characterisation, the novel was actually fairly good. While I didn’t enjoy the insta-love roots of Vee and Micah’s relationship (seriously, I still don’t understand how too characters can fall madly in love when they haven’t ever spoken), the two of them did share some pretty sweet moments in the second half of the novel and I definitely didn’t want to see any harm come to them. I also really appreciated that both of the characters were as strong as each other. Micah saved Vee’s life and later Vee returned the favour. It was a relationship of equals, not one where the frail female needs constant protection.

I think I should also briefly mention Damon. Damon was my favourite character in the story. I use this term loosely as he was a truly disgusting human being but I am a sucker for a strong villain. Damon started out the novel being a little overbearing but gradually grew more sinister as his backstory is revealed. He’s more than a little creepy and his motivation really made my skin crawl. The twist concerning him was definitely my favourite part of the story.

However, I also feel as though I should quickly talk about my feelings towards Vee’s backstory as I did find it far too gratuitous. You know how I feel about rape being used as a plot device in a story. Due to Vee’s missing memories, the gang rape didn’t affect her character growth at all. It hasn’t shaped who she is – she barely remembers that it happened at all. It just exists to give her a hideous past trauma. Really, the same effect could have been obtained by anything – drug overdose, car crash. It didn’t have to be a rape at all. I just felt that it was added because it’s viewed as being something horrible that happens to women, which is something I really wish that writers would stop stooping to.

So, I guess it’s time to wrap up. While the ideas behind Sugar Skulls showed promise, I unfortunately didn’t enjoy it as a whole. The novel was difficult to get into and its plot frequently disappeared beneath the over descriptive prose. Although it offered some decent characters and a fast-paced ending, this was unfortunately not enough to save the novel for me. I’d probably only recommend it to really big fans of the genre.

Sugar Skulls can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. SarahClare
    Dec 15, 2015 @ 23:45:28

    I’ve not seen this book about.. but man, that cover! Heh heh. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this book 🙂


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