A fast-paced, gritty sci-fi thriller with compelling characters and plot.
This debut novel already has both a sequel and a Netflix film in the works, and with good reason. The Upper World is gritty, fast-paced, and compelling in both plot and characters. Esso is a troubled teen who finds himself able to see snapshots of the past and the future, in an undefined place only known as The Upper World. When he sees a snapshot of a horrific event involving his friends (and enemies), he is desperate to try and stop it from happening. Fifteen years in the future, Rhia, an orphan bouncing from foster home to foster home, discovers that her tutor, Dr Esso, may be the only one with the answers she craves about parents she never met.
The book alternates chapters between Esso, whose timeline is set in the now, and Rhia, 15 years in the future. Though first person is used for both characters, their voices are clear, and there is no mistaking whose head the reader is in at any time. The font choices in the book further highlight the point of view, with Esso’s chapters using the classic Times New Roman font, while Rhia’s chapters use a modern sans font, also emphasising her timeline set in the future.
The book uses a very distinctive voice throughout, with Esso’s African/British heritage coming through strongly in the language and slang. Although this took a little getting used to, and I found I had to look up the occasional slang word, it was consistent throughout, and very firmly places the reader inside Esso or Rhia’s head, with all of their views of the world around them.
The theory of relativity and time travel are deeply explored throughout, though not so much that the plot is dragged to a halt. To avoid this, there are appendices in the back where further explanation on the math behind these theories is provided. The additional information was interesting, but not necessary to the story if you don’t find that sort of thing of interest. I chose not to skip to the appendix each time a reference appeared, instead reading all of them at the end, and it did not diminish my enjoyment of or understanding of the story in any way.
This is an impressive debut novel with none of the flaws that often mark a first novel. The writing is tight and precise, the plot direct. Comparisons have been drawn between Fadugba’s writing and a Christopher Nolan epic, which is apt, and it is no surprise that it is already being turned into a film. Fans of sci-fi and thrillers will no doubt be swept away by The Upper World. I can’t wait for the sequel.
Reviewed by Kristin Stefanoff
Distributed by: Penguin Books
Released: 17 August 2021