Niko by Kayti Nika Raet

Niko cover

Niko hunched deeper into her jacket, the zipper grazing her earlobe with hungry teeth. She resisted the urge to run, only prey ran; and no one could outrun a Slither. The remnant of that failure was a common sight Outside: twisted bodies with their chests cracked open and their hearts missing. Niko had no intention of becoming prey.

She walked down the center of the street skirting potholes filled with water from a recent rain. The acid had slowly bored its way through the concrete leaving craters that reflected the moonlight in oily smears. Niko adjusted her grip on the bat; she could feel her heartbeat in the press of palm against wood. She shouldn’t be out so late. She should have done like every other sensible person and stayed locked inside. But her brothers were hungry and she had promised them that this time, her third day of scavenging through corroded and abandoned buildings, she’d find them something to eat. It meant she had to go out further than usual and now shadow had fallen.

Niko is responsible for her two younger brothers, but although she cares deeply for them, she’s not the nurturing kind. She can’t afford to be. Her protection takes the form of searching for food, and fighting off the Slithers who’d like to eat their innards for breakfast. So we first meet our eponymous heroine doing what she does best: killing monsters.

I was committed to Niko from her first appearance. Hers is a violence born of necessity, as she fends off zombie-like Slithers with improvised weaponry and dodges the puddles of dangerously acidic rain. She’s strong, and circumstances have hardened her, but she retains a heart and a sense of optimism against all odds. When she returns from her scavenging mission to find her home on fire, however, her resilience sorely tested and she’s pushed close to despair.

I was disappointed that, although the book quickly drew me in, the writing was let down by sloppy editing and particularly wayward punctuation. I do beta reading for a handful of authors, so I’m fairly good at ignoring such things when a story has me by the throat, but I know some other readers would find it really off-putting.

There’s a lot to recommend Niko, though, if you can get past the typos.

In the overpopulated field of YA dystopia, there’s a severe shortage of black authors and black heroines; Raet gives us a post-apocalyptic world populated with a realistic balance of ethnic groups. The setting is different to the usual dystopian fare, too; following the collapse of civilisation, no single, dictatorial force has seized power here. Rather, society consists of a loose collection of struggling settlements Outside, and then there are the Cities, which have their own governing bodies and offer some degree of protection to citizens in exchange for an exorbitant entry fee and draconian rules.

Following the destruction of her home, Niko is taken to Amaryllis City, and learns that not everyone has the speed or agility required to battle the Slithers. Rather, it’s a very rare characteristic, and the science behind this is limited and carefully guarded. Very little about the Slithers is public knowledge, in fact, from their origins to how they’re linked to the acid rain, and this sets up a number of interesting questions that I’m sure will be explored further in later books.

As much as I loved Niko herself, I was rather less enamoured of the group who recruit her. There’s Ben, who leers at Niko constantly and sexualises her against her express wishes, although we’re then given to understand that he’s “not really so bad” when Niko gets used to him. There’s Malik, who kisses her but turns out to be in a relationship already. And then there’s the general tendency towards secrecy and manipulation, which doesn’t sit well with me (or with Niko), however noble the goal.

This was an intriguing introduction to Niko and the society she inhabits, with a lot of potential for development as the series progresses.

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