The Floridian model town of Candor is a picture of wholesomeness, its children impeccably behaved. It’s all thanks to Candor’s founder and mayor, Campbell Banks, and the subliminal Messages that he pumps out underneath the town’s ever-present music. Families pay a hefty fee to move to Candor, but the deal they make if life-long; once you start hearing the Messages, even a single night away from them is fatal, and anyone showing signs of deviance may be subjected to a programme of complete mental reconditioning in the ‘Listening Room’.

The only kid who knows about the Messages is the mayor’s son, Oscar who has trained himself to resist, and now maintains the pretence of being a perfect child of Candor, whilst covertly arranging escapes from the town (and supplying clients with CDs of his own counter-Messages) . At the start of the novel, Oscar meets Nia Silva, an edgy new arrival in Candor, as yet unaffected by the Messages; he soon becomes attracted to her, and it’s a race against time for him to keep her as she is – not that the attraction is entirely mutual.

I’d characterise Pam Bachorz’s debut as an interesting novel that doesn’t quite live up to its promise. On a narrative level, Candor is efficiently told, and the multiple iterations of will-they/won’t-they are very nicely handled; there’s no shortage of page-turning tension. But what I find missing is a true sense of the strangeness of this place. That narrative efficiency is perhaps a little too efficient to really build up the atmosphere; yes, I felt the chill of what it means to live in Candor at a couple of plot pivots, but it wasn’t there as a constant note in the background.

Similarly, the novel makes some examination of ethics, but it only goes so far. Campbell and Oscar Banks represent two opposing ‘ sides’, but it’s made clear that both have their rights and wrongs – yet I don’t feel the issues these raise are examined as fully as they merit. Campbell is the villain of the piece, and, though we do learn the reasons behind what has done in Candor, it never really prevents him from being unambiguously a bad guy.

This matters less, though, than the case of Oscar, where I think the novel is aiming for a more firmly ambiguous portrait, and doesn’t quite get to the heart of it. Though he is the novel’s narrator and ‘hero’, Oscar is hardly the most sympathetic character, because he is so self-serving. The question is raised of just how much better he is than his father – after all, Oscar is not above manipulating others for his personal gain, and not always with the excuse that he’s helping them escape. Yet, though the question is asked, it’s not explored in detail, and I think that Candor misses out on some depth as a result.

In sum, Candor is a fast read, and a rather engaging debut – a good way to spend a few hours – but it doesn’t truly linger.

Pam Bachorz’s website

This review is posted in support of ‘women and sf’ week at Torque Control.