Elisa Nader's Escape from Eden is a action packed YA thriller set in the jungles of South America, and pairs perfectly with other dystopian YA thrillers released this year, particularly Jeff Hirsch's masculine macho cult thriller, The Darkest Path. Like Path, the main character Mia, seeks a way out of the confines of religious life. Strict cult guidelines shape both Path and Eden, and both authors are pluck upon a new strain of the dystopian genre. Eden features a cute heroine, who has mommy issues (and it’s easy to see why) and along the way becomes close with the handsome rebellious Gabriel, a new addition to Eden's Flock. Like Path, Eden explores heavy concepts, religious control, human slavery, deception, and the mundanity of evil.
Eden's Flock, named after a character, Reverend Eden (the town is Edenton) is like many other cults, separating children from their parents and reinforcing traditional gender roles, and upholding a patriarchy. Reverend Eden is a condensation of so many real and fictional cult leaders; he's easy to hate, and has many henchmen to do his heavy lifting. As with most YA novels, the adults are static characters, Mia's own mother is no different, and like Mia she is also a victim, for Reverend Eden is a slick sadistic prick who deals in flesh, and alters memory and minds in the name of fatherly protection. The newcomer, the troublesome Gabriel discovers Eden's secret, a mirror community, a ying to Edenton's yang, where young people are brought drugged to serve the pleasure of the Reverend's customers and contacts, whose involvement hints at the Reverend's long term plans and machinations.
The snappy dialogue is film ready. Gabriel is a likeable rogue and his flirtatious love/hate dynamic with Mia is immensely entertaining. He's handy in a fight as well, and in one particular action sequence serves as Mia's, and her friend, Juanita's savior. But as with most action novels, there is no easy safety. Mia and Gabriel are forced to leave Juanita behind, as well as their innocence as they make their way to San Sebastián and eventually into the Network, a group of people, freedom fighters, perhaps, trying to bust up the cult of Eden. They have a man on the inside, Dr. Gladstone, an homage to Dr. Livingstone--the famous lost Doc of the early 20th century, and Mia and Gabriel soon find themselves back in Edenton, lost in the tangles of the Reverend’s plot, except this time they are here to save and rescue everyone they can.
Escape from Eden, like most YA novels, relies on a myriad of characters to allow Mia and Gabriel to begin as innocent protagonist and end the novel as experienced "adults." Thankfully, Gabriel and Mia do not suffer horrible transgressions (they suffer plenty), they are spared this as the plot moves quickly and the action unfolds with cinematic pace. Eden's heart is less about religion, and more about freedom, and honesty. In the end when Mia and Gabriel orchestrate the freedom of Edenton from the cult's clutches, they also rip off a veil of denial and deception that has been blinding Edenton's residents for years. The novel isn't about the healing, it's about the action that leads up to the conclusion, which frankly is an emotional knot that Nader could continue to unravel if she chooses; her debut sparkles with intensity. Four Stars.