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Monday, December 23, 2019

Book Review: The Final Six by Alexandra Monir

The Final Six (The Final Six #1) by Alexandra Monir
Genre: Young Adult (Dystopian / Fantasy Romance)
Date Published: March 6, 2018
Publisher: HarperTeen

When Leo, an Italian championship swimmer, and Naomi, a science genius from California, are two of the twenty-four teens drafted into the International Space Training Camp, their lives are forever altered. After erratic climate change has made Earth a dangerous place to live, the fate of the population rests on the shoulders of the final six who will be scouting a new planet. Intense training, global scrutiny, and cutthroat opponents are only a few of the hurdles the contestants must endure in this competition.

For Leo, the prospect of traveling to Europa—Jupiter’s moon—to help resettle humankind is just the sense of purpose he’s been yearning for since losing his entire family in the flooding of Rome. Naomi, after learning of a similar space mission that mysteriously failed, suspects the ISTC isn’t being up front with them about what’s at risk.

As the race to the final six advances, the tests get more challenging—even deadly. With pressure mounting, Naomi finds an unexpected friend in Leo, and the two grow closer with each mind-boggling experience they encounter. But it’s only when the finalists become fewer and their destinies grow nearer that the two can fathom the full weight of everything at stake: the world, the stars, and their lives.

The Final Six is the first book in The Final Six series by Alexandra Monir. I truly enjoyed this book. It had a Hunger Games feel to it, but it's its own story entirely. Naomi and Leo were fantastic characters. They both had strong motivation for either participating or not participating on this project. I really felt for their situations. They had an attraction pretty early on, but they were cute as they got to know each other and let that attraction grow. This story had a very intriguing premise, and it's a promising start to the series. I definitely want to read more!

Los Angeles, CA

“This is a joke, right?”

I stare at each of the adults filling the principal’s office, waiting for one of them to crack. Whaddya get when you mix a high school junior, two bewildered parents, one NASA rocket scientist, a gun-toting US Army official, and the school principal?

“Naomi,” the woman from NASA begins, saying my name as delicately as though it might break. “It’s not a joke. In fact, you should be very proud. Each member of the Twenty-Four was chosen for a particular skill set or trait that we need for the mission. You were chosen for your brilliant mind and scientific ability. If you make the Final Six, you’ll have a vital part to play.”

My parents clutch each other’s hands. Mom lets out a sob, and a fist tightens around my heart. There’s no way, no way this could be happening—but the grave faces across from me confirm the worst.

“You’re telling me I’ve been drafted?” My voice is whisper thin.

The army officer, Major Lewis, nods. “Yes, though currently your only duty is to International Space Training Camp. The Europa draft won’t be decided until the completion of training camp, at which point you will either be cut and sent back home, or—”

“Or I’ll be deployed to Europa,” I finish his sentence. “For good.”

The room turns silent, except for the sound of my mother crying. I push out of my seat and to her side, wrapping my arms around her as I wonder how many more times I’ll get to do this. How long will it be before I forget what it feels like to hug my mom and dad, before I forget the sound of my brother’s voice?

“You can’t do this.” I raise my eyes pleadingly to the figures looming before us. “If you know as much about me as you say, then you know I have a little brother who needs me. You can’t just split up our family and send me away!”

“Sweetie,” my dad murmurs, his voice breaking. “It’s a draft. That means they can do exactly that.”

“The reality here is that we are at war,” Major Lewis says, eyeing me with a frown. “We’re at war with our own environment, and the fact that you are among the few with a chance to escape makes you one of the lucky ones.”

O-kaaay. I didn’t realize getting kicked off Earth was something to be gratefulfor. But before I can retort, Mom speaks up, taking my hand in hers.

“Please don’t misunderstand my tears, Naomi. Yes, my heart is broken at the thought of separating from you, but I’m . . . I’m thankful that you’re getting another chance.” She looks into my eyes. “I honestly don’t know how much longer we can go on like this. We’ve already been evacuated from three different homes in less than two years—who knows where we’ll be tomorrow? And you know how worried I’ve been about you losing so much weight from the rationing. We’re living in quicksand, and if anyone can be saved from this fate—well, I want it to be you.”

She believes in it. My mouth falls open at the realization that my mother actually believes the hype, that the Final Six can possibly survive this pipe dream of a mission. And even if they—we?—managed to achieve the incredible, I’d choose dying with my family over living with five strangers on Jupiter’s moon any day. But as I look at the hope written across my parents’ faces, I let my protests die on my lips. Instead, I turn to the NASA scientist, Dr. Anderson.

“You say the trip includes a flyby to Mars to pick up the unused supplies from the Athena mission and get a gravity assist to Jupiter, right? Well, how do we know this mission won’t result in the same outcome as the Athena? How do you know we all won’t end up . . .” I don’t bother finishing my sentence. They know the word I’m looking for. Dead.

“It’s simple: Mars was always a gamble—the crew of the Athena knew there was a good chance the planet would prove uninhabitable. But the tragedy caused us to take a closer look at Europa, which was revealed in our robotic missions to have the key ingredients needed to build a new Earth,” Dr. Anderson explains. “Where Mars lacked a viable source of water and oxygen, Europa’s wealth of oceans gives us access to both through water electrolysis. And unlike the Athena mission, the Final Six won’t be spending any time on Martian surface. The spacecraft will manually retrieve the Athena crew’s cache of supplies, and then use a booster to slingshot from Mars orbit to Jupiter. None of you will be exposed to Mars’s atmosphere.”

I can tell by the way my parents are gaping at Dr. Anderson, they’re trying to comprehend the idea of their daughter zipping from one planet to another. But I’m not done with my questions.

“And… what about the supposed intelligent life on Europa?”

Dr. Anderson and Major Lewis exchange a smirk. “That’s just the Space Conspirator and other questionable websites drumming up tabloid fodder. We’ve found no evidence whatsoever of existing life on Europa. You have nothing to worry about.”

I nod, though I’m hardly reassured. Something about her reply feels canned, the way an actress might sound after reciting the same lines twenty times in a row. But I know better than to push it.

Principal Hamilton has remained quiet ever since the announcement, but now she joins the conversation, gesturing to the window. “There’s a crowd forming out there—it looks like the press. Is this why I was asked to call an assembly? Are we going public with the news about Naomi?”

No. Not yet. I shrink back against the couch, wishing I could blend into the upholstery and disappear. But at the principal’s words, Major Lewis and Dr. Anderson spring into action.

“Let’s get Naomi to the auditorium first before letting anyone in. The two of us will remain beside her throughout the press conference and—”

I break in, interrupting the major. “Why? Why do all these people have to know now?”

If there’s any hope of me dodging this draft, it certainly won’t happen with my name and face splashed across the media. The second I am revealed to the world as one of the Twenty-Four, I become theirs—theirs to experiment with, to make into a soldier, to send to another galaxy.

“We have no choice,” Dr. Anderson replies. “As a government agency, NASA is required to report all news to the public within twenty-four hours, and the fact that the draft is a wartime mandate means an even stricter standard of transparency. We were able to hold your name back just long enough to give you this advance notice.” She turns to the principal. “Do you know if the videoconference screens in the auditorium have been set up and connected to Houston yet?”

As Principal Hamilton darts behind her computer and begins clacking away at the keys, I’m tempted to shove everything off her desk, to send the computer crashing to the floor in my frustration.

“Looks like we’re a go,” she says.

Terror bubbles in my chest. I look from the door to the window and back again, but there’s no chance of escape. Even if I did manage to outrun all the adults in this room and get away, it’s not like I could ever get my old life back—not as a Draft Dodger. I have no choice but to comply, and say good-bye . . . to everyone and everything I’ve ever known.

I rise to my feet, a prisoner resigned to walking the plank. “So what happens now?”

Major Lewis cracks a smile. “You’re about to become one of the twenty-four most famous teenagers on Earth.”

* * *

I wait behind the curtain of Burbank High School’s dust-covered stage, flanked by the security guard sworn to “never leave my side” until I’m safely transferred to Space Training Camp. The pounding in my chest and the sweat dampening my brow reminds me of the last time I stood here in the wings, before the drama club’s production of Fiddler on the Roof in my freshman year. I had only two solo lines (“Tradition, tradition!”) but I was more terrified than the leads. That was my first clue that I belong in the classroom, in the science lab, behind a telescope—but never, ever on a stage.

That was the last time most of us set foot in this auditorium. After another season of El NiƱo superstorms raged through LA, tearing the beach cities to shreds and forcing all surviving Angelenos to decamp to the Valley, the school pretty much dropped all extracurriculars. They had bigger things to worry about than drama club and sports—like our survival, and how to accommodate an influx of displaced students, known to us as the West Side Exiles.

I step forward, peering through a slit in the curtains. I can see my classmates and teachers filing into the rows of seats, while giant projection screens unfurl onto all four walls.

“I should warn you that I might throw up,” I mutter to the guard beside me. “Why do they have to make such a spectacle out of this announcement, anyway?”

I don’t expect an answer, but the guard, Thompson, speaks up. “I imagine it’s because the Europa Mission is the one source of distraction and excitement for the public right now. And the greater the public interest, the more bargaining power the space agencies have to lobby Congress for extra funds to send you safely up there.”

He gives me a wink that is meant to be reassuring but instead ties my stomach in knots. This is the problem with being a science nerd—I can’t share in the public’s hope for this mission. I know too much. I know the laundry list of things that can—and invariably will—go wrong.

Just then, through a break in the curtains, I spot the face I love most. My little brother, Sam, is sliding into a seat beside our parents in the front row. He glances from the stage to the surrounding screens, his expression agitated. My heart seizes at the sight.

Even though he’s two years younger, looking at Sam often feels like gazing into a mirror. We share the same dark hair, olive skin, and Persian eyes, the same high cheekbones and dimpled smiles. Of course, neither of us is smiling now. We’ve been attached at the hip since he was born, and now . . . now they’re untethering us. Tears prick at my eyes, but before I can give in to them, I hear the sound of high heels clicking across the foot of the stage, and a hush comes over the room.

“You might have guessed the reason behind today’s assembly,” comes the sound of Dr. Anderson’s voice. “Well, the rumors are true. We are thrilled to introduce you to Burbank High School’s very own finalist in the Twenty-Four, one of just two Americans chosen: Miss Naomi Ardalan!”

The curtain rises, revealing me standing there in a daze, blinking under the glare of the spotlight. As the room explodes with flashing cameras, cries of shock, and smatterings of applause, I meet my brother’s eyes, trying to convey a silent message to him. I’m sorry, Sam. My brain was supposed to find a cure, to heal you—it wasn’t supposed to get me taken away from you. I’m sorry things got so royally messed up. But it isn’t over yet.

“That’s not all!” Dr. Anderson’s voice rises an octave in her enthusiasm. “Today, twenty-three other teenagers around the world received the same extraordinary news as Naomi. Thanks to NASA’s supercomputer, Pleidas, we are able to videoconference with all twenty-four finalists and introduce them to each other, and to you—right here and now.”

My head snaps up. The sound of static echoes through the room, and then all noise fades away, as the blank projection screens surrounding us fill with color—with faces.

I can hardly breathe as I gaze upon the twenty-three strangers who will become my new, forced family. Dr. Anderson and Major Lewis take turns rattling off their names and countries one by one, as if this is the Olympics instead of a draft into space.

The finalists all look about my age, but that is the only feature we share. We are a mix of skin and eye colors, a blend of hair textures and body types. As I look from one face to another, I find that a few are fighting back tears or gulping in panic like me—but then there are the others, the majority, who smile broadly and wave with excitement. Which of us will prove to be right?

“Last but not least, from Rome, Italy, we have Leonardo Danieli.”

I turn around, my eyes falling on the screen behind me. A boy with golden-brown hair and bright blue eyes is beaming in wonder. For some reason, the sight of his optimistic smile causes something to break inside me. You don’t know . . . you don’t know what we’re in for. We’re not victors; we’re goners.

With my back to the crowd, I bury my face in my palms, letting the tears escape down my cheeks. I only need twenty seconds to cry—a trick I learned when Sam got sick. I’ve always been his cheerleader, his strength, and I never wanted him to see my fear. But sometimes when I watched my brother hooked up to machines, when I heard the faint sound of his irregular heartbeat through the hospital room monitors—I couldn’t help it. I had to turn away, to give in to the feeling of my insides being ripped apart. But only for twenty seconds. That was how long I could let down my guard without Sam noticing. It’s a skill that comes in handy now, with so many eyes on me.

When I regain my composure and glance up, I get a shock. The Italian finalist, Leonardo, is watching me, his expression kind. He presses his hand up to the screen, his mouth forming a word. “Hi.”

I take a step closer to the screen and raise my own palm, returning his greeting. His eyes lock with mine, and for a moment, I forget where I am, what this is—until Dr. Anderson resumes her speech.

“The twenty-four of you will get to spend this weekend with your families, in the privacy of your homes. Monday morning, your duties officially begin. You will be flown by private charter to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for four months of training camp, after which time six of you will move forward. . . .“

I turn away from the Italian finalist, back to the audience—to my brother. His head is bent, his fist against his chest . . . as though someone has died.

But I’m not dead yet. And I can’t leave my brother alone to grieve for real.

Something in me shakes loose. As Dr. Anderson continues speaking into the microphone, I back away slowly, until I am nearly backstage. And then I break into a run.

The guard has me in his clutches before I get more than a few steps from the stage, but I don’t care. That millisecond of freedom reminded me of something.

I may not be able to dodge the draft, but if I play my hand correctly . . . I can get cut, well before the Final Six is deployed to Europa. All I have to do is stay focused, and let nothing—no one—distract from my purpose.

The others can be the heroes, the space pioneers. I have something more important.


Alexandra Monir, Iranian-American author and recording artist, has published five novels for young adults, including her popular debut, Timeless. A Barnes & Noble best-seller and one of Amazon’s “Best Books of the Month,” Timeless and its sequel, Timekeeper, have been featured in numerous media outlets and been published in different countries around the world. She followed the duology with Suspicion and The Girl in the Picture, both standalone YA thrillers. Her upcoming science fiction novel, THE FINAL SIX (March 6, 2018) was acquired by HarperCollins and Sony Pictures during the same week, in two major pre-emptive deals.

Alexandra is also a singer/songwriter who often integrates music into her books’ pages. She wrote and recorded three original songs to accompany Timeless and Timekeeper, which were released as the album “The Timeless EP” and distributed by Jimmy Buffett’s record label, Mailboat Records. She also recorded a song that was released with the publication of Suspicion, and is composing a stage musical geared toward Broadway. Her musical roots are deep, as she is the granddaughter of the late Monir Vakili, the foremost Iranian opera singer.

Alexandra Monir is a frequent speaker at middle schools and high schools across the country, and at major events including fan conventions, women’s leadership conferences, and book festivals. She is a member of the Iranian American Women Foundation, an organization near to her heart. Alexandra currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and newborn son.

To learn more about Alexandra Monir and her books, visit her website.You can also find her on Goodreads, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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