Review: Want by Cindy Pon

“It had all seemed harmless before, working with Dr. Nataraj. To help someone we loved and respected. To help the meis, to save Taiwan. Playing the good guys. Now, with Dr. Nataraj’s calculated murder, it was obvious we were screwed–up against professional criminals who were older, wiser, better funded.”

In Want, Cindy Pon takes us to a scarily plausible future where extreme pollution and the resultant outbreaks of disease exacerbate existing class divisions between the yous* (haves) and the meis (have-nots). The rich survive by using special, environment-proof bodysuits, but the poor have the odds stacked against them. Jason Zhou, the protagonist and the face of the novel, lost his mother because of a combination of lack of infrastructure and corporate greed. (Sound familiar?) The righteous anger he nurses from the moment of her death is only compounded when another maternal figure in his life is found dead: Dr. Nataraj, a professor of ecology at National Taiwan University, who was ready to expose some powerful people’s misdeeds; actions that have impacted life on earth for everyone.

With the help of his friends–each with their own unique skill-set–Zhou kidnaps a you girl and uses the ransom money to aid in the infiltration of the company behind the never-ending atrocities: Jin Corp. Unfortunately for him, the girl he kidnapped? Daughter of the man who owns Jin Corp. And not only is she fighting the memory-altering serum that Zhou injected her with, she is also kind and smart and beautiful and most everything that her father is not. As Zhou is falling for Daiyu and the ruse he and his friends so elaborately concocted begins to unravel, Zhou is stuck between two decisions, either of which may well break his heart.

The first chapter was first published as a short story part of the Diverse Energies anthology. It caught my interest then and works beautifully now as the opening for this novel, rooting us firmly in Pon’s version of Taiwan with all its complexities, while centring Zhou and Daiyu’s relationship from the get-go. And I do so love their relationship.

This is probably the first time I’ve seen a male character of colour get a storyline that is about “duty vs. love” (never mind one that’s done well, which this is) and, of course, neither option is easy. How could he possibly decide against stopping Jin Corp after all it’s done? Not just to him personally, but also to his friends and everyone who can’t afford a protective suit? And even though Zhou is a mei boy who lost a lot because of you greed/complacency, how can he expect anything as “simple” as a romance when he’d kidnapped Daiyu and then lied to her about his identity? And yet, they have a chemistry that you can’t ignore, just like you can’t ignore the mei people dying around Zhou. Pon handles Zhou’s inner conflict with the precision and complexity it deserves.

Aside from the strong world-building, meticulous development of the (near?) romance, and the attention paid to every character’s story, here’s a list of things I loved:

  • it’s set in Taipei and, even though it is a futuristic version, it feels so real
  • when was the last time you read about bhindi bhaji in a YA novel *salivates*
  • when was the last time you ever heard an Indian accent referred to as “lilting” because that’s a word that’s always reserved for “hot (white/European) accents”
  • lesbian couple who are the power couple in every sense of the term
  • mention of Jay Chou
  • V I C T O R my darling, annoying son

Basically, I loved pretty much all of it, start-to-end, and Cindy Pon can probably kick your ass any time, any genre. Good luck to me because I am sure Ruse, the sequel, will only make me cry harder than Want did.

Definitely recommended.

*The only words, I think, that are italicized. Usually I’m not a fan, but considering the spelling of you the italicization serves a purpose here.