Lenore Applehans’ debut novel LEVEL 2 is an intriguing and different type of dystopian young adult romance. Applehans, a noted blogger and reviewer of dystopian fiction, has created a world that’s reminiscent of a high-tech version of the Catholic Purgatory — except it’s one that no one can escape, because those charged with running it have decided to play their own game for their own ends. (Human sinners be damned.)
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The main character is the deceased seventeen-year-old Felicia Ward. She’s a noted pianist with a composer for a father and a diplomat for a mother. She’s traveled all over the world, and has one good female friend — Autumn — whose family is also caught up in the diplomatic world. Felicia’s life seems to be idyllic, but she’s had a few bad scares overseas (including a mugging in Nairobi when she was only thirteen), and her parents are more like friends she sees every great once in a while than real, hands-on parents.
Felicia and Autumn end up falling in love with the same young man, the enigmatic Julian, while in Germany due to their parents’ workloads. Felicia doesn’t tell Autumn that Julian has been around to see her quite a number of times alone, though Felicia knows that Julian has been to see Autumn. (Julian, of course, tells both girls that each is the only one for him.)
Finally, the truth comes out — and nothing is the same ever again. (I’m dancing lightly around this to avoid giving too much of the plot away.)
Felicia ends up in the United States, away from both parents, and falls in love with a good, kind, studious and respectful young man — Neil. But Felicia doesn’t think she’s good enough for him due to what’s happened in her past.
Mind you, all of this comes out in memories — flashbacks — rather than directly, because Felicia is dead. She died the day before her eighteenth birthday, and it’s because her life wasn’t particularly resolved that she’s in Level 2 — Purgatory — reliving everything in order to somehow come to terms with it.
Yet the angels who run the place — the Morati — have decided that they’re unhappy with their lot. They wish instead to use the deceased humans as a source of energy (as Felicia says flat out, “Shades of the Matrix!”) as a way to somehow storm Heaven proper and speak with God Himself — or at least with some higher level angels, so they can do some work that’s better suited to their overly grandiose views of themselves.
That’s why Level 2, rather than being truly like Purgatory where souls come to terms with all they’ve done (good and bad alike), has become segregated by gender and age. Has become a sort of “memory storehouse” where memories are played back by a type of computer, and other “users” are able to rate your memories, the same way users online rate various things right now.
And as if all that wasn’t enough, Julian, too, is dead, and still has plans for Felicia . . . .
Ultimately, Felicia has to decide what she’d rather have: her addiction to her good memories (because yes, the Morati have gone there, too, being bad angels), or reliving everything, the good and bad alike? Because only by doing the latter may she eventually find Neil — and get off Level 2 for good.
This is an intriguing take on the afterlife, and Ms. Applehans does it well. The “love triangle” between Julian, the bad boy, and Neil, the obvious good boy, is well done. (Julian has a number of secrets of his own, so he’s not as stereotypical as all that.) Felicia’s devotion to her female friends (Autumn in real life, Virginia and Beckah in the afterlife) is well-drawn. And her lack of connection with her mother, along with her stronger but still not quite strong enough connection to her father due to their joint love of music, also makes sense.
Mind you, I wanted to shake Felicia’s parents. Especially her mother, who really was not admirable in any way, shape or form despite her high-powered career. At least Felicia’s father gave a damn about Felicia and tried to help her, whereas Felicia’s mother was just . . . well, a waste of space.
The only drawback here (aside from Felicia’s useless mother, who at least serves as a plot point) is that Felicia never quite figures out that Julian ended up being the catalyst for everything that followed in her life — good and bad alike. (Julian definitely realizes this, but seems to enjoy keeping Felicia in the dark.) As Felicia is intelligent, albeit inexperienced, this was a bit puzzling.
Bottom line? I enjoyed LEVEL 2, and believe that if you enjoy young adult novels, dystopian fiction, sweet romance or a new take on the afterlife — or better yet, all at once — you will also enjoy Ms. Applehans’ debut novel.
— reviewed by Barb