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What if surviving a pandemic gave you superpowers?
That’s the premise behind Victoria Lee’s two-volume Feverwake series. The young adult novels began with Lee’s debut “The Fever King,” released last year, and concluded with “The Electric Heir,” released in March just as the real-world coronavirus was declared a global pandemic.
The name Feverwake is Lee’s invented term for waking up from the fictional pandemic-caused fever and discovering newfound powers. But it also evokes another kind of awakening: that which comes with realizing one has experienced abuse.
The eerily prescient plot unfolds after a pandemic weakens the United States in 2018. A figure named Calix Lehrer takes advantage of the chaos and revolts against the state. He builds a new country in the South, called Carolinia. (Lee grew up in North Carolina, according to the book jacket.) A hundred years later in Carolinia, the pandemic returns in waves. It is even worse in the neighboring country of Atlantia, but Carolinia’s fascist government leader, Chancellor Sascha, refuses to let Atlantian refugees in and blames them for the disease.
In an interview from her home in Pennsylvania, where she is a graduate student in psychology, Lee, who is Jewish, told J. that she was inspired by the plight of Jewish refugees, who were often, throughout history, blamed for illnesses and social problems.
Asked why this series, written well before the coronavirus appeared, was set during a pandemic, Lee sounded embarrassed. “This sounds so terrible to say now, but I always really loved pandemic books,” she confessed. As a former emergency medical technician and a person with chronic illness, she says she has always been fascinated by disease.
This sounds so terrible to say now, but I always really loved pandemic books.
In “The Fever King” (383 pages), Noam Álvaro, a 16-year-old half Jewish, half Latino boy, becomes infected and wakes up with magically enhanced hacking abilities. As Lee described the character, Noam is “very driven by the idea of tikkun olam. He has this passionate drive within him to… repair the world… and it covers almost every decision he makes.”
Because he wants to save the refugees, he allies with the mysterious, manipulative Lehrer to overthrow the anti-immigrant government. Noam ignores the warnings against Lehrer from Dara Shirazi, Lehrer’s beautiful, self-destructive, Persian Jewish foster son, and doesn’t believe Dara when he reveals that Lehrer sexually assaulted him.
At the start of “The Electric Heir” (480 pages), Lehrer has become the dictator of Carolinia. He uses mind control on his subjects, kills scientists searching for a cure, and annexes neighboring countries. Lehrer also sexually, emotionally and physically abuses Noam. Noam joins forces with Dara and the resistance and attempts to take down Lehrer.
The Feverwake series explores the theme of trauma, while rejecting simplistic, clichéd narratives. The hero Noam, the love interest Dara and the villain Lehrer, who are all Jewish, are responding both to personal trauma and to the intergenerational trauma of the Holocaust. Noam responds by becoming an activist and by being in denial about Lehrer’s abuse. Dara internalizes the trauma and becomes an alcoholic. And Lehrer, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, winds up perpetuating the oppression and violence they suffered.
Lee, who herself experienced sexual abuse, wanted to counteract stereotypical narratives of sexual violence by showing Noam and Dara’s “messy healing.” As a non-binary person, Lee said, she wanted to show that not all victims are female. Dara relapses back into alcoholism, Noam lies to himself about his own agency and both victim-blame each other. And Lehrer is handsome, charismatic and intelligent, much as Lee describes her own abuser.
Because of Lee’s honesty and nuance, this series is much more emotionally affecting than most YA dystopian fiction. Lee told J. she wrote the books “for survivors and especially for people who are currently surviving.”
The Feverwake series is suitable for older teenagers (10th grade and up), adults, X-man fans, dystopia diehards, survivors looking for catharsis, and anyone who wishes that instead of Covid-19, we had magic.