Ration by Cody T Luff
Book Review by Rich Duncan
I’m a huge fan of dystopian fiction and when I first heard about the release of Cody T Luff’s Ration through Apex, I was immediately intrigued and knew I needed to add it to my reading list. Ration is set in a distant future where the world has been ravaged by an event called “The Clear”, which led to widespread hunger and uncertainty. The bulk of the story focuses on the girls who live in the Apartments under the watchful eye of Ms. Tuttle and her sadistic assistant Ms. Glennoc. The girls are separated into groups called “cohorts” and each cohort is relegated to a certain task. Most of the cohorts, like the one Cynthia is in, are seen as “less than” and they rarely get an education or any awareness of the outside world. The only cohort that has any special privileges is cohort five, where the best and brightest of the girls on the farm undergo lessons and are put on the path to rising to the status of Women and the rights that come with them. Cynthia’s closest friend, Imeld, is in cohort five and shares whatever bit of knowledge she can from her own lessons with Cynthia. Life in the Apartments is harsh and unforgiving amid crumbling living conditions and the ever present fear of the Wet Room.
Girls and Women alike are confronted daily with pangs of extreme hunger and their only source of nutrition is the limited number of Rations. Ordering Rations comes with a cost, and the girls are forced to hold out for as long as they can before they allow themselves to eat. There are three types of Rations – A, B, and C – that offer varying levels of nutrition. The girls are expected to start with C Rations, which are the lowest and most common rations available and anyone that orders an A is punished severely and the consequences are brutal. Despite the danger that comes with ordering A Rations, someone has been ordering an excessive quantity of them. Despite punishments being handed out swiftly and severely, the level of A’s continues to dwindle and ignites a chain of events that will forever alter the lives of the Apartment’s Residents.
One of the things that initially stood out to me reading Ration was Luff’s ability to craft the world that Ration takes place in. At times, the novel reads like a futuristic tale, but Luff weaves in little details that make it feel timeless and familiar. There are elements of futuristic technology, but also remnants of a bygone era and their obsolete achievements. Considering the dystopian nature of the story, I loved that even in a futuristic society, instead of everything being shiny and glossy, these clashing elements are imbued with a gritty feeling of rot and decay, particularly the Apartments. We get little reveals of what happened to plunge the world into the dire situation that shapes the character’s lives, but Luff wisely avoids large expository sequences that over explain what happened. It’s a fine line to walk that could have gone horribly off the rails, but somehow he makes it work. Without explicitly giving readers all of the details, he is somehow able to still craft a world that feels familiar and lived in and makes readers feel like they don’t need the backstory because they already know what happened.
Part of the reason this approach succeeds where it could have failed is because the “why” isn’t the central focus of the story. While the hardships the Girls and Women face in Ration propel the story and build the atmosphere, the reason behind society’s collapse is almost an afterthought. Which isn’t to say that it’s not important or comes across as flimsy, it’s just that the real impact comes from the characters that populate the story. It’s about the various paths these women take in the face of a brutal and unforgiving landscape that makes this such a powerful read. Cynthia starts her journey as an average women, someone who is used to her surroundings and throughout the novel, undergoes a personal transformation that finds her finding her voice and an inner strength she never dreamed was possible. Even when faced with nightmarish scenarios and impossible odds, she defies convention and seeks to rise above the confines society has placed her in. The same goes for Imeld. There are other characters such as the Women that make up the council, Ms. Tuttle and Ms. Glennoc who instead seek to exploit the situation they find themselves in. Whether it’s jockeying for power, a quest for revenge or simply using society’s collapse as an outlet for personal darkness, these women have their own motivations for the destructive paths they take.
Another aspect of Ration that bolsters the characterization is the way Luff juxtaposes the characters. Aside from a traditional “good vs bad” narrative – though there are elements of that present – Luff often pairs radically different characters together. I don’t want to spoil any of the main story threads, but Luff creates interesting dynamics when he forces characters with opposing motives to work together for survival.
Ration is an interesting amalgamation of genres including horror, sci-fi and dystopian fiction. Luff blends them together skillfully and the result is a gripping narrative that keeps readers engaged and unable to look away. The concept of framing the story around a world where extreme hunger dominates the characters day to day lives is ingenious and helps fan the flames of conflict. Thankfully I’ve never had to endure extreme hunger like the one depicted in Ration, but I do know that going long periods without food can place incredible strain on the psyche. This plays into quite a few of the character arcs and raises some interesting philosophical questions. Some of the characters, Ms. Glennoc in particular, exhibit horrific and cruel behavior. Is it a result of the extreme hunger and the environment she was born into or where those qualities always there, lurking beneath the surface? It also serves as a device to show the lengths people will go to in order to survive. A perfect example is Common Street, a place in the city away from the confines of the Apartment. When readers are transported there, they are greeted by crumbling buildings and a society of women who were cast out for one reason or another and carry both physical and mental reminders of the things they had to do in order to survive.
Ration is a bleak story with an oppressive atmosphere that looms over the entirety of the novel. There are numerous scenes throughout that are tense, brutal and unflinching in their cruelty. There is one scene in particular that is extremely difficult to get through and introduces another level of horror that was only hinted at earlier in the novel. That being said, Ration is not all doom and gloom. In the face of a punishing reality, there are glimmers of brightness and hope that maybe, just maybe, the next generation of women in Ration will rise above the harshness that has plagued them for so long. Ration is an incredibly powerful debut that has been generating some well deserved buzz in the horror community. While Ration is a speculative fiction novel, I feel like this is a book that can cross genre boundaries and will resonate with a large group of readers. This is one of the year’s best novels and I highly recommend picking up a copy, I have a feeling we’ll be hearing a lot more about Cody T Luff in the future.