The Lens and the Looker is the first book in the Verona trilogy, a young adult series by Lory S. Kaufman. Since the series takes place after a time of dystopia but isn’t quite a utopia, the author has been referring to it as post-dystopian fiction. The first volume in the series will be released on March 16, and The Bronze and the Brimstone is scheduled for release on July 12 of this year. The third book does not yet have a title or release date.
In the 24th century, the world is a very different place. Humanity has recovered from nearly dying out and with the help of AIs they have created a better society. One of these improvements is the invention of History Camps, in which a time from the past is re-enacted so young people can learn from past mistakes – and learn to appreciate just how wonderful the world they live in is in comparison.
Seventeen-year-old Hansum is already too rebellious for his own good, and when he scores a 0 on a test, the dean decides it’s time he was taught a lesson from Deep-Immersion History Camp. Although Hansum is upset by the fact that this means his communication implant has to be removed while he’s away for 2 weeks, he’s not terribly concerned about his time at the History Camp. It sounds like a fun opportunity to teach mess with the enactors’ plans and teach them a lesson in return.
When he arrives at the camp, a recreation of Verona in the year 1347, Hansum meets the two other teenagers who will be learning with him: Shamira, a 15 year old girl, and Lincoln, a 14-year old boy. The two boys are apprenticed to a lens-maker and must learn to make lenses while the girl is appointed to kitchen duty. The three decide to play along with the enactors at first and pretend to be good children truly interested in learning about their duties in 14th century Italy. However, they get their revenge and reveal their true colors in the end. For their punishment, they are sent to the loft of the barn where they meet Arimus, a man from the future who actually takes them to Verona in the year 1347 – where they must learn to behave and be useful to their Master or face the very real consequences of starvation.
The Lens and the Looker is a bit of mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s often a very readable story based on some very compelling ideas and by the last third it’s really starting to become an entertaining book. On the other hand, some of the writing is rather clunky, it can be quite cheesy, and the aforementioned ideas need to be fleshed out more. Also, it could have used much more careful copy-editing as this finished book was full of typographical errors and misspellings.
The reason this novel appealed to me was the idea of the History Camps, which I found to be a very intriguing concept. They were created with two main goals in mind: studying the past in order to prevent making the same mistakes in the future and gaining a better appreciation for just how far the world has come since then. These are admirable aims, and I was looking forward to seeing how they were handled. However, this installment dealt very little with how this worked. Only the first third of the book takes place in the History Camp, and it left me with more questions than understanding of just how these camps contributed to making society a better place. Hansum and his new friends spent one day at the camp and in that time they dressed like people from the time period they were in and were given Italian names. Then they started learning how to make lenses (in the case of the boys) and manage a kitchen (in the case of the girl). It’s easy to understand how this type of hard work would help young people better appreciate life in the more technologically advanced 24th century or teach them discipline, but I’m not really sure how making glasses, cooking, and cleaning are going to make one better understand the mistakes of the past. As the three teenagers did not actually get through their entire History Camp sentence, though, perhaps seeing the entirety of a trip to History Camp would have made this more apparent.
Also, I found myself very curious about the ethical implications of going away to History Camp based on some of the smaller details. When Hansum leaves for the camp, he’s told to leave his toothbrush behind because they did not have them during the time of the camp he was going to. Obviously, during the 24th century they have better technology so perhaps they can techno-magically undo any damage caused by not brushing one’s teeth for an extended period of time, but I couldn’t help but wonder just how far they were willing to go to make the History Camp experience realistic. It did mention that the children were constantly watched and it was ensured that they were safe, but I would have liked to have a better idea of the line between responsibly caring for the children and creating an authentic-feeling environment.
Since Hansum is whisked away to the History Camp at the very beginning of the story, there’s very little time spent in the 24th century and much of what is revealed about this time is told in a clunky fashion. Hansum just got a 0 on a test, and he makes a deal with Charlene, the AI in charge of him: if he can pass the same test, she’ll ask permission for him to keep his communication implant. When retaking the test, Hansum once again gets every single question wrong, so Charlene corrects him and goes on to explain some of the differences in population between the beginning of the 21st century and the 24th. This feels very contrived, and it also leaves out a lot – such as what the disaster was that nearly caused humans to be extinct. Other than the static population number, the AIs, the communication implants, and the History Camps, very little is known about life in the 24th century.
As this is only the first installment in a trilogy, perhaps there will be more answers to the questions about the History Camps and the 24th century in the next two books (as well as why people from the future tend to speak in verse to the point where it begins to get irritating). However, there were some grievances the next two books cannot make up for, such as the cheesy naming. The main character, a good-looking boy, is named Hansum. This may not be so bad except there is an ugly character named, conveniently enough, Ugilino. Also, there were some inconsistencies with how their Italian translators worked. When they arrive in Verona, the three teenagers are given translator implants so they can speak Italian. This seems to work relatively well, even for translating a lot of words that don’t quite have an Italian equivalent. Yet when Lincoln is trying to ask where he can go to the bathroom (eventually using specific terms since bathrooms of course did not exist) he can’t get this across to someone else until he makes the appropriate noises. This just seemed like an excuse for including some silly bathroom jokes instead of anything relevant to the story, particularly since it seemed as though his translator should have been good enough to pick up these common words.
By the last third of the book, the story is really starting to become interesting, particularly as the three teenagers have to adjust to their new lives and develop into functional human beings contributing to a household. There’s some romance and adventure and it is shaping up into a very fun scenario with some definite possibilities for the next installment, particularly concerning just how badly Hansum and his friends mess up the timeline as they introduce some more modern technology into the past.
The Lens and the Looker has the potential to be a start to a good series, but it’s difficult to judge on its own merits since it does feel like it is largely setting up the next two books. The first two thirds have some awkward parts, but it is hitting its stride by the final third of the story, which gives the impression that there’s a lot we’re not being told. Perhaps when the full story ends, many of the ideas about the History Camps and the 24th century will be better fleshed out as well.
My Rating: 5/10
Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from a publicist.