Run, Riot by Nikesh Shukla

The Blurb On The Back:

Community.  In the end, you’ll always want to help one of your own.

Taran and her twin brother Hari never wanted to move to Firestone House.  But when the rent was doubled overnight and Dad’s chemo meant he couldn’t work, they had to make this tower block their home.  It’s good now though; they feel part of something here.

When they start noticing boarded-up flats and glossy fliers for expensive apartments, they don’t think much of it – until Hari is caught up in a tragedy, and they are forced to go on the run.

It’s up to these teenagers to uncover the sinister truth behind what’s going on in the block, before it blows their world apart.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

17-year-old twins Taran and Hari moved to a flat in Firestone House with their mum (who works as a nurse) and their dad (who later died from cancer).  Taran wants to be an MC and spends her spare time recording raps under the name Riot, determined that this year will be her year.  Hari works at the local cash and carry and is thinking about doing sports or business at university while trying to avoid CJ (a local dealer who has it in for him after he turned down the offer of being a soldier for him).  The twins are friends with the hard-studying Anna, who also lives in Firestone House with her mum (her dad was a local community leader but was imprisoned after a scandal) and the easy-going Jamal.

But things are changing on their housing estate. NextGen Properties has been buying up other tower blocks and commercial properties on the estate and is keen to gentrify the area, resulting in people getting moved out.  19-year-old Sim (a former gangster turned community leader) has evidence that something is going on and he asks Hari and Jamal to film him confronting two local policemen about it.  The encounter results in his brutal murder and Hari and Jamal – aware of what they’ve caught on film – run away, catching up with Taran and Anna as they try to work out what to do.

Over the next two days, the teenagers must dodge corrupt cops and shady business interests and work out how best to save themselves, and their community …

Nikesh Shukla’s first YA novel features authentic YA voices and focuses on working class characters while making interesting points on gentrification and who really benefits from it but the thriller elements descend into a ludicrously overblown plot with unbelievable antagonists, and a soap-opera worthy conspiracy element while the 48 hour real-time hook is undermined by necessary flashbacks to provide exposition.

The twin characters of Taran and Hari are well drawn with Shukla giving them believable dialogue and believable concerns – especially Hari who is keen to avoid a life of crime but whose employer can’t afford to pay him for his shifts and who has incurred the wrath of a local gangster for declining his patronage.  Taran’s dreams of being an MC are vividly portrayed and credible, although I didn’t believe in her secret relationship with Sim as being anything other than there to provide some emotional impact on his death and to provide some artificial tension with her brother.  I thought Shukla deftly showed their home life – their nurse mother working long hours for comparatively low pay, their concerns about having credit on their phones and the tension between them and Anna’s council employee mother who sees them as having a poor influence on her daughter.

Anna is similarly well drawn – ambitious and hardworking but hurt by her father’s imprisonment for a crime she’s sure he’s innocent of.  It’s through her that Shukla unpicks the emotional impact of the conspiracy element and it’s just a shame that this is so poorly done – partly because he hides the grounds for her father’s crime for so long but also because the big reveal is just so poorly handled to the extent that it plays out like a cartoon with a key antagonist essentially behaving in an utterly deranged manner.

Jamal is the poorest drawn character of the four, to the extent that I never really had a feel for who he was, what he wanted or what he was doing to get it.  To be honest, he could have been cut from the book completely and it would not have missed him.

The big marketing hook of the book is that it plays out in “real time” over a 48 hour period but this is really quite artificial as Shukla constantly has to use flashbacks to flesh out his situations and characters, which has the effect of slowing down the plot and undermining any tension that would otherwise be created.  As a result, this book really didn’t work for me as a thriller, not least because Shukla resorts to increasingly incredible events in order to try and build drama – I lost count of the number of times characters got whacked with batons or were close to being captured – and one of the central issues with the book (namely what exactly happened to Sim’s body given that no one apparently finds it after he’s killed) is never answered.  Matters aren’t helped by an ending that reminded me a great deal of the end of the film STRANGE DAYS in terms of the public reveal of the dastardly plot and the consequences for the antagonists.

Shukla is keen to portray the police as the enemy but the unbelievable nature of his antagonists undermines this while the ethically conflicted policeman (Roberts, who grew up on the estate) can apparently only achieve what he wants by leaving the force at the end.  Similarly the shady links between business and local government are overplayed, which is a shame because Shukla makes good points here about how gentrification works in practice and what it means for the low income families who face all the disruption and trauma without seeing any of the benefits.

Ultimately I found the book to be a mixed bag, which is a shame because there was a lot of potential here and I think that a lot of readers can relate to some of the political points that Shukla makes.

RUN, RIOT was released in the United Kingdom on 14thJune 2018.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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