I must have first read this book just after it was published but, honestly, I don’t remember much about it. I don’t think I really paid attention to it. I was a bad reader in those days. There are plenty of books series that I started but didn’t really take in. I think I was just reading for the sake of it. So, I never really had that great awakening thanks to Malorie Blackman. It’s a book that I always wanted to read again and give a better go. It also helped that the BBC adaptation was coming out and I didn’t want to watch it until I’d reread it. Of course, it got pushed back thanks to my ever-increasing TBR but the recent Black Lives Matters protests have pushed all books about race to the top. I figured this would be a relevant and quick read. As anyone who has ever read my review of The Power will know, I’m not always a fan of role reversal narratives. A lot of the time, they can be a bit cringe and heavy-handed. But this is one of those books that everyone loves. I went in expecting to enjoy it.
Noughts and Crosses is a dystopian YA novel set in a world where the balance of power has switched. Instead of living in a world where white people once claimed dominance over black people, society is being controlled by black people. Referred to as Crosses, black people hold all of the seats of power and have clear superiority over white people, or Noughts. Fraternisation between Noughts and Crosses is not encouraged and everybody is expected to keep to themselves. So, it was always going to be difficult when teenagers Sephy, a Cross, and Callum, a Nought, started to fall in love. But, unfortunately, that’s only the start of their troubles. The pair quickly come to see just how many people would be dead against their relationship.
Sephy’s father is a powerful politician and is pushing anti-nought rhetoric. He is pushing the agenda to help Crosses and doing everything possible to make Noughts seem dangerous and violent. Although, the government are under pressure from a rebel group the Liberation Militia. So, they’ve had to offer something to show they are moving to a more equal society. Callum and a small group of Noughts have just been accepted into Sephy’s elite Cross school. The students face great scrutiny from their fellow teenagers and the staff. Although, Sephy is initially ecstatic at the idea of having her best friend in her class. Though Sephy learns that their friendship is a lot more problematic than she ever realised. With tensions rising, there are violent reactions from the LM. Reactions that find Callum, Sephy, and their families in a difficult position. Can the pair find a way to be together when they are being pulled in opposite directions?
Noughts and Crosses is a powerful novel that really does a great job of reversing race roles. It’s an incredibly effective story that highlights the issue of systemic racism without going too far into overly dystopian territory. Everything you read here seems familiar in some way. It takes inspiration from real-world and recent history. With links to the Civil Rights Movement in America and class differences in the UK. There are even hints to the IRA and modern terrorist attacks. It is obviously an exaggerated version of society but it remains understandable and relatable. The issue of Civil Rights and racial superiority are plain to see. It is a great book for young people to read to start conversations about race and equality. It should definitely be a must-read for young readers and, if it isn’t, it should be on every syllabus. It’s an easy read and showcases some important historical and social commentary.
My only real issue with Noughts and Crosses is a minor one. An awful lot is going on here. There are so many subplots to contend with that many of them don’t really go anywhere. It also means that several interesting points just get glossed over or rushed to make way for something less interesting. I know it’s a series and there probably several plot strands that will be picked up later but it just feels as though Malorie Blackman was trying to do too much at once. I kind of wish the opening novel had been a bit slower and given more time over to build the world and develop the characters. There are so many one-dimensional characters who I wish had been given more ambiguity. Like Jude and Kamal who are nothing but fairy tale villains. Adding a bit more development would have opened up a dialogue about different motivations and showed that racism isn’t a simple as being a racist or being anti-racist.
But, really, Malorie Blackman does a fantastic job of making this role reversal narrative work. The love story is a great way to bring young readers is because it is all too familiar. It’s Romeo and Juliet with an emphasis on race. There will be some narrow-minded people who see the novel as racist but there is nothing here that doesn’t have some basis in fact. It might be an uncomfortable read but only because it forces you to confront a racial bias that you might not have realised you were even benefiting from. Sephy is a well-meaning character and she’s someone readers will warm to. Something that makes it easier to realise that most of us are Sephy. Being bling to skin colour is being blind to the problems faced by people with a different skin colour to your own. Watching her slowly realise that is a great way to highlight the problem.