Roxy by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

The Blurb On The Back:

Above our world is a toxic wonderland where the party has raged for centuries.

Humans know the partygoers simply as “narcotics”, “opioids”, “drugs”.  But here they are malevolent gods, toying with the fates of mortals.  Roxy and Addison have made a wager to see who can be lethal the quickest.

Isaac and Ivy Ramey are their targets.  Ivy is understimulated and over medicated.  Isaac is desperate to recover from a sports injury that jeopardises his chance of a scholarship.  This is the start of a race to the bottom that will determine life and death.  One Ramey will land on their feet.  The other will be lost to the Party.

The only question is … Which one?

ROXY was released in the United Kingdom on 11th November 2021.   Thanks to Walker Books for the review copy of this book.

You can order ROXY by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Roxy is a goddess, the anthropomorphic personification of oxycodone.  Highly addictive, she makes people prone to overdosing, which is when she takes them to the VIP room of the Party that all of the gods of addictive substances attend, staying with her victims until the very end.  

But even a good-time-girl like Roxy who lives in the moment can get bored sometimes and so when Addison (the personification of Adderall) proposes a wager, she’s intrigued.  Addison may be a loser who has never taken any of his plus-ones to the VIP-room (they always fall prey to the other drugs in his family and leave him) but seeing him fail will be amusing and maybe when he does, he’ll learn to be happy with his place.  So when 17-year-old Isaac Ramey twists his ankle when he’s attacked by his older sister Ivy’s waster boyfriend Craig, while trying to rescue her from a party, Roxy knows she’s found someone special.  

Isaac is a kid with prospects – smart and athletic, he wants to be a propulsion engineer for NASA but his grades aren’t quite good enough to make the best colleges.  Fortunately, he’s also captain of the school soccer team and while he’s not good enough to get a scholarship, if he attracts a college recruiter, that may be enough to tip him into a school like MIT or CalTech.  Unfortunately, with his ankle too painful to walk on, playing soccer in any of the remaining games of the season is pretty much out of the question … Until Isaac’s grandmother offers him one of her oxycodone pills to get over the worst of the pain.  Isaac tells himself that it’s just until his ankle heals, but he likes the way they make him feel so numb and as Roxy gets her claws into him, he begins to depend on her more and more.

Whereas Isaac is a kid with prospects, Ivy knows that her mum and dad have all but given up on her.  She has ADD, which she used to take Adderall for, but now self-medicates with alcohol and the occasional recreational drug courtesy of her boyfriend Craig and her friends TJ and Tess.  She’s flunking senior year and hates everything except art, which was the one thing she was ever good at.  But when she sees how violent Craig can be, she decides that maybe going back on the Adderall is the right thing to do and Addison is all-too-happy to help her get her life back on track, in the process ensuring that she is completely dependent on him to a point where maybe she will be his plus-one to the VIP room.

Roxy and Addison’s competition will come to a head in a seedy, abandoned house on the wrong side of town where one of the Ramsey siblings has taken an overdose and the VIP room is waiting for them …

Neal and Jarrod Shusterman’s YA fantasy is a sadly misfiring affair that aims to convey how “insidious, seductive and dangerous” these drugs can be but is hampered by world building that doesn’t quite click, a competition that fails to convince and inconsistent messaging on whether drugs have an inherent morality of their own or are merely tools that humans need to beware resulting in a stilted read with a “abuse of drugs is bad, mmkay?’ vibe. 

I picked this up because I am a big fan of Neal Shusterman’s work and had read DRY (the previous book that he co-wrote with his son, Jarrod, which tackled the impact of climate change by imagining a California that suddenly ran out of water) so was interested to read their take on the opioid epidemic.

I liked the central idea of drugs as being, essentially, gods or demigods, existing in their own 24/7 party with their own family loyalties and rivalries and reporting to ‘heads’ who have ledgers to fill.  The Shustermans use this concept to interesting effect by exploring how some drugs see their star wane as they fall out of favour, e.g. Q (quaalude) who has been exiled from the Party altogether because abuse led to the formula for the drug being withdrawn, while other drugs see their personalities change as they go legitimate (e.g. Mary Jane who now wears business suits to reflect the fact that marijuana has been legalised).  And then there are gods like Naloxene who has to deal with the mess his siblings leave but cannot always save their victims and Morphine, who hangs around the terminally sick and elderly (which I would have liked to have seen more from given historic morphine abuse).

For me, Al (alcohol who’s always there at the Party to hand out drinks and lubricate the conversation and events) was the most interesting of the drug characters given the sheer number of people who die from alcoholism or alcohol related accidents but the book makes the weird decision of underplaying how dangerous he is by portraying him as weirdly benign.  Unfortunately Al also highlights what, for me, was the major issue with the world building here in that there’s so much that isn’t clear or explained, most notably whether it’s the drugs who entice people to them or whether people find the gateways on their own and then work their way up?  At times the book suggests that the drugs actively go out and seek people to entrap but at other times suggests that it’s other humans like doctors and pharmacy representatives who put people in their path, albeit often inadvertently.  Obviously with a difficult topic like drug addiction there is no easy answer to it but the inconsistency became a problem for me when the plot moves from at one point suggesting that Roxy and Addison are out-and-out villains looking to kill people for their own ends before later deciding that they are essentially victims of their own function and therefore not wholly responsible for their actions.  Indeed the way Roxy’s plot line ends, almost makes her as much a victim of herself as Isaac is and given all the set up that had gone on before – notably the way Roxy deliberately decides to make Isaac crave her – it’s a cop out.

The competition between Roxy and Addison didn’t really work for me either and that’s in part because although Adderall can kill people if it’s misused (by leading to heart attacks and strokes), it simply isn’t as lethal a drug as oxycodone so the outcome of this isn’t in doubt.  And that foreseeability means that the book both loses some of the tension that should come from wondering whether it’s Ivy or Isaac who’s overdosed at the start of the book but also downplays the dangers of Adderall, with Addison coming across as a whiny, needy drug rather than a genuine threat.  At the same time, Addison is shown in a much more positive light than Roxy given that he helps to improve Ivy’s productivity and also results in her re-evaluating her friendships.  It’s not until quite late in the book that his downsides become apparent (Ivy’s inability to sleep and increasing heart rate), whereas Roxy’s numbing effect and the lengths he goes to in order to get her – stealing from his grandmother, deliberately injuring himself, ordering from the internet – are more front-loaded.

This brings me to my next issue with the book which is that Isaac’s death seems to be meant as being more tragic than anything that could have happened to Ivy because he had a future to look forward to.  Ivy is shown as being messed up because of her ADHD and is not really drawn to anything other than art and has no long term plans for her future, while Isaac has a good network of friends, and a career path that he knows how to achieve.  He is shown as caring for Ivy while Ivy doesn’t show him the same concern.  If the idea is to increase the tragedy for Isaac then I have to say that it didn’t work for me, partly because its so obvious but also because it shouldn’t just be tragic to fall into addiction because you’re a good kid.  The Shustermans do try to offset by this showing how Ivy’s own recovery and rehabilitation is hampered when the school – which is already prejudiced against her – uses a situation to rid itself of her permanently, which sends her back into a spiral.  Although I didn’t doubt that this happens, it all came across as quite rushed on the page and I thought it was interesting that the school decided to do it notwithstanding that up until this point Ivy’s grades had dramatically improved.

My criticisms aside, there are some things that work well in the book – notably the relationship between Isaac and his grandmother and the way the Shustermans work in the constant economic worries of Isaac and Ivy’s parents who are one deal away from insolvency.  I also liked the wordplay that goes on with each chapter heading (which is clever) and the way they incorporate chapters from the point of view of certain drugs is well done and thought-provoking.

Ultimately though, this book just didn’t fire for me and although I think it is laudable to try and take on and explain the impact of the opioid epidemic, the book didn’t quite do the subject justice. 

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