Lost meets Black Mirror in Adrianne Finlay’s YA sci-fi, adventure novel Cut Off— a story about a group of teens becoming stranded while competing in a reality TV, survival competition. While the slow beginning and emotionally distant point-of-views make for a difficult start, the second half of the novel takes off into thrilling and emotionally-charged directions that make the journey to get there somewhat worth it.
The story centers on three different teens—River, Cam, Trip, and Liza—who are competing on the survival reality show, CUT/OFF, to win one million dollars. Stranded in the middle of a forested mountain range, contestants are required to survive the wilds or “tap out” by pressing a button on a device given to them and be picked up and taken back to civilization. Whoever is the last one standing wins the prize.
With that said, CUT/OFF is no regular reality TV show. Each contestant is filmed by a drone-like camera called a Skym. These Skyms allow for viewers at home to experience the show in hyper realistic virtual reality, letting them have touch, taste, hear, smell, and see everything as the contestants do it themselves. After a tense alliance is formed between the teens, an accident happens, causing one of the competitors to need to “tap out.” However, when they press the button, nothing happens. No producers or TV crew come to their rescue. Only their Skym cameras keep rolling.
They realize that they truly have been “cut off” from the world, stranded to die in a wilderness where fears become a reality and secrets find their way out into the light.
This novel focuses primarily on the POVs of River and Cam from a third person point of view. However, becoming emotionally attached to the characters is hindered by the omnipresent distance. While this POV does work well for the more “cinematic” descriptions of the wilderness and the actions taking place, the novel would be more impactful if the perspectives were written in first person. That way, readers could really empathize and understand what is going on in River and Cam’s head.
Also, the far-removed POV can be confusing when trying to figure out which character you are actually with at the moment. Many times I wasn’t sure if I was reading from River’s or Cam’s perspective.
Furthermore, the reality TV, wilderness survival premise of the novel lends itself to an abundance of action. Rather than experiencing it through the lens of the characters, the reader gets to watch. This book would truly shine as a TV show, but the way the premise is executed makes it suffer as a novel.
I will say, the second half of the novel picks up, and I found myself engaging with the story. The stakes for the characters become a much more real, and the characters become emotionally vulnerable with themselves and each other. Plus, I was delighted by the twists and turns that lended themselves to some intense action sequences. However, the thrilling moments are short-lived as the final events feel completely out of sync with the story, and the novel plunges into some Inception level stuff (sadly Leonardo DiCaprio or Joseph Gordan-Levitt are nowhere to be seen).
While at the end of the day, this novel would make a better TV show than book, the twists and turns in the second half of the story makes up for the slow, lackluster beginning.