But when he discovers his father isn't dead, Theo is desperate to find him. Hot on the trail of his father's whereabouts, the clues lead him to shy outcast Rachel - the daughter of one of his dad's former colleagues at the controversial genetic research centre where he worked. As he draws closer to the truth, little does Theo realise that dangerous enemies lurk in the shadows, and that he and Rachel will soon be staring death in the face.
Blood Ties is a title I've often skimmed over on bookstore shelves, overlooking it in the mistaken belief that YA thrillers don't really appeal to me. But after initially opening it to check out the first few chapters and finding myself glued to the story in every spare moment I had over the next two days, I'm enlightened. With vivid and believable characters, breathtaking action and themes that sci-fi fans are sure to appreciate, Blood Ties is pure brilliance.
Uncomfortable in her own skin, unlikely heroine Rachel is overweight, unpopular, and - according to her school's queen bee and her own self perception - not particularly attractive. Having always felt that her parents compared her unfavourably to her sister Rebecca, who died before she was born, she seems to believe all the negative things that other people say about her. She shares the narrative with Theo, an outgoing and confident boy who at first seems out of her league. Unlike many YA novels, Blood Ties doesn't expect us to believe that this good looking guy takes one look at the awkward social outcast and somehow instantly sees what everyone else can't. While Rachel's starting to develop romantic feelings for him, he's only interested in tracking down the father he's never known. Just as it's starting to look as though Rachel's feelings are going to get majorly hurt, the plot takes off running - and Rachel has to forget her self-doubt and step up to become the person she always had the potential to be.
Because when Theo makes contact with Rachel, he unwittingly propels them both into the dangerous and shadowy world of illegal genetic engineering. It's a world where they find them pursued by not one but two dangerous enemies - RAGE, an organisation that opposes genetic engineering and will use any methods necessary to stop it, and self-serving scientist Elijah, whose experiments hold the key to the novel's central mystery. Theo and Rachel find themselves battling for their lives in a breathless tale of loyalty and adventure that sees them sharing a bond they never could have expected.
But while genetic engineering is something that most people won't have personal experience of, Blood Ties is nonetheless a book that will truly speak to readers. It's about identity: about what makes us who we are and how much control we have over who we'll become. Are we shaped by our parents' influence? Are we who others tell us we are? Or are we just a bunch of cells destined to fulfil the legacy of our genes? These are coming-of-age questions, and ones that most readers will have struggled with themselves at some point. Don't get me wrong, this book is first and foremost a wicked fast thriller - but it's also that rare gem, a YA thriller with substance and satisfying character development.
Blood Ties is a rollercoaster ride of a book. It's got the balance between characterisation and story just right, and literally gripped me from start to finish with its twisty plot and fascinating subject matter. Perfectly paced, it explores themes of identity and self-perception from the thick of the action. It's clever and thoughtful and thrilling and once you pick it up, you won't want to put it down again.
Out: July 7th 2008, UK
A big thanks to Simon and Schuster UK for providing a review copy of this book.