#9: Welcome to Orphancorp, by Marlee Jane Ward

Welcome to Orphancorp was one of three winners in Seizure’s 2015 Viva La Novella prize. I hope to review each of the winners—and the previous years, many of which I’ve already read—but at my current rate it could take awhile to get to all of them.

Update: Marlee has won the YA category in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2016. Congratulations to Marlee and to the winners in all categories.

This novella is an intense blast of dystopian speculative fiction, full of attitude and a crackling energy that makes it a quick and easy read at around 26,000 words. The scene is set with an evocative prelude that introduces Mirii, the first-person narrator who is being transferred from one Orphancorp to another in Sydney. Mirii’s spirited and rebellious attitude is clear from the start and her strong voice is really what carries the whole book.

As Mirri settles into the new Orphancorp, we learn that she has only days left before Age Release on her eighteenth birthday—freedom, possibly, or life in a Prisoncorp if she falls on the wrong side of the Aunties and Uncles who run the place. There’s enough world-building in the early pages to give us a sense of Mirii’s situation, and that of the other kids around her, but not quite enough to provide a sense of exactly how things have come to this point or how the world at large functions. This is a strength rather than a deficiency, especially for a novella-length book where too much detail could be stifling; besides which, specific details are hardly needed at a time when it’s all too easy to imagine Australia running privatised institutions to hold unwanted people, whether onshore or offshore. Not much imagination required at all.

The chapters count down the days before Mirii’s Age Release—from Seven down to One—and the plot hits all the marks from character development to conflict to camaraderie between the orphaned kids, along with a fair bit of sizzle as the older kids find comfort in each other’s bodies. Marlee Jane Ward showcases a diverse range of characters in terms of ethnicity, sexuality and gender identity, and her use of the gender-neutral pronoun “they” works just fine, proving that there’s no excuse for other publications not to adopt it.

Mirii’s prickliness towards the younger kids is endearing in its own way, and there is clear YA appeal here for the mid-to-late teens; to its credit though, the novella walks a line that defies both genre and age classifications. The decision to soften bad language makes perfect sense, though the alternative words like “fuggit” and “shiz” became irritating to my eyes and were somewhat over-used.

I’ve heard that Welcome to Orphancorp began as a short story and grew into something more, but to me it reads like what could be the prelude to a much larger series. The novella’s final pages leave behind a world and characters that are begging to be explored further. Thankfully, according to a bio on The Wheeler Centre website, Marlee Jane Ward is working on a second book in the series—all the more reason to give this novella a try. I’d be more than happy to re-enter this world at a larger scale and get closer to more of the diverse, fiery and fascinating characters that we’re introduced to in Welcome to Orphancorp.