Keita Ali is on the run.
Like every boy on the mountainous island of Zantoroland, running is all Keita’s ever wanted to do. In one of the poorest nations in the world, running means respect. Running means riches—until Keita is targeted for his father’s outspoken political views and discovers he must run for his family’s survival.
He signs on with notorious marathon agent Anton Hamm, but when Keita fails to place among the top finishers in his first race, he escapes into Freedom State—a wealthy island nation that has elected a government bent on deporting the refugees living within its borders in the community of AfricTown. Keita can stay safe only if he keeps moving and eludes Hamm and the officials who would deport him to his own country, where he would face almost certain death.
This is the new underground: a place where tens of thousands of people deemed to be “illegal” live below the radar of the police and government officials. As Keita surfaces from time to time to earn cash prizes by running local road races, he has to assess whether the people he meets are friends or enemies: John Falconer, a gifted student struggling to escape the limits of his AfricTown upbringing; Ivernia Beech, a spirited old woman at risk of being forced into an assisted living facility; Rocco Calder, a recreational marathoner and the immigration minister; Lula DiStefano, self-declared queen of AfricTown and madam of the community’s infamous brothel; and Viola Hill, a reporter who is investigating the lengths to which her government will go to stop illegal immigration.
Keita’s very existence in Freedom State is illegal. As he trains in secret, eluding capture, the stakes keep getting higher. Soon, he is running not only for his life, but for his sister’s life, too.
I absolutely adored The Book of Negroes so I was very excited to get my hands on the The Illegal. This was one of those books that I savored slowly, reading a bit each day and really getting into Keita Ali’s world. I liked this book a lot but for me it didn’t capture me like The Book of Negroes did.
What I liked best about The Illegal was Hill’s character development. The novel is told not just from Keita’s point of view but from the view point of a variety of rich and well developed characters, each with their own interest in the politics of Freedom State and Zantoroland. Hill does a fantastic job of letting the reader see the story through the eyes of a multitude of characters: an elderly white woman facing ageism, a 15-year old mixed blood documentary filmmaker, a black paraplegic lesbian reporter, a middle aged businessman who finds himself thrown into the world of politics and, of course, Keita, the protagonist of the story.
I think setting was a bit of an issue for me with The Illegal, which is odd because I do write and love both fantasy and dystopian genres. But the setting of the novel in the not so distant future and in the imaginary countries of Freedom State and Zantoroland, weakened my engagement with the book. I felt that it would have had much more impact on me if it had been written in a real world setting.
Having said that, the issues that Hill addresses in this novel are important and complex. Stigma and alienation are major motifs in this work. Characters are cast out from society based on age, race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation and social position. The issues that Hill addresses in The Illegal are very real in our world today.
Without giving any spoilers away, I will say that the conclusion of the novel was disappointing to me. I felt that Hill wrapped things up a bit too quickly and too neatly to satisfy my need for realism. I don’t like to compare an artist’s work because each piece is really different from the others, but after anticipating something equal to A Book of Negroes, I finished The Illegal feeling a bit let down.
A futuristic, fantasy novel that addresses so many issues that affect our society today, The Illegal is definitely worth a read.