This book does not have a cliffhanger; it can be read as a stand alone. There is one more book in the series as of this date, but it does not appear to have the same characters. Sexual situations are alluded to but no graphic description. There is very little swearing. This book is suggested for older teens and above.
Althea is a little girl with luminescent blue eyes. Declared the Prophet of the Badlands because of her glowing eyes and her ability to heal, she endures kidnapping after kidnapping. Her entire very short life has been constant moving from one place to another, and her passiveness lets her accept her changing circumstances.
Against her will she's transported to what she never knew existed: a city. Not just the largest collection of people she's ever seen in one place, but so far beyond her socially and technologically that she literally has no frame of reference. Chased by a "floating head," she winds up taking refuge with a group of homeless. She must decide who she wants to align herself with: the holographic man who chases her relentlessly and calls her a "key," or the group of police officers offering her safety from those who want her for her gift.
Althea is a likeable character. Sold by her mother, who can longer feed both of them, she's a helpless waif accepting as inevitable that she will never have a permanent home. Mistaking passiveness for consent, she is kidnapped and moved from one tribe to another. We see her almost compulsive need to heal, refusing to withhold her ability from even her enemies. She is young and has no role models.
She starts to develop a personality separate from her gift when she's taken in by a family and discovers the joy of a loving adult and a girl her own age, who calls her sister. We can see her start to blossom, becoming a true child, instead of a commodity. Not knowing anything different, she's happy living in a painfully poor territory.
Kidnapped to a city, Althea is forced to to adapt as best she can, as fast as she can. We see her fear of technology so far out of her life knowledge she literally has no frame of reference. However, she blindly trusts the first group of adults to show her kindness, and discovers evil can also exist in such an advanced place.
Hooking up with a group of homeless people, their living conditions and their own conditions bluntly drawn, she has found a slice of population not too different from the Badlands to which she is accustomed. The individuals in the group try both to protect her and encourage her to find a policeman to help her get home, but accept her without censor as she returns to the group for shelter. They even give her the newest and largest shelter container, and the best food they can scrounge. These people treat her less as a miracle and more as a sort of confused daughter. They give her the best advice they can without realizing she is incapable of following it.
The disconnect between the statuses of the people in the city is subtly drawn. Althea has been happy in the terribly resource poor Badlands, having nothing to which to compare it to, but knowing whatever her circumstances she will have basic shelter and something to eat. While the city is obviously much more advanced, the general population ignore her questions and pleas for help, ignoring her need for shelter and information. The only place she finds that can satisfy these needs is a group of homeless people, living as a subculture in the rich city. Surrounded by wealth and privilege, she finds acceptance with a group of damaged people living very close to the way she lived in the Badlands.
Althea grows and matures believably from the start to the finish of the story. Going from a waif without a future, she learns to survive in a city, and discovers she can use her healing ability to both protect herself, and eventually as a weapon. She moves from living only in the present to realizing she can make and follow through on future plans. From basic passiveness to her living situation, to learning what it means to live in a family, to focusing on what she wants and how to get it. Even the man who wants her only for her gift, and declares himself the strongest psi-gifted person ever, inadvertently teaches her to use her ability offensively.
The story has a satisfying ending, but this reader would enjoy more stories about Althea. What does she do now with her hard earned information about the city? How do her increased abilities change how she views herself, and how others view her? She is a child now; what about as she grows up? Very young, with friends in two very different cultures, how does she reconcile these two aspects of her life? Now that officials in the city know she exists, they are going to, inevitably, want her help. What happens when they come asking her for favors?
The mark of a good story; we want to know more about Althea, but recognize a satisfactory ending.