It's 300 years after the Storm, a world-wide devastation masterminded by a few well-intentioned intellectuals, wiped out most of the global population in an attempt to alleviate suffering and start again. It seems that the Storm attained its goal, with most of the survivors living in settlements that are well-maintained, high-tech, safe, and mostly underground.
Natasha Wiley lives in one of these enclaves, America-Five, where she works in the Office of Mercy, a prestigious position. Office of Mercy workers carry out the important work that embodies the ethical beliefs of the America-Five community --- the elimination of suffering of the unlucky souls who are not inhabitants of settlements similar to America-Five. Natasha and her co-workers use high-tech gadgetry to track the nomadic tribes that roam outside. They count them; then, timing it carefully in order to efficiently accomplish their task, they kill them in a maneuver they call a sweep.
"THE OFFICE OF MERCY is filled with action yet interwoven with quiet scenes that invite contemplation, which makes it a thought-provoking page-turner that lingers in readers’ minds long after they have closed the book for the last time."
As the story opens, the America-Five community is all abuzz with the news that there may have been a sweep of an entire tribe; this hasn't happened in 20 years. Natasha lives in the sixth level underground with a roommate. She and the other inhabitants can see the world through the soaring windowed Dome but don't venture outside. After all, the settlement holds everything the citizens could ever want or need, including absolute safety. Outside is wilderness and the roaming, primitive tribespeople who endure pitiable lives --- they’re hungry, vulnerable to disease, and giving birth like animals (instead of America-Five's high-tech method of forming babies in laboratories).
Now, Natasha fends off curious, excited questions from other citizens. The alarm had sounded in the night, possibly signaling a sweep. In the well-practiced Wave One Defense, Natasha had been sent to help guard the Dome. She is eager this morning to find out if the sweep was successful. In the Office of Mercy, the huge overhead monitor shows a feed displaying wilderness beach and forest, with trees split and tossed to the ground. Natasha recognizes the place; she has been watching the Cranes Tribe there for weeks. She cringes when she sees a burnt corpse, recognizable as a woman, splayed across a tree trunk. Her co-workers confirm: they swept the Cranes during the night. It was a clean sweep, ending the horrific suffering of all members of the Tribe, giving immense satisfaction to the workers in the Office of Mercy. Of course, their challenges have not ended; another tribe, the Pines, have been spotted in the area. If the Pines find the Crane sweep site, they might realize that sweeps are occurring…and this would be a breach in the community's ethical guidelines. The Office of Mercy must find and track the Pines to ensure this doesn't happen. Still, there is cause for great jubilation in the accomplishment of releasing the Crane people from their horrific lives.
Natasha's emotions are complicated as she talks with the Office's leader, Jeffrey Montague. She only acknowledges her intense feelings for Jeffrey to herself. Although some people in America-Five have paired off, Natasha and Jeffrey would be an unusual romantic couple; he is a member of the older Gamma generation, while 24-year-old Natasha is an Epsilon. Still, there has always been a special bond between them. Natasha now can even confide to him that during the night she had doubts about the sweep; she actually wanted to prolong the lives of the tribespeople. Jeffrey reasons with her, reminding her that the nomads had been starving and in pain. Neither of them can guess the struggles Natasha will endure or the lengths to which she will eventually go as time passes by, ignited by her role in a mission to the outside and a startling encounter.
THE OFFICE OF MERCY is filled with action yet interwoven with quiet scenes that invite contemplation, which makes it a thought-provoking page-turner that lingers in readers’ minds long after they have closed the book for the last time. While it invites comparisons to THE HUNGER GAMES and THE CITY OF EMBER (and obvious aspects of World War II history), it is wholly original with lyrical writing and unpredictable plot twists. The conclusion is sure to inspire arguments, with some readers loving it and others despising it…even as we wonder if (and hope that) a sequel is possible.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on March 7, 2013