Amber goes on the run when her father tracks her down within the care system. She’s running from her father’s violence and controlling behaviour. He indoctrinated the family into believing society could break down through disease, economic collapse, or climate emergency and trained Amber for when the SHTF. He invented The Rules that his family must follow to protect themselves. Amber knows the only way to evade him is to follow The Rules to survive and off she sets with her Grab and Go bag, a teen fugitive.
Darnton has created a gutsy, ballsy protagonist in Amber with an authentic teenage voice. ‘Hide and thrive, that’s the way to go,’ says Amber.
Told in the first person, we are privy to Amber’s thoughts and sly humour which counterpoints her dysfunctional behaviour. The reader understands more than Amber does about why she behaves in what can seem a selfish or extreme way to those trying to help her. It’s cleverly done.
Josh, another casualty from the care system goes on the run with her and inevitably tests her desire to be solely self-reliant. The novel deals with the question of whether we’re stronger together or alone. Certainly, Amber’s survival skills are on a par with those who have been military trained.
The narrative structure is a two parter – flashbacks from Amber’s miserable childhood contrast with the present-day forward motion of flight and escape. A useful touch is the use of an advent calendar that corresponds to each chapter. The calendar itself plays a vital and metaphoric role within the novel. As the tension increases the book gets increasingly dark. It’s a long slow build-up to an explosive and desperate conclusion. The sort that will keep you up all night.
Darnton’s skill combines fast paced story-telling with a complex character and poses interesting moral questions of culpability. It’s no surprise that Darnton worked as a solicitor and lectured in law before becoming a novelist. The Rules is her second novel, her first, The Truth about Lies, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize.
In conclusion, The Rules will appeal to a wide audience. The climatic ending is stunning writing and leaves the reader with questions rather than answers so that the novel lingers in your mind.