In 2113, the world has reformed itself into new and different political spheres. Teenager Kenneth “Ken” Kawashima lives in the Eastern US Territory of the Commonwealth and, as he soon discovers, is privy to special privileges and responsibilities when he “expresses” telepathic ability. And, because his older brother was also a telepath, the whole Kawasaki family knows the drill. Soon, Ken is whisked away to the Middleton School for several weeks of training with other just-expressed telepaths before they join one of the five educational campuses established across the globe for the education and training of all telepaths. But Ken gets more than just a crash course in what it means and what it takes to be a telepath. He finds red-hot romance with another student, named Kane. He also discovers that he’s not just telepathic, but has some telekinetic ability as well.
By the time Ken completes the short course at Middleton School, he feels ready to join the elites at the Ithaca campus for his continuing education. Though parting with Kane is difficult, Ken is excited to learn that he will meet others with similar power levels to his…no mean feat given the Ministry of Psychic Affairs has had to create a whole new level just to classify how much raw power Ken has. In addition to pointed training, Ken also reconnects with his aunt—his mother’s estranged sister—and gains the support of her large family. Ken also discovers that life for telepaths within the Commonwealth comes with some curious cultural differences, including a program that encourages genetic matching for procreation purposes among the student body at the campus. But not everything is smooth sailing. Ken is wary of the heightened protection the school’s administration has assigned to him on account of his being the most powerful telepath in history. And all the extra security and precautions are no match for a determined adversary. Ken narrowly avoids falling into a trap one such adversary sets for him and suddenly, his future seems a lot less secure.
Expressions: Telepaths Rising is book one in Vaughn’s Telepath series. It’s set in the not too distant future and features a not-quite dystopian society. After some 40 years of struggle, the 21st century world reorganizes depending largely upon their view of how the recently emergent group of people with telepathic abilities ought to be treated. Personally, the language used to convey this future re-organization of society was a little hard for me to follow because of the mixing of place names that exist in 2020 with groupings that do not. That said, I think this first book does a lot to build a background that had me, as a reader, highlighting all the problematic “features” of the Commonwealth’s society. Given that this is the first book in the series, some of these problems might prove to merely be continuity or world building errors…but they could also prove intriguing groundwork to build plot points in future books. The three best examples of this are population control measures that, to me, seem like a breeding program/regime; the fact that there is basically a caste system and ALL citizens start at the lowest level, but there’s no explanation about what happens to minors living with parents in higher caste levels when those minors reach their majority; and the ability for citizens of the Commonwealth to opt in or out of being a member of the Commonwealth, the caveat being even if you opt out, the Commonwealth still keeps tabs on where you are. Again, in this single book, it’s tough to say if these elements are intentionally baked into the plot, or just oversights in the world building.
Because this is a series, I both did and did not appreciate the time and attention paid to our 16-year-old MCs daily life. The format was, to be frank, a bit boring. Ken seems preoccupied with describing every person he meets with basic descriptors of their physical appearance, even for the most minor of characters. This is good for consistency of character, I suppose, but as a reader, I just didn’t care about people’s eye color or what their psychic “aura” was (especially since aura didn’t seem to indicate anything special about the telepath). I also wasn’t sure what to think of how tuned into his sexuality Ken was. Without going into a lot of detail, I was just flummoxed by the fact that the Commonwealth still considers 16-year olds “children,” but doesn’t bat an eye when just-expressed teens start going at it like rabbits and they seem to have a teenage breeding program on campus.
As far as flow of the story goes, well, we pretty much follow our narrator Ken around during his day-to-day activities. Most chapters are just variations on Ken discovering just how special he is compared to his classmates and all other telepaths. Whether during the prep weeks at Middleton or actual classes at the Ithaca campus, it seems like a long parade of things Ken can do better than any student and, sometimes, any other telepath. While this isn’t necessarily uncommon for Chosen One narratives, I was surprised that Ken just seems to take this in stride. There is also a seemingly complete lack of any negative consequences to Ken’s phenomenal telepathic power. That is, he never seems to struggle at anything. He never struggles to control his power. He never seems to be controlled BY his power. He just instantly does everything right, or figures it out after one attempt. Again, this sameness in the exploration of his powers made the reading less exciting for me.
Overall, I think this book does a lot of heavy lifting to establish the world for future books. I would encourage readers to pay careful attention to geopolitical nomenclature in the book to help prepare for a more immediate understanding of the ending. And as far as characters go, it seems pretty clear this book is a vehicle for a chosen-one narrative all about Ken. Ken’s strength lies in how he just wants to be a normal, hormone-crazy teenager half the time. However, I think the school setting necessarily limits what he does and with whom, which makes for a less exciting read. All in all, if you want a YA story that doesn’t shy away from the sex lives of minors (not in real graphic detail, but in no uncertain terms: kids are having lots of sex) or a story that flirts with messy domestic politics regarding special classes of people and possibly geopolitical melodrama, I think you’ll like this book.