Book Review: THE UPPER WORLD by Femi Fadugba

Title in white on blue-purple image of a face with breaking infrastructure
Genre: Sci-fi thriller
Age Range: YA
Star Rating: 2 stars
Series: yes - first book


Book cover for THE UPPER WORLD: title in white on fractured landscape and face

Esso is running out of time and into trouble. After he is accidentally caught up in a gang war, he is haunted by a vision of a bullet fired in an alleyway with devastating consequences.

A generation later, fifteen-year-old football prodigy Rhia is desperately searching for answers—and a catastrophic moment from the past holds the key to understanding the parents she never got to meet.

Whether on the roads of South London or in the mysterious Upper World, Esso and Rhia”s fates must collide.

And when they do, a race against the clock will become a race against time itself… 

Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


I wanted to love this book so much. It’s a UKYA SFF set almost in the area I grew up in. I know the locations well; that’s my local park, a library I’ve spent too many hours in, buses I’ve used. And so on. There’s very little sci-fi in YA, and even less from UK authors – and the amount of diverse speculative UKYA is atrocious.

Plus this book is about science and maths. It involved time travel and a lot of time on Einstein’s equations (some more explicitly than others – I was nerdily happy about the ones I could spot that weren’t mentioned.) There are appendices at the back (at least of the Waterstones edition – not sure about the standard) that explains the maths in more detail for the curious.

In short, this should have been a book I really liked, except it was a fight to get through.

Mostly, it was because a lot of the book read just like a contemporary, with a few fringe speculative elements (more on that later.) I’m not a big fan of contemporary, because I want something speculative – I want something more than just life around me. Give me magic, other worlds, space. But this reads like a contemporary about being young, poor, and Black in Peckham. One gets accidentally drawn into gang rivalries, the other is a foster child. (We absolutely need more stories like this, but also, that’s not how this book was sold to me.)

As for the speculative elements, there are some interesting technological advances in Rhia’s timeline, given she’s in the future. But the time travel? Honestly, it does make the characters sound like cultists or flat-earthers. The maths and physics are all fine and good until the book makes the jump from “these are the physical limitations of light” (etc) to “this is how time travel works.” Except it’s not really time travel, and it’s not really explained just happens without much explanation. It was confusing and didn’t feel well integrated into the story.

This might be because Esso’s story line felt like a contemporary where a kid thinks he sees the future and then gets paranoid, and Rhia’s feels like it only exists to be an info dump to try and explain the time travel. Except it still doesn’t manage to do that in a way that feels not like a hallucination.

So overall, it was a very disappointing read, because it straddled the contemporary/sci-fi line too much for me, and didn’t satisfactorily explain the time travel (particularly given actual time travel is only like two scenes!)

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