Why I Read It: I’ve wanted to read this book ever since I first heard of it. A YA version of The Handmaid’s Tale? Yes, please! However, reviews started coming in, and they were mostly, completely negative. In fact, there were so few positive reviews that I resisted the gorgeous cover and held off . . . until I found the book in the bargain bin at Hastings last fall. I figured I could spend $6.00 on this, especially since I knew what I was getting into it. I kind of dreaded reading it though, for that very reason: I knew exactly what I was getting into. But it’s time to return to Mount TBR, and this was next on the list . . .
The premise: ganked from BN.com: By age sixteen, Rhine Ellery has four years left to live. A botched effort to create a perfect race has left all males born with a lifespan of 25 years, and females a lifespan of 20 years–leaving the world in a state of panic. Geneticists seek a miracle antidote to restore the human race, desperate orphans crowd the population, crime and poverty have skyrocketed, and young girls are being kidnapped and sold as polygamous brides to bear more children.
When Rhine is sold as a bride, she vows to do all she can to escape. Yet her husband, Linden, is hopelessly in love with her, and Rhine can’t bring herself to hate him as much as she’d like to. He opens her to a magical world of wealth and illusion she never thought existed, and it almost makes it possible to ignore the clock ticking away her short life. But Rhine quickly learns that not everything in her new husband’s strange world is what it seems. Her father-in-law, an eccentric doctor bent on finding the antidote, is hoarding corpses in the basement; her fellow sister wives are to be trusted one day and feared the next; and Rhine has no way to communicate to her twin brother that she is safe and alive.
Together with one of Linden’s servants, Gabriel, Rhine attempts to escape just before her seventeenth birthday. But in a world that continues to spiral into anarchy, is there any hope for freedom?
Spoilers, yay or nay?: Yay. There’s quite a lot to discuss, everything from the world-building to the choices the plot makes and why, so if you haven’t read this yet and want to remain unspoiled, skip to “My Rating” and you’ll be fine. Everyone else, onward!
Discussion: Y’all, I almost had my second DNF of the year. It was so close that I had another book in my bag with me to go to next, but for some reason, I kept picking this one up and pushed my way through, despite re-familiarizing myself with all those negative reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.
Let me talk about why I wanted to put the book down. Within the first 100 pages, DeStefano uses words wrong. Not just weird, but wrong. The kind of wrong that an agent should catch before sending a manuscript to an editor. The kind of wrong that an editor should catch before sending it to a proofreader. The kind of wrong that a freaking proofreader should catch before letting the book get published.
That DeStefano herself should’ve known better is beside the point. If you’re a writer and if you’ve ever had a good critique partner, you’ve probably been told that something you wrote makes no sense. Hell, you could be a Grammar Nazi and have this happen, simply because we’re all human, and typos happen.
But certain things missing the editing process? Oh dear… let me show you them, and we’ll start with the very first page. All emphasis in the quoted passages is mine:
I wait. They keep us in the dark for so long that we lose sense of our eyelids.
Now, think about that. Losing sense of your own eyelids. It’s not that I make a point of constantly being aware of them, so that’s not the issue. And I know exactly what DeStefano is trying to say: she’s saying it’s so damn dark that you can’t tell if your eyes are open or shut.
However, losing sense of your eyelids? Again, while I get what she means, it’s just not a graceful way to say it.
I can get over that, so I keep reading. Page three:
His eyes, green, like two exclamation marks, meet mine.
Does he have uncircular pupils or something? Eyes like a snake? Or is this troubling description of eyes supposed to be a metaphor for his excitement?
I suspect the latter. I also know for a fact if I’d written that description, my graduate school mentor would’ve mocked me endlessly for it. I know this, because I did plenty of dumb descriptions in my own manuscript, and was appropriately mocked for it.
Moving on to page 24:
Whatever was in the bathwater has heightened my neurons, left me feeling unpeeled and exposed. I still feel as though bubbles are popping against my skin.
Okay, two ways to interpret this one: the author is trying to come up with a clever and different way of saying “heightened my senses,” and if you replace “neurons” with “senses,” the sentence makes, erm, sense. It also works if you replace “neurons” with “nerves” which is how I originally interpreted the passage, due to all the commentary about feeling unpeeled, exposed, with bubbles popping against skin. If your nerves are heightened, this would make more sense than neurons, right?
So yeah. This stuff ALONE nearly had me reaching for my backup book. That’s to say nothing about the premise that’s jam-packed from the start. Other reviews have picked this book apart, so I’m just going to run through the questions my brain kept blurting out while reading:
1) If breeding is so important, why would girls who weren’t selected get killed? Is it more of a “if the rich can’t breed, no one can?” kind of thing? While appropriately horrific, it’s utterly wasteful, and in a world where women die five years faster than the men and would therefore be considered an endangered species, I can’t believe for a moment this practice exists. Also, why kidnap girls for rich guys if there are bride schools, like Linden thought Rhine came from? Or are bride schools themselves a happy fiction, despite Cecily actually wanting to be a bride?
2) Why didn’t Rhine fight? Why didn’t ANYONE fight? Because they’d been locked up for so long they were numb? You can make an argument for that, but these kidnappings seem to be a way of life, and they all know that getting killed if not selected is a high probability. Why not fight? Just one person fighting would’ve heightened the believability of this scene.
3) If perfecting the art of having children was what caused this plague upon the people (btw: not everyone could go this route: some wouldn’t out of religious beliefs, and others would keep natural childbirth because they couldn’t afford anything else. Just sayin’), why not change up how children were being had? I’m not sure if the kids from that first generation were being had the old-fashioned way or not, but that is what the book is about: having children the old fashioned way in hopes those kids survive, right? No… that makes no sense… why keep having children if no one is actively looking for a cure? Oh, there’s the whole problem with the premise in a nutshell…
4) Page 45 reveals that most people get married in City Hall these days, which I didn’t buy for a moment. There’s too much tradition behind the big, expensive, romantic wedding that I couldn’t believe the split wasn’t at least 50/50.
5) World War III. Okay, that’s nice, but am I really supposed to believe THE REST OF THE ENTIRE WORLD was destroyed and the US was left completely in tact? Please tell me this is a twist in one of the later books, that the US lied and is quarantining themselves from the rest of the world….
6) Rhine’s obsession with Christopher Columbus. There are so many outdated notions about this man, and Rhine’s obsession with learning more about him felt utterly juvenile.
I had other problems at the start too, namely Rhine. On page 17 she’s already wanting to spill her heart and soul to Gabriel, a servant of the man who kidnapped her, because of his smile. *smacks forehead* Way too early to be entertaining such thoughts, dear. Fortunately, she doesn’t act on those thoughts, but still, stupid to even have them.
Page 33 brings another stupid moment, but one I could’ve misread. In a flashback, her brother is freaking out for having fallen asleep, an action that nearly gets Rhine kidnapped by a Gatherer. Rowan kills the guy, and then this exchange happens:
“Goddamn it, ” he said, and kicked the man. “I fell asleep. Damn it!”
“You were tired,” I said reassuringly. “It’s okay. He would have gone away if we’d fed him.“
Emphasis mine, obviously. This section makes no sense to me. Not only was the guy clearly after more than food, but Rowan just KILLED HIM. It’s okay, but he would’ve gone away if they’d fed him? It contradicts itself in my mind, so I’m glad Rowan sets her straight about the guy’s real purpose, even if her dialogue still doesn’t quite make sense in light of what just happened.
I also didn’t quite believe in their “twinness.” I’ve been having that problem lately when I meet twins in fiction. I don’t know why….
I know I keep harping on phrasing and what not, but every time Rhine would refer to “pro-science,” I wanted to roll my eyes, especially when it was a “pro-science research job” which just screams redundancy, because while not all research is scientific, I’m hard pressed to think of any sort of “anti-science” research position in a scientific field. Seriously, it makes no sense. Can you imagine such a stance’s motto? “We hate science SO MUCH we’re going to use the scientific method to show you how!”
I could have misinterpreted the intent, and I get the general idea that people have lost hope and faith in science, but this notion of pro-science jobs is not only a generic term, it sounds like someone who doesn’t understand science very well at all trying to be, well, smarter than they are. Furthermore, consider the irony of Rhine’s stance: for all that Rhine believes that science could and should find a cure, the entire downfall of humanity is pinned on the science of tinkering with genetics in the womb! Does that mean this book is anti-science? Especially considering the only “scientist” we meet is essentially the evil-genius type?
Look, I’m not one to get ticked off when scientists get a bad rap in SF, but it is an issue and it is overdone. Maybe, in this case, science will redeem itself and a cure will be found, but at the moment, there’s plenty of irony to be had. Pro-science, indeed….
Also, only one research lab in the entire of New York City? Really? And what happened to the internet?
So you’re probably really wondering why I bothered to keep reading, despite having this huge litany of complaints. It’s because the one bit of high praise I kept seeing in this book was Rhine’s relationship to her sister wives, and I really wanted to see how all of that played out.
And indeed, it was fascinating. I loved how each girl got her own room, and how Linden chose which one to visit for a night. He didn’t expect them to come to him and sleep in his bed, nor did he encourage any of them to compete with each other. Indeed, Vaughn, as father-in-law (mad scientist though he is) chastises Cecily for interrupting a moment between Rhine and Linden, and I really liked that scene. Cecily may be the only one who wanted this life, and as the youngest, she’s certainly the most immature, and I liked seeing that come to play and admonished rather than encouraged.
But seeing the three girls work together to achieve a goal? Priceless. I loved that scene when Rhine, Jenna, and Cecily all gang up on Linden and convince him that they need more time outdoors. That was great, and even when they weren’t always working together, I really bought into their dynamic, how they interacted with each other, and how they sort of accepted this sister-wife world as a fact of life and didn’t make that big of deal out of it.
I also rather enjoyed the Hunger Games-esque makeovers. Rhine’s first one, on her wedding day, has a wonderful moment with her attendant (page 39):
“It’s beautiful,” is all I can say.
“My father was a painter,” she says with a hint of pride. “He tried his best to teach me, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be as good. He told me anything can be a canvas, and I suppose you’re my canvas now.”
My Rating: 4 – Problematic, but Promising
There are SO many issues with this book. The premise, while wonderful, reveals world-building that’s so full of holes that it’s hard to take seriously. Perhaps it’s a case where those holes will be filled in as this trilogy moves onward, but they’re also the kind of holes that will prevent many readers from continuing onward. I know I struggled with continuing for a host of reasons, not just the world-building questions, but because of awkward phrasing, stupid actions or reactions from the heroine, and a overall general sense of emotional detachment from everything that happened in the story. Yet I kept reading because the book is readable, a fast-read despite being character-driven and low on action. I also found the interaction between Rhine and her sister-wives utterly engaging and fascinating, and the world-building on that level was fantastic. So it’s definitely promising, though unless I find the sequels in the bargain bin, where I found this one, it’s highly unlikely I’ll continue on. I’m more interested in hearing how the sequels are received first, and if those world-building holes are getting filled with any kind of satisfaction whatsoever. Some of those holes, there’s simply no hope for; others may yet turn into a fascinating story.
Cover Commentary: I love this cover so much. I kid you not: when I originally saw this in Borders, I snatched it up and carried it around with me for fifteen minutes, debating on buying it while REALLY WANTING TO BUY IT because I loved the cover so much. It’s not just the dark, atmospheric mood and the fantastic pose of the model. It’s the actual design of the cover, the flow-chart like graphics that pull everything together (and does so on the inside too with quotes, chapter headings, the Library of Congress page… I love it to pieces!); it’s the choice of varnish inside the circles. It’s utterly and completely gorgeous.