Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Trim but thorough (384 pages)
Publication: March 22, 2011 from Simon & Schuster
Premise: Rhine Ellery has been struggling to survive in New York with her twin brother Rowan when she's kidnapped to be a bride. A genetic virus caused by the first wave of gene splicing means that women die at age twenty and men die at age twenty-five, so people are forced into marriages to reproduce before they succumb to the virus. Rhine is sixteen and doesn't want to spend a single day of her four remaining years on a locked compound in Florida, but she is trapped in a marriage with Linden Ashby. Trying to escape is hard enough, but her sister-wives and her husband's sinister father make it all the more difficult.
Warnings: Offscreen murder, implied dissection of human corpses of non-consenting people, attempted rape, dubious-consent underage sex
Recommendation: If you're interested in jumping on a very different flavor of the dystopian train, take a look at this one. Lots of books are worried about the danger of life, but this one is defiantly determined to make the most of every day before the inevitable end.
Rhine's journey begins in a line of potential brides; they have been trapped by Gatherers, people who select the most desirable women they can kidnap and sell them into polygamous marriages to people who can afford to buy multiple brides. She and two other young women are chosen by Linden Ashby, whose own bride, Rose, is close to death-- the other women in the line are shot a few minutes later. Rose is just past her twentieth birthday, alive only in pain and by the grace of medication, and has decided that her beloved Linden will cope best if her replacements are already in the house when she dies. Jenna, the oldest of the brides, is eighteen; Cecily, the youngest, is still in many ways a child at thirteen. Rhine occupies the middle ground at sixteen as well as the middle ground in affection. Jenna despises Linden unconditionally, Cecily wants to be an adoring bride and daydreams constantly about the consummation, and Rhine will pretend to love him in order to gain his trust and get closer to escaping.
The centerpiece of the novel is the four-sided relationship between Linden, Rhine, Cecily, and Jenna. On one level it's easy to peg Linden as a kidnapper and to some degree a child molester, since Cecily is far from done with puberty and still reacts like a child in many ways. It's also obvious as the novel progresses that he has very little idea what he's done in bringing them to his home, he's not much older than they are, and he's in mourning for the love of his life. They're given all sorts of fine food and clothing and entertainment, but in the beginning none of them can even open their windows to taste the outside air or leave the locked wives' floor. Linden is partly a decent person who cares for the people he's brought into his life, but he's trapped them in a gilded prison where they're vulnerable to his advances and have very few choices of their own-- Jenna and Rhine seem to feel the conflict most keenly, since they had families and lives before they were kidnapped. They can't afford to fully trust him, but putting up too much resistance or expressing their feelings openly could lead to their deaths....or worse at the hands of his father.
Vaughn is an ideal villain, with all of his actions and motivation shrouded in just enough mystery to keep his plans a secret. He is a first-generation result of the gene splicing, perfectly healthy and able to live the full extended span of a human lifetime. After the death of his first son years ago, he has devoted years to trying to find an antidote, and the quest has made him ruthless. He's pursuing the same ends that Rhine's parents were before their death in the explosion that destroyed the only real research laboratory devoted to curing the virus.It doesn't make sense that Linden has never suspected anything when all the servants in the house are terrified of Vaughn's basement, but Linden also has the emotional intelligence of a squirrel, so I let it slide. Various rumors imply that Vaughn has been controlling the whole estate for years and hiding things from Linden, from the exact nature of his experiments to who he's been using in them. Rose's corpse was supposedly cremated and scattered outside, but Rhine sees it being wheeled through the basement during a hurricane warning and is too scared to tell anyone what she's seen. His motive of saving his son may be pure, but he is also willing to use absolutely anyone as a tool to further his research and has no compunctions about threatening or torturing people to keep them in line.
Gabriel, the secondary love interest, is particularly vulnerable; he's a servant in the household, and his closeness with Rhine doesn't go unnoticed for Rhine. Although the two are acting innocently, Vaughn sees any threat to his son's happiness as unacceptable and is waiting for any reason to step in. Gabriel as a character fills an interesting point of the escape spectrum. He hasn't always lived in captivity like Linden; he also doesn't love it like Cecily does or long to flee at the earliest opportunity like Rhine does. He has almost forgotten the taste of freedom, but Rhine fascinates him and he's willing to help her. Their relationship is delicate; he serves her breakfast and often walks in to find Linden in her bed. He knows that Rhine refuses to consent to sex with Linden, and that he has no real right to be jealous, but they're both torn and resentful and trapped in a way that demonstrates the human cost of Linden's gilded cage.
Rose serves as a subtly done shadow character; Linden genuinely loved her, and she befriended Rhine for a short time before her death. The two have similar blonde appearances, and Rose guessed that Linden would be most drawn to Rhine out of the three new brides-- he even mistakes her for his dead first wife when he's tired or emotionally distraught. Linden ends up going to Rhine for comfort on the night Rose dies and sees more able to talk to her than he is to the other two. Jenna will die before he will, so he's reluctant to get too close to her, and Cecily is too much of a child to really understand his conversation. Rhine can understand the architectural dreams that stopped when Rose died, and her own loneliness in the absence of her twin brother helps her empathize with Linden's own loss. She tries to stick firmly to hating Linden for what he's done to Cecily, what he's done to all of them, but she's also drawn to his artistic visions and the kindness he shows to his brides, despite the suffering he's half-ignorantly put them through. What Rhine feels for him is less than love but more than Stockholm Syndrome, and her urges to stay with him are very tied up in her urges to stay with the sister-wives who have in some ways truly become her sisters. This novel shines for the way it examines complex emotions under that shadow of death, and DeStefano pulls that off with elegance.
The red pen:
Most of the problems aren't obvious during the book, only after it's done and the logic issues start to trickle through; much like The Hunger Games, Wither hasn't done the best job thinking though how an apocalyptic disaster would actually happen. The virus that kills people was supposedly triggered by gene-splicing, but...where to start? Gene therapy is expensive, and not everyone would have adopted it at once. This is the kind of thing that would have had to undergo massive FDA testing, and early cases would have been caught long before this affected the entire population. It's also bizarre that this is a virus, because viruses often affect people differently and do things like mutate. This virus been stuck on the function of killing men and women at these exact ages for years now, and it hasn't had any other effects that people can track: no differences in fertility rates, no death ages creeping earlier. At a guess, this sounds a lot more like a bioweapon experiment gone horribly wrong, but there's still no answer for why you'd let the most dangerous combat assets live longer than the women.
The ice caps are allegedly melted, and all of the other continents destroyed, in some vague war, but the cause of that war is never fully explained. Neither is the absolutely bizarre level of technology. The rich can afford holograms so elaborate that Rhine mistakes holographic plants and trees for real ones, but no one has a cell phone or an internet connection to figure out that people in the rest of the world might still be alive? This is a level of potential propaganda that you can pull off in a Dies the Fire scenario where technology completely stops working, but taking the near future and blasting it into disastrous warfare requires a lot more thought. The brides enjoy using the paper library, but what happened to the internet? There's no way that the truly rich would willingly give up such a valuable resource, and there does seem to be enough of an industrial base to support it....but it's simply not there. If everything is such a disaster, how do they still have fresh perfect strawberries and soap operas and fine woven silk for dresses? Has 3-D printing become affordable enough to create all of that? Why are all the fish near the shore contaminated if Florida can still grow perfectly healthy and edible oranges? Going though all the questions here would require another post and give me headache, so let's just say that the short version is this: DeStefano wanted a very specific dynamic with mortality and forced choices, had an idea for how to do that, and sort of handwaved the apocalypse that made it happen. This could have been really interestingly explained, but it's not: there's not so much as a mention of a religious cult that believes that humanity has cursed itself by meddling with the genetics of God's plan, and you know there would be one of those even before the virus started manifesting.
Leaving aside the worldbuilding, there were some truly odd character motivation shifts. Early on, we learn that Jenna has more reason to hate Linden than any of them do and that she's vowing to die before she lets him have her way with her. After a few months, if that, she's just....resigned to her situation and determined to enjoy a few luxurious years before the virus takes her. She's sleeping with Linden and not even seeming to really mind it much, but she's still furious over the (fairly spoiler-heavy) thing that happened and can't possibly forgive Linden for it. The initial portrayal of her resolve is beautiful in a way that's rare to see, and her later motivations are sharply cynical, but the way they casually coexist just makes her character feel sloppy and inconsistent despite so many great individual moments and conversations.
Cecily has some similarly jagged characterization problems. It's honestly heartbreaking to see her desperation to go to bed with Linden become a reality, especially when she's having childish temper tantrums or looking for something real in the house of glossy holograms. She bothers the attendants with her constant petulant demands, but she's also vulnerable and desperate for affection after a childhood in an orphanage. Her eagerness to be a good wife who can bear Linden a child manifests in many ways, everything from manipulation to screaming tantrums, and they feel realistic except when they're providing plot points. She has a bond with Vaughn that's never explained at all; such a shallow woman-child might be horrified by the appearance of an old person or at least reluctant to trust a man who's not her husband, but for some reason she'll supposedly do whatever he says and pass information to him. This supposed bond results in a few plot twists that read as awkward because this bond is in no way shown until relatively late in the book, and it feels clumsy next to her other actions.
Wither managed the score it did even with all the worldbuilding holes largely because the larger world doesn't intrude into the house very thoroughly-- if this level of sketchy detail continues in the second book, I'll be much less amused.
Prospects: Fever, the second book in the Chemical Garden Trilogy, came out earlier this year. Odds are I'll dip a toe back in once the series finishes if the other books net good reviews. If not, I won't bother with any more.
Enjoyed this? Try:
~The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. It does a much better job of portraying a forced marriage and the full reasons behind that. The emotion is more real and the future more bleak than in Wither; it's an eerily grim classic.