6 April 2012
Review 28: Wither by Lauren DeStefano
A fast paced dystopian novel with a familiar story that has just enough variation from the plethora of apocalyptic fiction out there to recommend itself, although is clearly very derivative. There are a fair few plot and logic issues and some rather unsubtle characterisations but it is somehow very readable regardless. The real strength for me was DeStefano's descriptions of the world as it is as she ably conjures up a world where abductions and poverty sit side by side with extravagant wealth all wrapped in a frightened and desperate (although ill defined and created) world.
First Line: 'I wait, they keep us in the dark for so long that we lose sense of our eyelids.'
Firstly, this book gets big bonus points for managed to produce a credible cover image whilst using a model. Normally I hate this but the model looks wonderful and the rest of the cover design is lovely aswell. I think it works because actually I don't think the model is supposed to be Rhine, our heroine, but rather it is a representative image of the situation for teenage girls in DeStefano's dystopian future. Also, I like the name of the series, Chemical Garden, although I'm not sure how much sense it makes.
So the plot... Unfortunately the plot is probably one of the weaker elements. DeStefano has clearly been inspired by the host of post-apocalyptic novels that are flooding the market at the moment and many of the ideas will be very familiar to YA readers and/or post-apocalyptic fiction fans. That in itself means that the story is familiar but not necessarily bad, the problem is that DeStefano has taken familiar plot tropes and twisted them around but they don't all really make sense. So Wither is set in the future, where all continents except North America have been wiped out (no details as to how and why this happened). Whilst the majority of the serious and fatal illnesses we have now have been cured, such as cancer, all women die at age 20 and all men die at age 25 due to a virus. DeStefano seems to have hit on this idea and then not really worried too much about creating any backstory behind it. It is an intriguing idea and I don't expect a science textbook but there is so little explanation as to what this virus is, where it came from, how it kills people or why it affects men and women differently. We do know that it is something to do with a cure for aging that went wrong and that the first generation it was tried on, it worked for and who are now living on apparently endlessly. I really hope DeStefano addresses some of these issues in the next books because it makes the books less absording and credible because you are constantly wanting answers.
Our heroine is 16 year old Rhine who is abducted at the very beginning of the novel by a rich man whose first wife is dying. Another problem in the logic is the fact that despite the fact girls are collected off the streets as the human race is desperately trying to ensure that it continues despite everyone dying extremely young (except that first generation - I felt like DeStefano only had it work on the first generation to allow her to have her older villain), the rejects are summarily shot. If humanity was so desperate to ensure it continued to exist, why would you execute healthy young girls just because they weren't specifically chosen by one wealthy man. It just doesn't make any logical sense. Anyway, Rhine is seperated from her twin (who we don't hear much about in this book but who I think will crop up pretty soon in the sequel) and chosen with two other teenagers to marry Linden. Linden is presented as a kind of affectionate idiot, who is blissfully unaware of anything going on, in sharp contrast with his ridiculously sinister father, who becomes a cartoon villain.
Living in the lap of luxury but miserable, Rhine gets to know Linden's dying first wife, the other two girls and a servant boy who she starts to grow closer to in a shocking and unexpected twist. Humph. He is even named after an angel. Subtlety is really not a strong part of this book. There is also some rather dubious discussion of the fact that Linden's wives are expected to sleep with him and I felt awkward reading about the youngest wife of only 14 being sore after her first time and then getting pregnant or the way the oldest new wife who is still only 19 cut herself off emotionally from Linden but let him sleep with her on a regular basis. We are supposed to sympathise with Linden except he is sleeping with both a child and a girl who clearly does not want to. It's all presented in an almost light hearted way and I found it all a bit strange and uncomfortable. Normally in these type of books we have hints of some sort of rebellion, a community fighting against corrupt society but I missed it if it was there. Everyone seems to be accepting the ridiculous way the society is organising itself after the virus took place.
However, despite all of the things wrong with it, I found it exceptionally readable. DeStefano is very good at describing the poverty of the city and the decadence of the rich. I enjoyed reading about the food and the houses and the parties. She really is a very good handler of language and creates some lovely sentences. The book is fast paced with lots going on and despite the fact huge chunks of the plot didn't really make sense and I wanted to know what was going to happen. I guess there was an element of hoping to find out more about the virus but unfortunately it never came. Also, Rhine is a pretty good heroine. She is brave, as independent as she can be in the situation, and relatively clever.
Ultimately, I want to read the second book which means it can only be classed as a success, despite it's many failings. However, if DeStefano doesn't sort her backstory and world building out and give us some more answers (I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt at this point that she has though this through but just hasn't included it) then I'm afraid I'm out.