Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Every Day She's More Withered

The Chemical Garden
Book 1
By Lauren DeStefano

Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

What if you knew exactly when you’d die?

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?

As I'm rather late in reviewing this book, I'm sorry to say that I was not completely impartial in my reading of it. I'd read less than savory things about this book/series. Now, I don't remember exactly what I'd read, nor do I want to find and read it again as I feel it's important to express my personal reactions, plus I don't want to repeat someone else's words. That being said, I admit that I went into this book expecting to hate it.

Well, there's good news, and there's bad news. The good news is that I didn't hate it. Unfortunately, I didn't much like it either.

Wither came in at an all-around "Meh" for me. I don't hate the book as a whole, but I also don't think I would have missed anything by not reading it. Ultimately, I never felt like the book knew what it was. It was kind of a romance, but Rhine and loverboy barely got any time to know each other. It sorta had a Dystopian rebellion feel, but there was never any attempt to "fix" anything, just escape it. There were bits and pieces of commentary on marriage, motherhood, sex, science, and freedom, but everything ended up buried by Rhine's personal plot.

And speaking of our main character, Rhine was whiny, passive aggressive, and completely self-absorbed. I'm sure we're supposed to notice the good things about her: that she doesn't bully the servants, that she cares about the well-being of her "sister-wives", that she's a free spirit who only wants to rejoin her brother and love whom she wishes. But all I saw was a girl who complained about everything yet never did anything about it. And what little she does do is always aided by accomplices, who then pay dearly for their part in it.

She constantly schemes about running away from the manor, escaping and finding her brother. To do this, she plays the part of a loyal and well-behaved wife so she can become the most trusted. But do her plans ever involve escaping with the other wives? Do her plans ever involve overthrowing her captors? Nope, just me, me, me, and I, I, I.

Now Jenna, one of Rhine's two sister wives, was a character worth caring about. Her real sisters were in the same van that brought her to the mansion, and now eighteen, she doesn't have much time left, so she's resigned herself to living in the luxury that's been afforded to her. But that doesn't mean she won't work as hard as she can to help her fellow wives. Selfless and experienced in more things than either of the other girls, I would have loved to see into her head as she actively worked to free Rhine. But instead she's left in the background, only surfacing when she's helping or being punished for her rebellions.

But if that weren't infuriating enough, we then have Linden Ashby: architect, husband, and glorified slave owner (NOT to be confused with the real-life actor of the same name). No, as much as I dislike Linden as a character, I loathe the author's treatment of him even more. 'It's okay to love him because he's a nice guy who cares about his wives' happiness.' 'It's okay to love him because he's naive and doesn't know what's really happening.'
Ahem, excuse my language for a minute as I call BULL SHIT.

Linden supposedly thinks that his wives were brought to him from a finishing school of sorts, that they all were volunteers willing to be sister wives and have children with wealthy husbands. But if that were true, why does he keep them on a floor with locked windows, no stair access, and an elevator that only takes a keycard for use? And why does the property have a holographic forest completely obscuring the path to the gate? Even if he didn't install these measures himself (he has an evil scientist father for that), he has to realize what they're there for.

Yet the author would have us believe that he's really a saint. That Rhine would (and should) fall in love with him because he's just so kind. And he has so much depth because he can draw both beautiful and gruesome pictures. That he's a suitable crush and love-triangle member because he loves Rhine so much. Shame on you, DeStefano. Unless you were truly writing about a case of Stockholm Syndrome, there is no way to justify the 'excuses' you've written around Linden.

But if Linden was one corner of the love triangle, and Rhine another, then you would think that my favorite of the three would have to be the remaining corner. Unfortunately, Gabriel—"servant" of the manor—was hardly even there. Rhine and he share a camaraderie because they're both slaves under different names. But with a majority of their time together mentioned in passing, and his disappearance halfway through the book, it made it hard to see him as anything more than an act of defiance. It felt like Rhine was going to have a secret relationship with him because it was a freedom she was being denied. And that he reciprocated her affection was only a convenience.

So between the barely-written boy of convenience, the glorified slave owner written up to be a saint, and the completely self-absorbed woe-is-I 'heroine' of the story, I could have cared less for any one of the three in the love triangle. Put simply, the romance didn't work.

If there was any consolation for reading this book, I will say that the world was intriguing. Apparently World War 3 sank every other land mass besides North America. Clever lie to manage the populace (sadly, doubtful), or convenient way to keep outside governments from muddying up the plot, regardless it still serves as an interesting backdrop for the main story. Unfortunately, the setting is also muddled by the confusing 'fact' that says the ice caps melted off, but our coastlines are unchanged. Thankfully, there was at least an interesting social backdrop with the naturalists vs cure-seekers.

Naturalists think that humans screwed up enough, that they should just accept their fate and get killed off, while cure-seekers are not only continuing to have children (who will die in 20/25 years) but are also conducting numerous genetic experiments on (presumably) these children. An interesting conundrum to have—to have children in order to keep humanity alive on the off-chance that they do eventually find a cure, but also subjecting them to equally short lives. But where books like The Hunger Games did the question on the morality of motherhood justice (could you subject your child to a tragically short life?), this book simply swept it under the rug in favor of Rhine and her romance.

Overall, the more I thought about it, the less I liked Wither. If you're starved for an alternative YA romance set in the dreary near-apocalypse, then you might give this a try. Though no language or violence, there were many references to sex, prostitution (though thankfully no rape), and a childbirth scene. Based on that and the heavy subject matter, I'd suggest no younger than high school pick this up. An intriguing what-if scenario, sadly overshadowed by awful characters and a failed romance, read Wither only if you've got extra time and patience on your hands.

Approximate Reading Time: 5 hours

Audiobook Review
Performed by Angela Lin
Length: 10.5 Hours
Listened at 2.2x Speed

As bad as the story and characters were, I can't fault the audiobook for its delivery. Ms. Lin handled the full cast of characters with distinct voices regardless of gender, and provided an enjoyable performance even though I didn't care for the narrating protagonist.

I did notice that the recording contained a good number of pauses. Based on their locations, I have to assume they were meant to occur at text breaks (***) denoting passages of time. However, my copy of the e-book did not contain any breaks or ellipses, so I cannot confirm that they were not simply empty track endings. Still, as far as audiobooks go, this was a well-done production. For those dead-set on reading this, I don't have any problem recommending the audio to enhance the experience.

Disclaimer: I read an e-copy of this book for free via Simon & Schuster Inc./SimonTeen's 31 Days of Reading promotion on their website, PulseIt.com. In addition, I checked out a copy of the audiobook at my local library. I received nothing in exchange for this review.