In this dystopian novel for young adults (and Part One of an intended trilogy), a third world war has destroyed all but North America. The rest of the world is now just ocean and tiny uninhabitable islands. Genetic manipulation to eliminate disease has worked miracles but has had unintended consequences: now a mysterious virus takes the lives of women at age twenty and men at age twenty-five. As scientists race to find a cure, wealthier households hire “gatherers” to kidnap young girls and procure them as multiple wives for their sons. Their purpose is to breed children in order to keep their genetic lines going, in the hope that some of the children will miraculously survive.
Rhine is a beautiful sixteen-year old with heterochromia: i.e., one blue eye and one brown eye, a genetic anomaly we can guess will have repercussions later on in the trilogy. Rhine has been forcibly abducted to be a “bride” by Governor Linden, a twenty-year old whose father, Housemaster Vaughn, is anxious for him to generate heirs. Those chosen as her two “sister wives” are Jenna, who is older, and Cecily, only thirteen. They all become captives in Vaughn’s mansion.
Rhine is desperate to get back to her twin brother Rowan, the only living family she has left, but escape from the mansion seems impossible. Vaughn, who is a doctor and who is allegedly searching for a cure, keeps the girls on a tight leash. He conducts secret experiments in the basement of the house; all of the residents, including his son, seem to be afraid of him.
In time, the girls become friends, and Rhine gets close one of the attendants, as well: Gabriel, who is her own age and with whom Rhine shares a romantic attraction. But getting found out could be lethal for both of them, and for any who help them.
Discussion: Although not evident from the brief plot description given here, there are many parallels to The Hunger Games. But this book adds in kidnapping, polygamy, socially-approved rape, prostitution, and murder. And yet it’s all so soft-pedaled, you find yourself focusing on the technological wonders, the dresses, the romance, and the mystery, and before you know it, you’re on Team Gabriel or Team Linden.
I think that’s probably the only way to approach such a story if you want a popular trilogy. Although XVI by Julia Karr (see my review here) had a somewhat similar theme, you don’t see much gushing over it, in part because it’s so dark. And readers may not appreciate discussions of issues of class, race, gender inequality, and abuse making their way into the beautiful-girl-gets-the-guy fantasy. (I should add this is not meant as a judgment; I, for example, do not like socioeconomic issues intruding into murder mysteries. This does mean, however, that I consider socioeconomic issues unimportant.) And in truth, as John Joseph Adams points out in his discussion of dystopian fiction, “the best dystopias are not didactic screeds” although they do manage to convey their messages nevertheless.
The question is, however, should such subjects be soft-pedaled in the interest of selling a story? Should we look at this as rape being romanticized, or rather, see the characters as adjusting and surviving in the only society that is available?
Evaluation: This story sucks you in, in spite of its shortcomings and plot inconsistencies (such as a very big one involving Vaughn’s disposition on the fate of Gabriel). It’s definitely a page-turner, and like many dystopias, features breathless contests between good and evil, and hope and fear. Will I be reading the next two? But of course! I like dystopian princess fairy tales with ogres and princes as much as the next person. Moreover, I’m totally fascinated with how easy it is through socialization [and on a meta-level, through romantic fiction] to make the ick factor [such as, it's okay for women to be held captive and raped repeatedly] acceptable. If I had a young daughter, however, I would definitely want to discuss the book with her and explore the ways in which domination, captivity, and brutality are eroticized.