Book Review: We Set the Dark on Fire

we set the dark on fireWe Set the Dark on Fire
by Tehlor Kay Mejia
Young Adult / Dystopia / LGBT / Romance
364 pages
Published February 2019

We Set the Dark on Fire is an excellent example of how government-mandated relationship structures are oppressive. The core of the story revolves around an island society’s marriage structure; because of an old myth, each man – or at least each upper-class man – has two wives. One wife, the Primera, is expected to be his intellectual equal; she runs his affairs and household and manages his social engagements – the business side of the marriage, if you will – and a second wife who is his heart. The second wife, the Segunda, is expected to be emotional, passionate, and beautiful; she bears and raises his children. The wives are expected to get along and love each other like family.

This is really only the framework for the plot, though. The plot itself revolves around the idea of who belongs in society and who doesn’t. I’ve seen some people call it illegal immigration, and there IS a wall that it is illegal to come over; the unfortunates living outside the wall are uncared for by society and government alike. But I didn’t get the impression that they weren’t actually part of the same country. So I’m not 100% certain I agree that it counts as immigration in the story, though it does have a lot of the same principles, so it may as well be. There’s a lot of othering and dehumanizing, and deciding who deserves what based on their wealth, and government checkpoints to check residence papers, so even if it isn’t technically immigration – well. It’s still a major theme.

This sounds like it could be a book on polyamory; it is not. This is government-mandated female oppression. The government, and our main character’s new husband, specifically, are intent on crushing the resistance coming from the poor who live on the edges of the island. The resistance is called La Voz, or The Voice, and they help Daniela, our main character, out of a tight spot in the beginning of the book. In return, they expect her to spy for them on her new husband, a highly-placed government official. Not knowing who to trust, and afraid of her lies being discovered, she agrees.

What follows is the early stages of rebellion: protests, government cover-ups, undercover meetings, and military checkpoints. In the middle of it all, Daniela begins to fall in love with her Segunda, Carman, who seems to have secrets of her own.

I really really enjoyed this book, and I am very much looking forward to the second! It’s listed as a duology, so it should just be the two. I can’t wait!

From the cover of We Set the Dark on Fire:

At the Medio School for Girls, distinguished young women are trained for one of two roles in their polarized society. Depending on her specialization, a graduate will one day run her husband’s household or raise his children, but both wives are promised a life of comfort and luxury, far from the frequent political uprisings of the lower class.

Daniela Vargas is the school’s top student, but her bright future depends upon no one discovering her darkest secret – that her pedigree is a lie. Her parents sacrificed everything to obtain forged identification papers so Dani could rise above her station. Now that her marriage to an important politico’s son is fast approaching, she must keep the truth hidden or be sent back to the fringes of society, where famine and poverty rule supreme. 

On her graduation night, Dani seems to be in the clear, despite the surprises that unfold. But nothing prepares her for all the difficult choices she must make, especially when she is asked to spy for a resistance group desperately fighting to bring equality to Medio. Will Dani give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio – and a chance at a forbidden love?

The first in a sizzling fantasy duology from debut author Tehlor Kay Mejia, We Set the Dark on Fire is a boldly feminist look at freedom, family, and fighting the power.

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Book Review: Vox

voxVox
by Christina Dalcher
Dystopia
326 pages
Published August 2018

I felt like I was reading a horror novel instead of a dystopia. The first third of the book, specifically, was enraging. It’s the setup – the explanation of how the world is now, and how it came to be that way – that made me have to set the book down twice and walk away to calm down.

The book is the story of Dr. Jean McClellan, cognitive linguist. The forced silence is particularly painful for her, a former scientist who was working on a cure for people who had brain injuries or strokes affecting the Wernicke area of the brain, where we process language. She was about to start restoring language to people who had lost it, only to have it stolen from her and every other woman in the country.

The book opens on Dr. McClellan being asked to return to her work, because the President’s brother suffered a brain injury while skiing and can no longer understand language. As one of the most important advisors to the president, the government needs him. In return for the removal of both her bracelet and her daughter’s, she agrees, hoping to find some way to sabotage the work.

Vox sets out a sequence of events that seems far too feasible for comfort. The religious right extends its foothold from the Bible Belt to more and more of the country, pushing a return to “traditional family values” while methodically stripping freedoms from women and LGBT people. Women’s passports are surreptitiously cancelled, schools are split and classes on Christian theology introduced to the boys’ schools. Girls’ schools consist of very basic math (so they can continue to do the grocery shopping and cooking!) and a ton of home ec. Sewing, Cooking, Housekeeping. LGBT people are sent to prisons/camps unless they marry someone of the opposite sex and produce kids. Basically, it’s the right wing’s dream world.

It’s a horrifying scenario. Even given all the dystopia I’ve read, this book rocked me. It definitely belongs in the league of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Power. My only complaint is I wish the ending had been a little more drawn out, and explained the fallout in a bit more detail. Other than that, though, amazing book.

From the cover of Vox:

Set in a United States in which half the population has been silenced, Vox is the harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter.

On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed more than one hundred words per day, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial. This can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her.

This is just the beginning . . . 

Soon women are not permitted to hold jobs. Girls are not taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words each day, but now women have only one hundred to make themselves heard.

. . . not the end.

For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice.

Book Review: Autonomous

autonomousAutonomous
by Annalee Newitz
Biopunk
301 pages
Published 2017

Autonomous is an interesting story that poses a lot of moral questions. It doesn’t really take sides; both the pharmaceutical pirate and the agents tracking her down are painted in sympathetic ways, as if we’re meant to like them all. We see why Jack is a pharmaceutical pirate; medicine is only available to those rich enough to pay for it, so the poor stay poor and sick and short-lived. She wants to change that. She reverse-engineers drugs, manufactures them, and distributes them to the needy through her associates.

Meanwhile, Eliasz is a conflicted military agent who is sexually attracted to robots. Or at least to his partner, Paladin, though a flashback shows what might have been the start of his attraction to robots. Paladin is probably the single most interesting character in the entire book, as she muses on the nature of being indentured, and searches through her memories and the internet for information about her situation.

The book does have LGBT content – Jack is bisexual, and Eliasz is – robosexual? Is that a thing? Paladin could be called nonbinary or trans; she repeatedly mentions that gender isn’t a thing to robots, but because she’s a military robot, most people call her a he at the beginning of the book. She learns the brain inside her is female, and to make Eliasz more comfortable with his attraction, she decides to use female pronouns. Eliasz does use the F word to refer to himself being attracted to the robot at the beginning, when they were using male pronouns. This puzzles Paladin for a while, causing her to search the term and figure out what Eliasz meant by its use.

There’s a lot of complex world-building in this book that is barely brushed past. From the corporations who own patents covering everything, to the system of indenture that covers humans as well as robots, to the bio-domes that cover cities (but it’s livable outside the biodomes, so why are they needed?), to the new federations that cover continents that used to be divided into several countries – there’s a LOT going on. And there’s not just robots, but also some pretty advanced cybernetics implanted in humans as well as an everpresent network of data that can be tapped into with implants that everyone has.

Ultimately, for as complex as the world is, and cohesive as the plot is, I’m left wondering who, if anyone, was in the right in this story. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to be happy with the ending or not. I’ve seen other reviews saying Neuromancer was a way better book in a similar vein, and I actually have copy of that waiting to be read. So we’ll see.

From the cover of Autonomous:

When anything can be owned, how can we be free?

Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, a pharmaceutical Robin Hood traversing the world in a submarine, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack leaves a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, repeating job tasks until they become insane.

Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his partner Paladin, a young indentured robot. As they race to stop information about the hacked drugs at their source, they form an uncommonly close relationship that neither of them fully understands, and Paladin begins to question their connection – and a society that profits from indentured robots. 

Series Review: The Bannerless Saga

bannerlessBannerless/The Wild Dead
by Carrie Vaughn
Dystopia/Murder Mystery
274/264 pages
Published 2017/2018

I first fell in love with Carrie Vaughn’s work with the Kitty Norville series – a werewolf named Kitty who ran a late-night radio show. Kitty and the Midnight Hour. (Both the name of her show and the first book.) So when I discovered she’d starting writing a dystopia that revolved heavily around reproductive rights, I was SO ON BOARD. Bannerless and The Wild Dead are the first two books of the Bannerless saga. And they’re GREAT. They’re technically murder mysteries set in a dystopian society; Enid, our main character, is an investigator, the closest thing this society has to police.

The dystopia part of the society involves epidemics and natural disasters nearly eradicating humanity; with so few people left and less of the earth habitable, they’ve regressed to a mostly agrarian society. Farmers, weavers, hunters. To keep the population from exploding past the land’s ability to feed it, birth rates are strictly controlled. As civilization was falling, people realized birth rates were going to be massively important, and the birth control implant, and the technology to make it, was one thing they managed to save. They also have solar-powered cars, lights, and flashlights, though they’re uncommon enough to be notable.

the wild deadI find it a little improbable that they still have the tech to make the implants; they say that before the supplies from “before the Fall” ran out, the medics figured out how to make the hormone from “what they had on hand” – but – I feel like a more interesting plot point would be that they’re running out of implants, and how the society would have to deal with that changing. But that is not the case, at least not in the first two books.

Regardless of how improbable the birth control issue is, the rest of the plot is pretty good. There’s a good mix of salvaged goods and subsistence farming; of new houses built in low-tech ways and the occasional ruins from Before the Fall. They have some books and records of what it was like, and Enid often wishes she had the tools that forensic investigators had, Before. Fingerprints, and DNA, though she doesn’t call it DNA. They don’t have cameras, she has to sketch crime scenes and take notes.

I really enjoyed both books; Carrie Vaughn’s writing style is wonderful to read. The first book rambles a little bit, but while some of it doesn’t seem necessary for the first book, it’s important for the second. I’ll definitely be following this series.

From the cover of Bannerless:

Decades after economic and environmental collapse destroyed much of civilization in the United States, the Coast Road region isn’t just surviving, but thriving – built on a culture of population control where people are organized into households that must earn the right to bear and raise children by proving they can care for them. Those who are deemed worthy proudly display the symbolic banners that demonstrate this privilege, while those who are not are outcast, living alone and branded as “bannerless.”

Enid of Haven is an investigator, called on to mediate disputes and examine transgressions against the community. She’s young for the job and hasn’t yet handled a serious case. But now she’s summoned to investigate the suspicious death of a man rumored to be bannerless. Was it murder or an accident? Was he truly bannerless or simply a loner? As Enid races to answer these questions while confronting unhelpful townsfolk and her own past, the secrets she reveals could expose the cracks in the entire foundation of the Coast Road society.

From the cover of The Wild Dead:

A century after environmental and economic collapse, the people of the Coast Road have rebuilt their own sort of civilization, striving not to make the mistakes their ancestors did. They strictly ration and manage resources, including the ability to have children. Enid of Haven is an investigator who, with her new partner, Teeg, is called on to mediate a dispute over an old building in a far-flung settlement at the edge of Coast Road territory. 

The investigators’ decision seems straightforward – and then the body of a young woman turns up in the nearby marshland. Almost more shocking than that, she’s not from the Coast Road, but from one of the outsider camps belonging to the nomads and wild folk who live outside the Coast Road communities. Now one of them is dead, and Enid wants to find out who killed her, even as Teeg argues that the murder isn’t their problem. In a dystopian future of isolated communities, can our moral sense survive the worst hard times?

Book Review: The Book of M

the book of mThe Book of M
by Peng Shepherd
Dystopia/Magical Realism
485 pages
Published June 2018

What defines a person? Your experiences? Your personality? The emotional bonds you forge? What happens when you forget? Are you still you if you don’t remember who that is? The Book of M tackles these questions and takes an intimate look at what happens when some people forget but others remember.

We enter on Max and Ory in an abandoned hotel, running out of food and supplies. Max has lost her shadow, which means she will soon start forgetting. Everything. (There are rumors that Shadowless have died because they forgot to breathe or eat.) We learn it’s been a few years since the phenomenon started happening, and flashbacks tell us the story of those early months. Like any good dystopia, it is a world-altering process. Governments are gone because no one remembered to run them. Food and other supplies are dwindling because farmers, shippers, manufacturers forgot what they were doing and how to do it.

But with the forgetting comes – magic, of a sort. Ory comes across a deer in the forest that instead of antlers, has wings sprouting from its forehead. Because someone forgot that deer shouldn’t have wings – and so it happened. Forgetting that something can be destroyed can make it indestructible. Forgetting that you left a place can take you back to that place. Forgetting a place exists can make that place no longer exist. It’s not a very controllable kind of magic. And it’s dangerous – you can never be quite sure what you’ll forget, and you can affect other people with it.

And the forgetting starts with losing your shadow. Ory gives Max a tape recorder, so she can record things she might forget. He posts signs around their hideout to remind her of things, like “Let no one in. Ory has a key.” and “Don’t touch the guns or the knives.” But Max knows she is a danger to Ory, and so while she can still remember enough to function, she runs away.

The book mostly concerns Ory and Max’s journeys across the country; Max trying to find something she’s forgotten, and Ory trying to find Max. The adventure is gripping, heartbreaking, and at times confusing. (Mostly on Max’s end, as magic warps things around her.) There are a few side characters who also have viewpoint chapters. Naz Ahmadi is an Iranian girl training for the Olympics in the US – in archery, which comes in quite handy. We also have The One Who Gathers, a mysterious man in New Orleans who has gathered a flock of shadowless.

If you ever played the roleplaying game Mage: the Ascension, and remember the concept of Paradox, this book reminds me of that a lot. (Is it a surprise that I’m a tabletop RPG geek? It shouldn’t be. I own almost all of the old World of Darkness books, and currently play in a D&D game, and hopefully soon a second D&D game!) Anyway. Paradox. Where doing magic too far outside the bounds of acceptable reality punishes you, so you have to weigh the potential consequences against the magic you want to do.

I really enjoyed this debut novel; it is a very original take on a dystopia, and raised a lot of questions about personality, memories, and what makes a person the person you remember.

From the cover of The Book of M:

Set in a dangerous near-future world, The Book of M tells the captivating story of a group of ordinary people caught in an extraordinary catastrophe who risk everything to save the ones they love. This sweeping debut illuminates the power that memories have not only on the heart, but on the world itself.

One afternoon at an outdoor market in India, a man’s shadow disappears – an occurrence that science cannot explain. He is only the first. The phenomenon spreads like a plague, and while those afflicted gain a strange new power, the magic comes at a horrible price: the loss of all their memories.

Two years later, Ory and his wife, Max, have escaped the Forgetting by hiding in an abandoned hotel deep in the woods outside Arlington, Virginia. Their new life feels almost normal, until their greatest fear happens to them, and Max’s shadow disappears, too.

Knowing that the more she forgets, the more dangerous she will become to the person most precious to her, Max runs away while Ory is out foraging for supplies – but he refuses to give up what little time they have left together. Desperate to find Max before her memory disappears completely, Ory follows her trail across a perilous, unrecognizable world, braving the threat of roaming bandits, the call to a new war being waged amid the ruins of the capital, and the rise of a sinister cult that worships the shadowless.

On their separate journeys, each searches for answers: for Ory, about love, about survival, about hope; and for Max, about a mysterious new force growing in the south that may hold the cure.

Book Review: Red Clocks

red clocks dystopiaRed Clocks
by Leni Zumas
Feminist Dystopia
350 pages
Published January 2018

Red Clocks first caught my attention because it’s set in a small fishing town in Oregon, my home state. After that, learning that it’s a dystopia where abortion and in vitro fertilization have both been banned outright meant I HAD to read it. Of course, I got it from the library some weeks ago and had so many other books to read that I didn’t get to it until the day it was due back to the library! Luckily, I read fast!

I think the cover description oversells the book a little. I wouldn’t call Gin’s trial “frenzied” nor the drama exactly “riveting” but it did keep my attention throughout the book. I really enjoyed the relationships between the characters, and the point that none of them really know what is going on in each other’s personal lives. One moment I particularly liked is slightly spoilery, but I loved how Ro was able to put her personal feelings aside to help Mattie, her student. That was really, really hard for her, but she recognized how much damage it would do to Mattie to not help her.

I think I found Gin the most interesting – given all the reading I’ve been doing lately about autism, her entire personality screams autism to me, but she was never labeled as autistic. So I’m marking her as a possibly autistic character. (I’d love if any of my autistic readers could weigh in on that, if you’ve read the book!) Between preferring to live in the woods with animals and NOT around people, specifically, and the way she reacts to the textures and smells in the jail when she’s arrested (shoving the bleach-scented blankets as far away in the cell as possible, and refusing to eat the food), and how she stumbles over her answers in the courtroom when she’s interrogated – it seems likely.

My only actual complaint about this book had nothing to do with the writing or plot! But it refers to the ghost pepper as “the hottest pepper known to man” which the Carolina Reaper growing in my backyard would have an issue with!

Other than that very minor quibble, I thought this dystopia was pretty good. I’m always interested in Reproductive Rights-related dystopias. This isn’t as good as The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s MILES better than Future Home of the Living God. It’s good at showing the lengths women will go to, to ensure their own reproductive freedom. Outlawing abortion doesn’t eliminate abortion. It just makes it less safe.

From the cover of Red Clocks:

In this ferociously imaginative novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom. 

Ro, a single high school teacher, is trying to have a baby on her own while also writing a biography of Eivor, a little-known nineteenth-century female polar explorer. Susan is a frustrated mother of two, trapped in a crumbling marriage. Mattie is the adopted daughter of doting parents and one of Ro’s best students, who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn. And Gin is the gifted forest-dwelling herbalist, or “mender,” who brings all their fates together when she’s arrested and put on trial in a frenzied modern-day witch hunt. 

Red Clocks is at once a riveting drama whose mysteries unfold with magnetic energy, and a shattering novel of ideas. In the vein of Margaret Atwood and Eileen Myles, Leni Zumas fearlessly explores the contours of female experience, evoking The Handmaid’s Tale for a new millennium. This is a story of resilience, transformation, and hope in tumultuous – even frightening – times.