TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
Lauren DeStefano's upcoming "Wither," the first book in her Chemical Garden Trilogy, is (yet another) teen dystopian novel. Here, we have a future world where the United States is the lone remaining country, Manhattan is a hardscrabble city of industrial skyscrapers, and, because of wickedly disastrous genetic engineering, all women die from a virus at age 20 while men live to the ripe old age of 25. Gah! Interesting hook, right? For the most part, first time author DeStefano delivers the goods, with effective world building, evocative descriptions, some suspenseful moments, and an engaging romance.
As the book begins, 16 year old Rhine has been kidnapped by a Gatherer, who has stolen a fresh group of girls to be sold as child brides. Because the virus kills the young — only the pre-engineered "first generation" survives to old age — reproduction / repopulation is a preeminent concern, especially for the wealthy. With parents dying so young, there is a staggering population of orphans that can be stolen and sold as either servants or brides. Here's where the Gatherers come in; these ruthless men snatch children for profit, selling the special ones and killing those deemed unworthy. Rhine is incredibly savvy and a true survivor (she and twin brother Rowan have lived for years after their first generation parents' accidental deaths), but, nevertheless, she finds herself caught by a Gatherer. Rhine's blonde beauty and heterochromia (different colored eyes) save her life, as all but three girls herded into the Gatherer's van are executed.
Rhine's ultimate destination is the house of Linden Ashby, a fragile, vulnerable 21 year old whose current wife, 20 year old Rose, is fast succumbing to the fatal virus. Rhine, world weary 18 year old prostitute Jenna, and naive 13 year old orphan Cecily are destined to be the three brides of Linden, as orchestrated by his ruthless father Vaughn. You read that correctly. Three brides. Did I forget to mention that the wealthy dabble in polygamy? I know. Ick.
So that's the setup. Rhine is kept captive in a spectacular, isolated Florida mansion with the reserved Jenna and bubbly, buoyant Cecily. Housemaster Vaughn monitors the girls every movement, so running away — let alone, for some time, even opening a window — is impossible. The mansion is surrounded by long miles of orange groves, trees, and even distorted holographic images to prevent escape. Vaughn is cunning and evil, a madman scientist with a secret stash of corpses in his basement who controls every aspect of the girls' lives, from food to entertainment to clothing. In other words, cross him and die a torturous death.
Oddly enough, Rhine becomes friends with Linden's wife Rose before she dies, and she and her "sister wives" grow close as the months pass, spending each day together reading, playing music, or swimming in the pool. The rather pathetic and heartbroken Linden is generally tolerable, and when Rhine assumes privileged "first wife" status, she begins attending lavish galas and parties. But it's all still no more than a very pretty prison. Rhine bides her time, slowly building Linden's trust as a means to enable her escape. When Rhine falls for one of her attendants, kind, nurturing teen Gabriel, she decides to risk everything to regain her home, her twin, and her freedom.
The characters are well conceived and nicely developed. Rhine is brave, stalwart, and fiercely loyal, a smart girl with a heap of courage. I couldn't help but root for her. We also discover that Jenna is a keen observer and, in her own way, as rebellious as Rhine, while the young, hopeful Cecily, so easily dazzled by her new glamorous life, is perhaps stronger than she first appears. I was quickly caught up in these girls' lives, their interactions, and the strange family they create, full of companionship, love and occasional jealousy. Vaughn is a great villain, sweet on the surface with a terrifying, murderous core. I completely believed he would do anything to further his nefarious goals. Even some of the secondary characters, from a young attendant to a crotchety cook, are beautifully rounded.
My major problem? If DeStefano was trying to create tension through a romantic triangle involving Rhine, Linden, and Gabriel, she fails miserably. There are many scenes where we're supposed to see a tender, loving side of Linden, and he is repeatedly presented as an innocent pawn manipulated by his cruel father. When Linden finally takes Rhine out on the town — after months of laying and holding her in bed at night — he is so affectionate and attentive that Rhine must constantly remind herself that it is an illusion. But are we supposed to forget the part where Linden impregnates 13 year old Cecily and regularly has sex with Jenna, a woman for whom he has no feelings? Are we not supposed to be repelled by Linden's inherent complicity in keeping these children prisoners (and virtual sex slaves) in his house? Really? Maybe it's just me, but I could not get past viewing Linden as a lonely creep exploiting a bunch of vulnerable girls. Meanwhile, Gabriel, this amazing, thoughtful boy, is in love with Rhine, in a real, honest way. Why on earth would she choose Linden over him? As such, the many passages in the latter portion of the book detailing Rhine's growing feelings for Linden struck me as patently false. I got to a point where I wanted her to either flee with Gabriel or have Vaughn finish her off already.
There are other problems, mostly in terms of pacing, and the book would have benefitted from tighter editing. But the story here is a good one, and if you can stomach the polygamy angle and at least tolerate the artificial romantic drama, I think you'll be pleased. Rhine is a great character, a tough, crafty fighter, and author DeStefano uses lush descriptions to depict the posh mansion, sumptuous gardens, swirling snowflakes, sparkling gowns, colorful crystal candies, and, on the uglier side, the darkness and desolation of Manhattan. Her detailed, evocative descriptions alone make the book worth reading. Throw in a truly thought-provoking premise, a nasty villain, and a swoon worthy love interest, and you have the makings of an enjoyable page turner.
"Wither" comes out in late March (by the way, thank you Simon & Schuster for the e-galley; you guys rock!). This one is definitely for the high school crowd — sex, violence, disturbing images — and should be a good fit for fans of darker fantasy and dystopia (think Cassandra Clare and Holly Black). Let me know what you think!
PS – LOVE the bird in the gilded cage cover!