THE CAT WHO WALKED A THOUSAND MILES is one of the longer free stories on the Tor.com website, but well worth it. It's a story about a cat, named Small Cat, who lives with a whole bunch of other cats in a garden. After an earthquake and a fire, the cats scatter, and suddenly, Small Cat is left utterly alone.
Small Cat immediately goes out into the greater world of Japan to search for other cats. Her quest is driven by her desire to be part of a "fudoki": an interesting concept, which, from what I understand, consists of the collective stories of your ancestors, your family members, and you, that form your identity and give you a place in the world with which to carve out your niche.
Small Cat's quest to find a fudoki result in a long journey. There are bears and boats; monks and Shinto shrines; snow and fire; wolves and dogs; she even meets a few other cats, although many of them are unfriendly or have no place for her in their fudoki.
Reading this book made me want to hug my own cat extra tight. Small Cat's loneliness is the driving force behind this book, and it was really sad that no matter where she went, or how good her situation was, she never completely felt as though she were completely at home without having the stories of others like her to define her life and make a home.
Also, if you like the cover, you're in luck, because this is the first story I've seen on the Tor website that's illustrated. The art work is beautiful, and really captures the je ne sais quoi that is cat. I feel sure that both the author and the artist have cats of their own, because they really managed to capture the temperament and personality of that furry little animal that's an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a fudoki.
According to Japanese folklore, the kappa is a Japanese river goblin that drags people under the water to eat their organs and soul. The top of its head forms a shallow bowl that is constantly filled with water. Kappa can be defeated by tricking them into a deep bow, causing the water that is the source of their power to spill out. They can also be appeased by carving one's name into a cucumber (their favorite food) and tossing it into the water.
Makino is familiar with kappa lore, so she is understandably afraid when she is approached in the bath by a kappa. He claims to have saved her from drowning when she was young, and says that it's because he's in love with her. But Makino's husband is dying, and cannot be cured. The kappa might be able to help her, but his help will come at a steep cost.
This story was beautifully written and I learned some interesting things about Japanese folklore - specifically, that kappa are not always malicious; they are curious, polite, and interested in humans; they're so much more than just another flesh-eating monster.
There's actually a song by a Japanese artist called "Kappa" (by Keiko Matsui) that is supposedly inspired by the Japanese myth. I listened to that song while reading this short story, and they paired incredibly well. It is a mysterious and bittersweet song that perfectly matches this story in tone.
"I could take everything inside you and leave nothing but a hollow shell of your skin. I do not forget kindness, but I will let you forget yours, if it will please you."
This is a solid addition to the Tor.com repertoire, but the characterization that makes some of the other stories on the site so spell-binding is absent. Still; it's an interesting take on a Japanese legend, so if you're interested in Japanese folklore, I'd recommend it to you for that reason alone. :)
These days they use arms from corpses—age fourteen, oldest, at time of death. The couture houses pay for them, of course (the days of grave-robbing are over, this is a business), but anything over fourteen isn’t worth having. At fourteen, the bones have most of the length you need for a model, with a child’s slender ulna, the knob of the wrist still standing out enough to cast a shadow.
LA BEAUTE SANS VERTU is set in a dystopian society where couture fashion houses take rather extreme and cruel liberties with their fashion models. Their natural bodies aren't enough - they have their arms sliced off and replaced with the slender, emaciated arms from the corpses of fourteen-year-old girls.
Maria, the model of this story, was scouted and taken when she was nineteen. They like her because of her perfect walk and because there's “[s]omething miserable in the turn of the mouth” of her beautiful face. She becomes incredibly sought after, a valuable commodity.
LA BEAUTE SANS VERTU is definitely a scathing criticism of the fashion industry, of how thin is thin enough, and how artificial everything is, from the hype, to the personas of the models themselves, to the actual outfits worn on these fashion shows: ensembles that would never stand up to wear and tear, and are created to be worn once, and sold or discarded.
Are things only beautiful because we know they won't last?
As if all this weren't enough to make me love this story, Valentine works in many references and parallels to Charles Perrault's fairytale, "Diamonds and Toads."
The one who was kind married a prince, and spent the rest of her life granting audiences and coughing up bouquets and necklaces for the guests. The one who refused was driven into the forest, where there was no one who wanted anything fetched, and she could spit out a viper any time she needed venom, and she never had to speak again.
I liked the comparison of models to fairytale princesses. Both are renowned for being beautiful, and many young girls wish they could be both. But there is a darker side to being both a model and a princess, and behind the glitz and glamor, there's a lot of pressure, a lot of objectification, and a lot of misery.
LA BEAUTE SANS VERTU is a beautifully written Tor.com short. I really, really enjoyed it, and I'd love to see a concept like this fleshed out in a full-length novel. I think you could write it the way Paolo Bacigalupi would, and make it a cautionary tale against too much biological engineering. But this short story is good, too, and ends on just the right, judgmental note.
Real talk: I wanted to read this story because of the big, demonic bath toy-looking thing on the cover. As it turns out, the demonic bath toy-looking thing is actually a baby kraken. Apparently, witch kids are too cool for pinatas and Marco Polo; instead, they unleash a whole bunch of baby krakens in the pool and have a competition to see who can spell and then subdue them.
Camellia, the only person at this party who isn't the witch, isn't in the best of moods when she has to kill a rampaging kraken with a plastic fork. Being relegated to watch the little witches isn't much better; imagine a kid with magical powers. Scary.
Anyway, one of the mothers at the party reveals, to the adults, while Camellia eavesdrops, that she's angry at the librarian at her daughter's school because the librarian thought her mother was actually a grandmother. Witches are only as old as they believe they are, and this even has caused both this woman and her mother to age terribly because of the horrible, traumatic incident of this event. They want revenge.
Revenge, in the form of banana bread.
One of the children, Pink/Primella is horrified to hear this because she likes the librarian. But her magic powers aren't that strong, and Camellia has none to speak of. If they want to put a stop to Operation Banana Bread, then they're going to need help. But how to persuade a bunch of unruly witch kids?
I liked the twist ending. It was sweet how Camellia corralled the witch kids into doing her will by using reverse psychology (kind of like real kids), and I liked how she teamed up with Pink/Primella, and helped her feel better about herself. The only reason I'm not rating this higher is because it was a little too oddball for me, and it doesn't compare to some of the other Tor.com shorts. But it's cute.
Mathilde doesn't want a demon for her birthday, she wants a pony. But a demon is what her grandmother gets her, because demons are easier to take care of than ponies.
"I AM IX’THOR, MASTER OF THE VENOMOUS PITS OF KARTHOOM!"
Mathilde is less than pleased with Ix'thor, which just goes to show how crazy she is. Speaking as someone who has spent a fair amount of time with horses, ponies smell. Ix'thor, on the other hand, has a flaming sword and surrounds himself with smoke.
Oh, and you feed him by putting grub souls on a little stone altar.
IX'THOR ACCEPTS YOUR SACRIFICE. NUM. NUM. NUM.
When disciplining him, you beam a flashlight at him instead of spritzing him with a squirt bottle (although I imagine holy water would probably do the trick nicely too).
One of the best things about this story is how Mathilde is written. Corwin really captures the mentality of a child. Mathilde wants a pony because the girls she associates as having greater social capital all have ponies, and she wants to fit in. On the other hand, once she shows her friends her demon and they are impressed by his fearsome powers, she starts to realize her pet has value. And as she gets to know him, and bonds with him, she likes him not because of them, but because of who he is. It's a really great portrayal of how affection develops and grows over time.
The ending of this story is depressing as heck, though. I never thought I'd cry over a demon.
...I did, though.
In the words, of Ix'thor, this story was: EXCELLENT. Just make sure you have a tissue handy.
THAT GAME WE PLAYED DURING THE WAR is a Tor.com freebie about two alien races, the Gaant and the Enithi. The Gaant are psychic and the Enithi are not. Previously at war, the two races are now in the process of formalizing a peace treaty, but lingering tensions still remain.
Calla and Valk are a Enithi and a Gaant, respectively. Both were involved in the war, and suffered losses because of it. At one point, she was his prisoner; at one point, he was hers. They share a bond because of chess: a game that they played during wartime; a game that Calla wants to play with Valk now, in times of peace.
You guys know that I love chess. I play myself, and have written about it, too. It's a fascinating game, with so many layers, and Vaughn takes a totally interesting & unique approach to it:
How would you play chess against a telepath?
TGWPDTW is probably my favorite short story that I've read from Tor. The characters are so complicated and likable. The world building is amazingly developed in a remarkably short time. I loved the scenes Vaughn wrote about the war, and the innovations the Enithi took to commit acts of subterfuge against their psychic opponents. I liked how she pointed out that the Gaant would seem terrifying because they would able to read your greatest fears and selfish motivations - but for the same reasons, couldn't use them because they would immediately be exposed to that suffering.
Carrie Vaughn's most famous work is her Kitty Norville series, but ironically, that's the work of hers that I've enjoyed least. I love her other stories, where she gets weird and experimental. She just wrote a science-fiction book that I received an ARC for, and I'm super excited to read it, because if this story is any indication, Vaughn has found her true calling in the marvelous world of space opera.
"The point...is to fight little wars without hurting anyone."
Most little girls love unicorns. They're magical and pure and mysterious and so fluffy you're gonna die - literally in this case.
Meet Steve, AKA Phantom, the cage-fighting unicorn. His owner is a Valkyrie. Together, they kick butt at supernatural cage fighting competitions and teach others the lesson that justice can sparkle and smell like warm sunshine even while it's tearing you a new one.
I loved the female narrator in this book. I haven't read the author's full-length novels, but I want to, now, because of her smooth mastery of first-person narrative. The heroine has that gumshoe noir class of nonchalance that a lot of the older, really good urban fantasy series do.
Steve is also a great character. I've read about evil unicorns in Diana Peterfreund's RAMPANT series (a must-read, if you're into unicorns and fantasy), and now I get to add gladiator unicorns to the list. He has so much attitude, and it's hilarious because it's coming from an unexpected source.
There isn't too much more to say about this book except that it's free, and it features an interesting cast of paranormal creatures that wouldn't be out of place in FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM. If you're into urban fantasy stories with snarky main characters, you'll like this.
Mirrors have always vaguely creeped me out, helped in part by such delightful films as Mirrors and Occulus. There's just something about the idea of something stealing and perverting your image into something demonic or evil that's, well, creepy. When you think about it, cameras are much the same.
SELFIES takes that concept and runs with it in a creepy short story about a girl named Ellie who buys a phone from a kiosk in the mall and starts talking lots of selfies with it. The problem is, some of the selfies don't look right. And the more pictures she takes, the more wrong they look, until suddenly, she starts seeing her face everywhere she looks...only it isn't exactly hers.
This story is very creepy and sent shivers down my spine, but from a technical standpoint, I do feel like it could have been constructed better. The beginning spoils the end, and the details of the story are so vague that you're never really sure what, exactly, is happening. I still wasn't sure what was happening by the end.
Still, SELFIES is free (from Tor.com) and is an interesting (and creepy) take on vanity in the technological age. Read it, if you dare. Just not at night. And not before taking a selfie. o.o
In nature, animals with bright and beautiful colors are actually warning you off: "Do not eat or touch me! I will poison you! You will be sorry!" In the literary universe, books with beautiful colors appear to be similarly warning you off: "Do not read me! I will annoy you! You will be sorry!" The prettier the cover, the more likely the book is to be bad. This has been proven by science.*
*AKA, someone told me this once on a forum & I believed them.
Despite the questionable summary and the many reviews suggesting that this book was not for me, I decided not to heed the warning signals and bought the prequel to read - because it was on sale, and because I appear to have a knack for tempting fate and acquiring books I probably shouldn't be reading, but feel compelled to out of a very morbid sense of curiosity. I read THE JEWEL earlier today and it's a hot mess of bad world building, mixed messages, and two-dimensional characters.
It was also unintentionally funny - and surprisingly, disturbingly dark. I mean, here you have a costume dys-trope-ian fiction where girls - teenage and preteen girls - are sold at the auction block so people can artificially inseminate them. They get to wear pretty dresses and sparkly jewelry but they're also paraded around in chains, beaten, abused, and oh yeah - die after giving birth. Cool. Plus, teenagers are also apparently enslaved in brothels where they are groomed to be "companions" (read: escorts/prostitutes) to help young people of the opposite sex learn about love while also being "used" by the older members of the household and teenage and preteen males are also being castrated to be used as "ladies-in-waiting" (read: eunuchs) to serve the surrogates without being tempted by them.
The unintentionally funny bits are how dramatic Violet is, and how she pretty much falls for her love interest, a companion, the moment she sees him, and gets so territorial over him that she stops just short of peeing on the girl he's actually supposed to be romantically interested in and screaming out, "BACK OFF B*TCH! HE'S MINE!" The names are also ridiculous. I mentioned some of the highlights in my previous review, but there's some new winners in this sequel, with gems like Sable, Millet, Sienna, Cobalt, Olive, and Rye. (I think you're forgetting Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme.)
***WARNING: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW***
If you want a quick summary of the previous book and the set-up, I do recommend checking out my review of the first book because I'm not going to be summing up everything again here. There's just way too many new things I want to talk about and discuss, because as dark as the first book was, THE WHITE ROSE says, "Guess what time it is? WTFUCKERY O' CLOCK, OFC!"
Regarding some of the questions I had in book one. Book two, to its credit, answers some of them. I know now why the surrogates can do magic, and why certain types of magic give them nosebleeds and headaches. I'm not 100% sold on that explanation (read: not at all sold on that explanation), but at least the author took the time to try and resolve that. Also, yes, apparently companions are not exclusively male. Girls get taken off the streets and used for "practice" in these teen brothels, too.
One thing that was NOT answered to my satisfaction was the origin behind this world. We get to know a bit of the history behind the Lone City, but I'm still not clear on whether or not this world of theirs is our world or a fantasy world that the author made up. The names of the other countries are different - but in one point of the story, Garnet drives Ash and Violet away in a car. So they have automobiles in this world? I don't recall them having roads. In fact, I was getting an 1800s vibe from this world, so please, tell me how this car fits into this agrarian- and factory-fueled society.
The reproductive aspects of this world still aren't really concrete, either. The author has explained what surrogates are (omg - it's kind of funny, it's so Avatar - and don't ask me to disambiguate, because both Avatar and Avatar: The Last Airbender apply) but not why the royalty rely on them for child-bearing...and what the heck is up with these accelerated pregnancies? In this book, they're saying that someone got pregnant in one day, and the crazy duchess was saying in the last book that she expected Violet to have a three-month pregnancy with one month designated per term??
Now I have more questions - like, still, what is the origin of this world? Why are the surrogates needed for child-bearing? Is this some sort of plague thing? Did the founders contract some sort of auto-immune disease from coming to a land that wasn't their own that directly impacts their ability to produce viable off-spring? If that's the case, why doesn't that impact people from the Bank/Farm/Smoke districts? I'm sure they're not all descended from the same lineage as the surrogate people. Why the heck was there a car? And regarding the end of the book, isn't that girl only 12? Is she really pregnant? Did a 12-y.o. really get pregnant in this book? And why does giving people lobotomies result in psychic powers? How do brains work in this universe? How does anatomy in general work in this universe?
As bad as the world-building was, I still have to applaud the author for going there. I felt so bad for Ash, knowing his history in this book and all the things he went through when he was essentially forced into sexual slavery by his family. Lucien's backstory was awful, too - his father tied him down and gelded him so he could be sold to the royalty as a servant. I felt bad for Raven, too, and Annabelle - oh my gosh, what happened to Annabelle was NOT COOL. Why is it that the heroine gets to make all these idiotic choices, but it's the people around her who suffer? That's hardly fair.
Honestly, at this point, I'm oddly charmed by this fustercluck of a series. THE JEWEL and THE WHITE ROSE are so cheesy and bad, but in a comforting and endearing way, like eating chips out of a sweatshirt hood while you watch Lifetime movies. Yeah, it's not good for you and makes a big ol' mess, but it was fun, right? Right. I had a good time reading through this nonsense, and I still want to find out what happens next, even though I know it will probably be even more ridiculous and leave even more questions unanswered. What can I say? I'm easily entertained.
People have been asking me to review THE SELECTION for years. Years. But whenever a book gets this popular I tend to back off, because at that point, most of what needs to be said has been said - and by reviewers who are far more creative and hilarious than me. Case in point, I only just this year reviewed BEAUTIFUL DISASTER, and that ship sailed a looong time ago. But then my library got a copy of THE SELECTION, and I thought, "Why not? Let's give it a whirl." My friends' opinions are split pretty evenly on this book, with half shipping it and even participating in role-playing games about it, and the other half expressing a strong desire to use it for kindling in the fireplace.
So, what did I think? I have so much to say, it's hard to figure out where to start. I didn't like the book. Obviously. It didn't make me sizzle and pop with rage, although after reading it, I'm a little puzzled as to why it's so popular. Nearly every aspect of the book held some sort of flaw for me, from its stilted dialogue all the way up to its shelving as a dystopia.
Let's start with the genre itself. I'm a fan of dystopian fiction. When done properly, it can be an excellent way to highlight the flaws in a society by taking a reductio ad absurdum "what if?" scenario to show how our many excesses and our hidden or subtle cruelties can destroy us. THE SELECTION, on the other hand, is basically The Bachelor set in a very tame, very unfrightening "Hunger Games lite" universe. America, the heroine, lives in a bizarre version of the United States that has been invaded by both China and Russia, and is now called Illea after the general who saved the country and later became king...because reasons. For some reason, the United States has also become striated by a rigid caste system that starts with one (royalty) and ends in eight (homelessness). I was trying to figure out the professions that went with this system, because one of the girls who works on the farm is a four, manual laborers (like movers) are six, and America's family, a bunch of performers and musicians, are fives. This seemed weird to me for several reasons, but the one I'm going to get intonow is that performing arts are an activity of leisure generally associated with those who are middle to upper class. Why? Music lessons cost a lot of money. Instruments are expensive. Practicing costs time - time that would be spent doing other things, like having a part-time job. Who are their family's clients? What do those numbers mean? If this is a criticism of society, it would be nice if what it is criticizing had been laid out better, and if those being oppressed by the system actually seemed to feel some sort of real pressure or fear.
Poverty itself is a bit mysterious here, too. America is supposed to be fairly poor. At one point, she tells the prince that she has had to choose between food and electricity. But she doesn't seem to be hungry or desperate. In fact, she saves most of her meals for her poor six boyfriend, Aspen, and manages to do this without fainting. I might be more convinced by her plight if she got her clothing from the garbage of twos and threes, or if she often walked around feeling dizzy and sick. But no, she seems quite comfortable - enough to be flippant about her position. If she's that poor, why would she have fashionable dresses (albeit from an outmoded season) that don't have any rips or tears? Why can she afford makeup? Makeup is freaking expensive, and yet another thing that is often associated with the upper classes. This is the most gilded example of "poverty" that I have ever read about!
Gender roles in this book are another aspect of this book that felt very strange. Obviously, if you have thirty-five girls fighting over a boy there's going to be girl-on-girl hate. I didn't sign up for this book thinking I was going to get a feminist treatise on why you don't need a man in your life to be validated as a person. But at the same time, the sheer number of "boys are this way" and "girls are this way" stereotypes was a little surprising. And while the thought did occur to me that this could be part of the "critique" of this dystopian society, it really didn't feel that way to me. America, our heroine, dishes out some of these gender role stereotypes while instructing Maxon on how to treat women. One of the first things she tells him is that women don't want you to fix their problems when they cry, they just want to be consoled. And in the beginning of the book, Aspen breaks up with America because he's angry that she's been saving money for him, because - and he actually says this - men are supposed to be the providers, not women. America totally buys it! She feels bad. At one point, while contemplating her future with Aspen, she actually says: "If only I could sit and patch [up his shirt and jeans] for him. That was my great ambition."
I will give the author props for attempting to write a decent male lead. This was written when junior alphas were popular, and I think Cass really tried to write a decent beta hero with Prince Maxon. Again, props for the effort...but it wasn't a successful one. Maxon mostly just comes across as wishy-washy and bland. Originally, I gave THE PRINCE - the part where he meets America, except written in his POV - a two-star rating, but I deducted it, because apart from just being a POV-swapped rehashing of the events in this book, Maxon's head is a terribly dull place to be. When he's not dull, he's affected and smarmy. In THE PRINCE, his fear is that he'll fall in love with all the girls and won't be able to choose just one. He calls them all "my dear," and says this quote at one point: "You are all dear to me. It is simply a matter of discovering who shall be the dearest."
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the dearest of them all?
In my review of the "prequel" to this book, THE PRINCE, I expressed a desire for some trashy reality TV style entertainment in THE SELECTION. I didn't pick this up expecting Nicholas Nickleby, but I did expect to be entertained. I'm not above watching reality TV or soap operas, and I was hoping at the very least that the girl-on-girl fights would be colorful or interesting, with catty but funny insults, hair pulling, and even some well-executed social coups a la Sae from Peach Girl (my favorite two-faced witch-with-a-B, hands-down). But no, one of the rules of THE SELECTION is that girls are expressly forbidden from sabotaging or striking one another, or they will be disqualified. Somebody does actually get slapped in this book, but the slapper gets disqualified and nothing comes of it. Someone's dress gets torn, too, but only a sleeve - and nothing comes of it. The sexually confident girls are universally loathed by America and everyone else, and some catty remarks are made, but it's all very G-rated, and, again, nothing comes of it.
This is what passes for drama in this book:
"That was it. I slapped him. "You idiot!" I whisper-yelled at him. "I hate him! I loved you! I wanted you; all I ever wanted was you!"
Ironically, the YA books I read before and after this one were very similar concepts that did it better. The one before was Amy Ewing's THE JEWEL - which actually suffered many of the same problems: odd gender roles, bad world-building, girls competing for a "honorable" role that is actually mired in sexism (in one, decorative wife, in the other, surrogate to rich women). The difference is that THE JEWEL was not afraid to be dark. It was no 1984, but at least I got the sense that there was real oppression in this world and dire consequences for those who flaunted it. The book I read after this one was THE FALSE PRINCE by Jennifer Nielsen, which is similar in the sense that it has a bunch of commoners competing to fulfill a "royal" role. The difference is that a) it's all boys and b) failure means death, so the competitors have more than enough motivation to do well. I think that's what I expected going into THE SELECTION: I expected more hunger, more desperation, with a heroine who had to choose between love and death in a world of darkness. Instead, I got someone who thinks poverty is only getting to wear makeup when you go out and drama is having the sleeve of your dress half-heartedly ripped off when you refuse to swap outfits.
My intention was to read through the series and see if it picked up like THE JEWEL did, but it looks like my library has copies of every book in this series except book TWO. I'm not about to skip a book, because I might miss something important (wink), so it looks like I dodged a literary bullet. I'm in no particular hurry to dive back into this world and find out what happens to Maxon and Aspen and America, either. Who will she choose? What will she wear? Who will be queen? (Listed in descending order of importance, obviously.) Look, I get the fascination with royalty. Disney princesses, Kate Middleton, The Princess Diaries. It's a position of incredible power that seems feminine but isn't intimidating. Ask most little girls what they want to be when they grow up, and I'm sure a fair amount of them will say "princess." Capitalizing on that, and using it for social commentary? Brilliant. There was a great idea buried somewhere in here, that could have been used to highlight gender stereotypes, misogyny, double-standards, social inequality, and reality TV. There were dozens of possibilites! But making the U.S. a constitutional monarchy of a caste system that feels like a learn-to-count episode of Sesame Street while everyone twirls around in ball gowns probably wasn't the best way to go about it. But that's just my opinion.
Reading this book was like reliving the summer after freshman year of high school. DEAD SEED was originally published as "Vampires Don't Exist" on Quizilla, a magical fairyland of badly written fanfiction and erotica that has since gone to the internet graveyard. To give you an idea of the quality of some of these fics, "waist" was frequently used interchangeably with "waste" and I distinctly recall one story where the anatomically-confused author seemed absurdly sure that rectal hymens existed.
Anyway, I read Vampires Don't Exist in its original form in 2004. Vampires were super popular back then, too, except instead of TWILIGHT fanfic, it was usually Lestat and Louis fanfic (or fanfic knock-offs), where the vampires were always French and had waist-length long hair and frilly shirts and called everyone "mon cherry" (sic). The heroine in these stories was always a virgin who shopped at Hot Topic and wasn't understood by the preps. She always had a terrible life until the day she was kidnapped by the immortal hero of these stories who would whisk her away to a life of opulently decorated mansions and dubious consent, which she would hate until the day she realized she loved this hero and inevitably developed immortality and/or supernatural powers of her own.
***WARNING: SPOILERS AND DESCRIPTIONS OF GRAPHIC CONTENT***
Vampires Don't Exist took this to the extreme with a hero who was so unabashedly psychotic that I still remembered him over ten years later. Oh, yes, Aimeric was like the Hannibal Lecter of vampires. He even had a room that he decided to upholster in human skin, and a torture room in his mansion's basement, where he would dismember people before the horrified heroine as a way to "punish" her. When I saw that this book was on Amazon, I was a little curious, because I had read the series as a young teenager and how often do we get the opportunity to reexperience the webfics of our youth? So many people inevitably end up pulling their creations and never republishing. There are countless online stories like these that I will never be able to revisit as an adult, and that makes me oddly sad....
Anyway, for $2.99 this seemed like a relatively inexpensive experiment, and I decided, "What the heck. In the immortal words of Darkwing Duck, Let's get dangerous."
Aralyn's mother and sister died in a car crash and her dad became an alcoholic after the accident and doesn't give two coin flips about her. One day, she decides to die by throwing herself over a cliff. She's rescued at the last minute - she thinks, by the human man who's standing nearby watching the sea. He's cute, and they end up kissing, but he's actually Norman Bates and after calling her a slut, starts cutting her with his knife while he attempts to rape her. She's rescued - again - and knocked out, and when she wakes up, it's in a vampire mansion...by her sister, Claire, who it turns out is a vampire.
Claire leaves and Aralyn meets two more vampires, Virgil and Morgan, who's basically Igor in vampire form. Then she meets Aimeric, the Hannibal Lecter vampire. He tries to rape her, she rebuffs him, he takes her to the torture dungeon and tortures a human (he keeps a steady supply in cages so they're always at the ready - ugh). Then he rapes her, and this pretty much happens for a while. Aralyn is defiant, people get tortured, she feels bad, and the cycle continues, with her getting tortured as well, including but not limiting waterboarding, sexual assault by him and others, and branding.
There's a subplot with another vampire called Orrin, who might want to help free Aralyn, but 3/4 of the way through the book, Aralyn decides she loves Aimeric, even after all that physical, sexual, and psychological torture, and she sees his special "room," and he impregnates her by ordering three humans to rape her while she he watches (since vampires can't get people pregnant, hence the title of this newly edited edition, DEAD SEED). As the reader works his or her way through this sadistic psychodrama of torture and misery, they can't help but wonder, will Aralyn ever manage to escape? Or will she stay with this madman of depthless depravity?
I'm not going to spoil the ending for you, because I know I have friends who are just as morbidly curious as I am and I'm 99% sure that this review will encourage them to pick up the title for themselves and see if it's really that bad (yes). Let's just say that the ending gives literal meaning to the term "deus ex machina" and if you have any suspension of disbelief left by the time you get to that point, it will be gone and you will just be like, WTF. And keep in mind that this is after the heroine discovers that vampire transformations will have her looking like a Hot Topic commercial, replete with blue streaks in her hair. Because hair extensions come with the package, I guess.
It's been so long since I read the original that I'm not sure I can really do a fair comparison between the two works. I remember the original being more graphic and messed up, and I'm not sure whether that's because I was younger and just more easily traumatized, or if the author actually cleaned up the work for publication and censored out some of the more graphic parts. I was looking at some of the other reviews for DEAD SEED and other readers have made similar claims that this book felt "toned down", so maybe it was. It's still pretty gross, though. Honestly, what was most amusing to me was how this is just such a perfect snapshot of this type of fiction of this particular time, and the "emo" culture embedded in the prose was just perfect. I could almost envision those Livejournal 100x100 web icons that we used to collect and display on our Xanga pages. It was just...SO NOSTALGIC. She even links to a MySpace page in the back as a way of contacting her. I almost cried. It was wonderful.
That said, it's pretty obvious that this is a self-published work. Characterization is inconsistent, and there are a couple of pretty glaring errors and editor could have fixed. Honestly, if someone went over this with a fine-toothed comb and tightened the characterization, this would be like a modern-day bodice ripper, only with vampires instead of pirates or what have you. I would love that, but I know a lot of people won't, and if dark fiction, rape, torture, and poorly executed Stockholm syndrome plots make you see red, steer clear. If you have time to kill, though, and want to see what the 2004 version of "new adult" fiction looks like, drop the $2.99 and indulge in some over the top craziness that was self-published before self-publishing was cool.
Don't be fooled by the pretty cover sparklies; THE JEWEL is actually pretty messed-up. Violet lives in a dystopian city that's organized like the nine circles of hell, with the Marsh, or the slums, on the outer rings; and then Farm, the agricultural; Smoke, the industrial; Bank, the financial; and in the very heart of the city is Jewel, where are the filthy rich members of royalty reside.
Violet was born in the Marsh but has been raised in relative luxury since puberty because she has the power of "Auguries," or magical abilities which mean her womb is perfect for breeding more members of royalty in the Jewel. This is called being a "Surrogate." When the Surrogates come of age, they are auctioned off in 200 lots, with the last ten being the most desirable of all. Violet is #197, because her magical abilities are so potent.
With her new owner, the Duchess of the Lake, Violet now resides in the upper crust of society, receiving expensive gifts, pretty dresses, and fancy feasts - but of course it all comes at a cost. She's treated as an object, paraded around on a leash, and artificially inseminated against her will multiple times, because she's essentially a bejeweled incubator, and not an actual human being. Since this is a YA dystopian, obviously there's a forbidden romance subplot and obviously she is the chosen one who will save humanity of themselves while making out and dressing up and getting into catfights with rivals.
THE JEWEL really made some of my friends angry, which, ironically, made me want to read it even more. I can see why, to be honest. The concept of surrogacy in a YA series is so odd, and it was done so badly in this world because the world-building leaves so much to be desired. Is this our world, or a completely different one? Why can they do magic? Why do they have nosebleeds and headache when they do magic? Why can't the rich people conceive? If the rich people can't conceive, why do they need specially trained people to teach them how to have sex and make out? Oh, yes, this book has teen escorts, called "companions" who basically teach the young royals how to seduce and be desirable, with the understanding that they sleep with the older members of the household. What.
Furthermore, what are they inseminating the Surrogates with? Is it just the women who are infertile? Why not the men? And if the men are too, where are they getting the sperm from? Are there male donors who are similarly imprisoned? Why don't we see them? And also, what does Surrogate training consist of, because Violet seems remarkably uninformed about sex and pregnancy.
Also, the names in this book are ridiculous. Violet's siblings are named Ocher and Hazel. Her friend is named Raven and she has a twin brother named Crow. The members of royalty have names like Sailor Moon villains, like Beryl (an actual Sailor Moon villain fyi), Carnelian, Garnet, and Sapphire.
I feel like there was a lot of potential in this book to be great, but considering the subject matter revolves around prostitution, eugenics, lobotomies, and reproductive rights, the tone feels deceptively - almost insultingly - light with all the descriptions of pretty dresses and luxury items, and the weird and totally unconvincing romance between Violet and Ash. It is compulsively readable and reasonably well-written, but I felt like it really glossed over the serious issues and that was not good. HUNGER GAMES and HANDMAID'S TALE were good because they had fully developed worlds (for the most part) and didn't shy away from the grievous consequences of insurrection. THE JEWEL tries, but the emotional disconnect and lack of atmosphere really put a damper on the horror factor.
My library has a copy of book two, THE WHITE ROSE, so I'm going to read that and see if this book develops more in the sequel. So far, I probably wouldn't recommend this to anyone unless they enjoy costume dys-trope-ian YA fiction like THE SELECTION that revolves more around romance and boys than social commentary.