Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

Tag: dystopia

Let’s eat Grandma!

Star Eater by Kerstin Hall, published 22 June 2021.

This dystopian-esque fantasy novel has an MC fit for a YA novel, hereditary magic based on cannibalism, a Sisterhood of nuns running the government, a resistance movement, zombies, food shortage, and big cats.

This review is based on an ARC of the Recorded Books audiobook.

Where do I even start?

I’d have liked some pointers as to where we are, what kind of period of human history this might be similar too. The only information I get on that is there are horses drawing carts and cabs. Also gas lamps are mentioned once. So, probably somewhere similar to the late Middle Ages with gas lamps?

The main character El/Elfreda is a 22-year-old acolyte of the sacred order of sisters that is ruling Aytrium. She became an acolyte about a year ago when her mother went into her martyrdom. She is, [let’s say it together:], no one special and yet the chosen one to save the world. Add a love triangle or two to the mix,… Yet, the book is hailed as not YA.

The magic system: Magic is called Lace. It is used for protection and defence against Haunts (zombie men created through the Renewal ceremonies performed by acolytes, see below) mainly, but can also be used for compulsion of others. Furthermore, it is used to keep Aytrium afloat. [It’s not quite clear to me whether Aytrium is a country or a city with a few villages surrounding it. Also, it wasn’t clear to me that Aytrium was a floating landmass and has been floating for more than 500 years. It was first explicitly mentioned at about 60% of the audiobook; let’s hope the print edition will have a map that shows this.]  

The following paragraphs will contain spoilers. Frankly, I didn’t very much like this book. It is a non-YA YA novel with YA characters, having YA relationships, YA dialogues and affects, and the adults have betrayed them.

[Spoiler alert!]

Only the members of the Sisterhood have Lace. It’s hereditary magic, which means, it is passed on from mother to daughter after the mother starts her martyrdom. The martyrdom means, the mother falls in some form of coma after her own mother dies and her daughter now has to make weekly visits to her mother in the facility where martyrs are stored. This is a kind of morgue where the still breathing corpses are stored so that daughters can eat some of their mother’s flesh to replenish their Lace. In the flesh and organs, the magic is stored, hence the extremities are eaten first, the organs, especially the heart, last.

In order to keep the Lace within the Order, the members of the Sisterhood cannot have heterosexual relationships. How do they procreate then? The acolytes must perform monthly Renewal ceremonies where they have to have sex with a convicted murderer or rapist. If they get pregnant and the child turns out a boy, the child is given away, and the acolyte has to continue the renewal ceremonies. If the child is a girl, the acolyte keeps the child, raises it, and is henceforth released from renewal duty; grandmothers go into martyrdom and mothers and daughters now have the clock ticking for when they will ‘level up’ within the Sisterhood.

These renewal ceremonies create zombie-like creatures. The men the nuns have sex with catch some form of STD that turns them into Haunts that will, if they aren’t “sent over the edge” (can’t be killed, can’t stay in Aytrium either), haunt the Sisters in order to kill and eat them. Sometimes, men catch this zombie disease without having to have had sex with a member of the order, this means they are used in the renewal ceremonies until the disease is so far advanced that they have to be “sent over the edge.” [The term is mentioned early on in the book, but it doesn’t mean that the listener/reader automatically knows that Aytrium is a floating landmass. Could refer to a cliff-face over, say, an ocean, too.]

As it happens, the Haunts are exactly how the Chosen One story-line gets going. El, our doormat of an MC, hates having to eat the flesh of her mother, hates the Renewal – for obvious reasons – so when a cabal approaches her with the promise to get her out of renewal ceremonies, she agrees to spy for them. Like in every dystopian YA story, she learns about how the ruling class is cheating and suppressing critical information, she wants to support the resistance without actually betraying her vows to the order, her best friends are in the midst of it. And of course, her best friend, from when they were kids and who El has a crush on, caught the zombie disease from one kiss they shared. And of course, the sister of this guy, also El’s best friend, is someone who not only El has a crush on, but who secretly has a crush on El too – hello love-triangle. Luckily this is kept at a minimum. When El and some other members of the Order find themselves in a trap (one with a capital T, predictable from a mile ahead), El finds out that she is the one child born every 70 years that could make or break the Order. Either the Order will gorge themselves on El, because she has lots of Lace. Or El has to bring the Order down by sacrificing herself and her magic. Sacrificing herself will somehow bring her boy back from zombie-dom, so… the last 20% of the book are about how she gets to sacrifice herself.

Just FYI: The resistance see the Sisterhood as a tyrannical order of outsiders and want to get rid of them. The Sisterhood was able to crush all attempts so far, but the resistance is gaining ground, not least because some members of the Order are secretly working with them?

The food shortage seems to be a regularly occurring problem the Aytrium is facing, based on draught years and rain seasons. El works for the department that is responsible to find alternative food supplies. But, once the Chosen One plot gets under way the food shortage is no longer mentioned. I assume it is all resolved due to the way the story ends. Still, this subplot took up a lot of pages, just to be ignored in the end.

Also, there were big cats that were used for long distance travel. They were kept in stables and were probably only for the use of members of the Sisterhood. They can cover ground fast and they are warm in a chilly night.

The titular Star Eater is someone who might have eaten an actual star or someone who was considered the star, or ruler, of the people. Anyway, this eating of the star made the Star Eater so powerful with Lace she managed the ascension of Aytrium all on her own. How? Why?

To be honest, this book left me with a lot of questions about heredity, about the magic system, about the Haunts, about the original Star Eater and how and why Aytrium became a floating land, about what the rest of the world looked like, about why there is a resistance to the Sisterhood when we never get to see what’s so bad about it and know nothing about whether the general public is actually observing the Sisters’ religion, the (forced) bi-sexualism, and so much more.

1/5 Harpy Eagles – lots of unused potential, lots of predictable twists, reads YA although it is not supposed to be.

Which side are you on?

Tochi Onyebuchi’s War Girls, published 15 October 2019.

In this highly technological war, set in a dystopian world, we see Onyii and Ify fight on either side of the civil divide. Having grown up as sisters they end up on enemy sides. How much does their past influence their actions? How does war and propaganda influence their relationship? Their love for each other? Those might be the imminent questions. Far more important are the bigger questions. Is it ethical to have child soldiers? Is it ethical to enslave people to fight in your war? Should every technological advancement be weaponized? Who has the moral high ground? And, most of all, is it all worth the outcome?

War Girls is based on the civil war between Biafra and Nigeria from the 1960s, but the reimagining is set in the 22nd century. I’m going to thank one of my lecturers here for broadening my general knowledge in her class on African history of the 20th century. I knew I was rooting for the wrong side early on, but that made the whole story even more interesting.

The world-building was excellent. From the catastrophic state Earth is in, to the war zones and especially the technology of augments, ‘battle mechs’ and cyborgs. It was stunningly well thought through and written.

Which brings me to why I did not give the book five Harpy Eagles. I thought the characters weren’t fleshed out well, at least not as well as some of the tech described. Also, the book is divided into three parts and this novella style didn’t really work for me. The first part, though, really stands out. I was rooting for both MCs and was turning the pages fast. The second part felt like starting all over, and the vignettes didn’t help. The third part was mostly boring; a lot of characters died, other characters acted out of character, and the end came too fast.

Since this is the first book in a series, it might have been better to move part three to the second book. Or it could have worked as a standalone, provided a slightly less abrupt ending.

3/5 Harpy Eagles

Life’s a lottery

Sophie Mackintosh’s Blue Ticket, published 30 June 2020.

In Mackintosh’s dystopian novel girls can’t wait to enter puberty and have their first period. Their menses are a joyous event. Girls dress up and are taken to the lottery where they will draw either a blue ticket or a white ticket.

Calla grew up without her mother. She grew up being regularly measured at the clinic. She grew up knowing that her mother would want her to get a blue ticket.

A blue ticket means, you get a career and freedom. Or in other words, you don’t get to have children. You are destined to become a loose woman. Not necessarily a prostitute, but men still like to take advantage of you. Whereas a white ticket means, you’ll be a wife and mother. You’ll be cherished.

Calla is a blue ticket who wants to be a mother. Hence, she takes her fate into her own hands. She removes the IUD that was planted in her on lottery day and finds herself a nice man to start a family with. Of course it’s not going to be so easy. She has to conceal her pregnancy from everyone, even her doctor. But once the cat is out of the bag, Calla has to flee from her home. At that point she’s five months pregnant. She begins a trek north, first at random. When she meets other women, other pregnant blue tickets, they band together; protection in numbers. They know, beyond the border in the north they will be free.

The story’s morale compass shouts 1950/60s. Women are either devout mothers, or sluts. Sluts, by the way, like to party hard. They like to go out a lot. Have sex with multiple partners. They drink lots of alcohol and smoke like chimneys. Nearly everyone who’s not a white ticket smokes and drinks, it seems. At first I thought this was because this was some sort of control mechanism, but that was not the case. It’s not explained at all.

Blue ticketed women seem to know only the basics about how their bodies work. They know they have periods, and have to report back about their periods at their weekly meetings with their doctors, who seem to be shrink and GP in one. They know that they cannot have children, know how to get pregnant, but have absolutely zilch knowledge about pregnancy; they don’t know anything about food restrictions, gestation stages, or birth – didn’t they go to school? Is this an alternate history?

Babies are a rarity. Seems logical, when you think that at Calla’s lottery there was only one girl from among a group of girls that got a white ticket. So there are probably more blue ticket women out there. Made me wonder whether this ticket lottery is some sort of control mechanism to prevent overpopulation. Anyway, apparently mothers, white ticketed women, are something so special, you’ll never see them outside with their children. It’s the fathers who can be seen with large prams. It’s the fathers who get gifts when they are perambulating their child around; gifts can be baby clothing, money, baby care products. People might ask for a glimpse at the baby, after giving the fathers a gift.

So, we’re back to women being used for casual – sometimes very brutal – sex. Or women being hidden at home where they are baby factories and home makers. Men being in control of women and their reproductive organs; being the ones slapped on the back for a job well done.

Yes, we can make an argument that this book is ‘[a]n urgent inquiry into free will, social expectation, and the fraught space of motherhood’. Maybe in the 1950s. But in the early 21st century? I’d say we have come a lot further than how women are but a sliver above farm animals. I want to see female empowerment, not oppression.

1/5 Harpy Eagles

Palate Cleansers

Novellas and short stories are a great way to read something new and refreshing in between the chunksters. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have depth. Here are a few I’ve recently finished.

Hard Reboot by Django Wexler, publishing day 25 May 2021. Kas is on a fact-finding mission to old Earth. She’s drawn to the battle-bot fights for scholarly interest, which then leads to her being drawn in much deeper – literally and figuratively. A sci-fi novella about friendship, diplomacy, love, and well-choreographed robot-fights. It’s amazing to see how well Wexler manages this story in only 150 pages! Also, great cover! 4/5 Harpies

The Quest for the Holy Hummus by James Allison is the first book in The Chickpea Chronicles, publishing day 12 March 2021. When vegan dragon George goes to Peopleville to get his beloved hummus from Julian Pinkerton Smith’s organic food store, things go foreseeably wrong. It’s a short witty introduction (think Pratchett, Atkinson, Monty Python) to the two characters and the world the following six stories are set in. 3/5 Harpies

The Past is Red by Catherynne M Valente, publishing day 20 July 2021. Tetley loves the world. Tetley tells the truth. Both these things get her in so much trouble. This is the story of a very optimistic girl that embraced its dystopian home, Garbagetown, and eventually ended up learning one secret too many and becoming a jaded outlaw. Still, she doesn’t give up hope. A very optimistic, yet also slightly disturbing novella that makes you think. My one point of criticism, it was sometimes hard to follow the timeline. 4/5 Harpies

Agricultural Dystopia

I’m pretty sure this term does not exist, but there is nothing more fitting for Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall. What starts as an idyllic trip to an Austrian mountain cabin has devastating consequences for the unnamed main protagonist. While the rest of her party is on a trip down in the valley, an insivible wall seems to have come down all around her. She is left alone with her cousin’s dog and is suddenly faced with the frightening prospect of mastering everyday life on her own.

The story reminded me of Under the Dome by Stephen King – or maybe the other way round, since The Wall’s German original version was first published in 1963. But despite sharing the same claustrophobic setting, the stories feel completely different. The Wall is told as a written account of the events, so there is a deep personal connection to the main character. Asides from tending some later-adopted animals, there is not a lot of plot. But still the story with its sad sense of doom drags you in. While there are so many dystopias with a lot of action, the quiet and domestic setting in the Alps was almost comfortable and thus really special. You also learn a lot about hay harvesting.

I really enjoyed the audiobook – only to notice in the end that my library hold was the abridged version… seems like I need to pick up a physical copy of the book sometime in the future.

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