Honni van Rijswijk
Completed 6/6/2022, Reviewed 6/6/2022
This Lambda Literary Award nominee for 2022 is a dark, trigger-filled read. It has strong echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale, but believe it or not, darker. It’s a dystopian future after the Fourth Depression. Climate change, world war, infertility, everything bad you can think of has happened. There’s one city that has reinvented itself, controlled by a massive corporation that has created its own caste system based society and isolated itself from the rest of the surviving world. Girls are taken at 12 or 13 and placed in incubators where they bear children derived from the embryos of the super fertile. They are called breeders. After a large number of live births, they become shadows, women who have earned enough credit by their birthings to marry and possibly bear their own children. It’s so dark, I normally would have had a tough time getting through it. But it is very well written and very fast paced and I ended up devouring it.
That’s the premise. The plot features Will, a Westie, living in the outermost circle of the city, Zone F. His education is Corporation indoctrination and working a menial job. He lives with his grandmother. They barely scrape by, living mostly in debt to the Corporation. However, Will makes extra money by breeder running, that is, ferrying young girls from poor families to a shady organization that profits from making them breeders for the Corporation. He also gets a drug called Crystal 8 on which he is highly dependent. By chance, he meets a girl named Alex who reveals she is part of a revolutionary organization, called the Response, which is trying to topple the Corporation. It becomes clear to him that she is a breeder in hiding. They bond, although he does not tell her he’s a breeder runner. One day, they get high and sneak into Zone B, one of the innermost circles, not meant for the lower class that they are. They get caught and Will has to face one of the greatest fears of his life.
The best part of this book is the plot. It is intricately weaved with lots of surprises along the way. The world setting is also well done. Notice I didn’t say world building. That’s because the world building is a little weak. I had lots of questions about the world and the Corporation, and just took a lot of it as it came, filling in a lot of parts myself. But the setup of this little world, like the zones, the incubators, the rators (as in incinerators), were very interesting and mostly made sense.
I liked Will. I had a lot of empathy for him, especially as his past is revealed. It’s done slowly, with the big reveals not happening until about halfway through the book. I was surprised by his revelations, missing the hints in the first half of the book. But it is done well, my empathy for him grew as the book went on. Alex is also a good character, although she is frustrating in her careless flaunting of her activities with the Response. Ma, Will’s grandmother, is also a decent character, doing her best to keep Will’s profile low in this awful dystopia, where the slightest infraction can get you thrown in the Rator.
I’ve written over five hundred words already but have not mentioned any queer content, as one would expect from a Lambda Literary Award nominee. It turns out it’s there, but it’s one of the twists and turns the book takes when everything goes wrong for Will. When it appears, it’s pretty powerful stuff. But it’s part of the dark context and can be a trigger for some readers.
I give this book four out of five stars. The lack of world building is made up for by the fast pace of the book. I found myself reading this voraciously over a weekend. I was also a little disappointed by the ending. After finishing the book, I discovered that the author is making this into a series. In that light, I can forgive the ending a little bit. I do recommend this book, but there really isn’t any levity in it to soften the darkness.