I knew that Wither was going to be good before I started reading it because publishing friends of mine passed around a single ARC, each reader turning it over to the next in line within a day or two. While certain flaws were discussed, the general consensus was positive and that it was a very different dystopian world from what we'd all been reading... and we read a lot of them. So when my turn came up, I quickly finished what I was already reading and eagerly anticipated the moment of my morning commute when I could start. You should know that I've never really been one to draw things out and savor them; I read Wither in one day. I read through my commute, I read through my lunch break, and I was pleased when the express trains weren't running as it meant I would have more time to sit and read on the trip home... and then I simply kept reading once I arrived. There are a few minor faults that I can find with this novel, but by far the biggest I have with the whole experience is that since this copy of Wither is an ARC, it just means I have to wait that much longer until the sequel comes out and I'm already itching for more.

Many people accurately mention The Handmaid's Tale in their description of this dystopian YA novel. Wither is the first book in the "Chemical Garden Trilogy" by Lauren DeStefano, which is a terrible title for the series, so let's hope it just goes by the Wither Trilogy. It's set in a world around one hundred years in the future from our world now, after the third world war supposedly destroyed all continents save North America. The first generation of genetically "enhanced" people and their descendants have come to understand their terrible and irreversible fate: after the "first generation" (disease-free and healthy with nice long life-spans), every subsequent generation results in girls that die at twenty and boys that die at twenty-five from "the virus." Even at the time of the book, as the first generation is significantly aged, multiple generations have gone by and yet the world has managed to pack a great amount of danger and suffering into a very short timeline.

Sixteen-year-old Rhine lives with her twin brother Rowan in a dilapidated but still bustling New York, where they work whatever jobs they can to survive and barricade themselves into the basement of their home each night to protect themselves against thieves, scrounging orphaned children, and Gatherers. The gray-coated Gatherers snatch girls off the streets to fuel a lucrative kind of "slave" trade -- it feeds girls into brothels, sells them off as wives/breeders for the wealthy, or leaves them dead in ditches if they are unwanted by either market. Rhine and Rowan's parents were first generation scientists, working on finding a vaccine cure for the virus; they were killed when a bomb destroyed their lab and since then, the twins have had only each other.

The novel opens abruptly, dropping the reader right into the thick of the story and filling in the background details as we go. Rhine has been kidnapped by the Gatherers and is selected by a wealthy man as one of three brides -- the rest of the truck of girls brought for his inspection are shot as she's ushered into a limosine... where gas through the vents knock her unconscious. When she comes to, she finds herself in a mansion and the three girls are about to marry a man (Linden) whose current wife/love of his life bears a striking resemblance to Rhine and is slowly dying of the virus. Essentially the whole of the novel takes place within the walls of this mansion, describing the relationships between Rhine, Linden, her sister wives Jenna and Cecily, and the dark, looming figure of Linden's father, Housemaster Vaughn. As a first-generation, Housemaster Vaughn is a scientist, supposedly working night and day on a cure for the virus before it claims his beloved son, but immediately Rhine suspects Vaughn is doing something much darker than what his son believes. Vaughn runs the house and servants scurry around, in fear of him. Rhine has a single attendant (a young girl who seems to work magic in painting on Rhine's make-up), but starts to become friends with a servant named Gabriel. Rhine's sister-wives are each very different, but the three form a kind of family, as they have little choice but to band together. Jenna is eighteen, with a few tragedies in her past, and was captured into this life, but seems to think there are worse places to die, as she knows she will soon. Cecily is only thirteen and is eager to be a bride and please Linden -- and Cecily becomes pregnant almost immediately. The creep factor of Linden knocking up a thirteen-year-old is intense and the sexual politics here are kind of fascinating, as Jenna more-or-less appears to float through everything but Cecily seems jealous whenever Rhine receives attention from their husband. And it's not surprising that, given Rhine's resemblance to Linden's dying (and eventually dead) love, their relationship is complicated and twisted, too. When Linden comes to Rhine's bed, it's usually to sob over his lost first wife; when she quietly sidesteps sexual relations, he accepts it fairly readily and instead just sleeps beside her often. Rhine has difficulties in keeping her emotions about this young man straight -- she despises being trapped, but isn't sure how much Linden knows about the terrible circumstances that brought her there. It also doesn't help that her feelings are developing past friendship for Gabriel -- and keeping the door closed on their conversations could lead to talk among other servants and even Rhine's sister-wives. As she dreams of escape, she confides in Gabriel, who is reluctant to believe that such a plan could succeed. For Rhine, though, who has known freedom, Rhine constantly plans for the day when she can escape the grasp of housemaster Vaughn and return home to her brother. Almost a year passes in the confines of the estate during the course of this novel, a year where Rhine tests the limits and desperately plans to flee this gilded cage, preferably with Gabriel, but more and more the subtler themes make the reader aware that the ties she develops within the mansion to the people there mean she will likely not be happy with simple escape... Rhine will somehow play a role in overthrowing the larger system, or at least find someone who is truly working on a cure for the virus.

There are a whole lot of dystopian novels out there these days, but Wither manages to differentiate itself quite easily from the rest of the bunch. It deals with much darker and complicated topics: polygamy, teenage pregnancy, female sexual slavery, death, scientific experimentation on babies... Yeah, it's intense for young adult literature, and certainly shouldn't be given to too-young-teens. That said, those were the things that made it really fascinating -- maybe that's twisted, but every other dystopian novel out there seems to feature an all-powerful government that makes decisions for its people. In this world, there seems to be little centralized power that affects people, and instead it's a bit of a free-for-all where the wealthy (particularly the still-living first generations) can do whatever they'd like and everyone else has a very hard-scrabble life that is painfully short. Rhine is a strong and interesting character whose relationships are (mostly) never simplified. Everything is allowed to be complicated here, which gives great depth and layers to every interaction.

My only real complaint has to do with Rhine's relationship with Gabriel -- the author falls victim to the impulse to cut through their conversations by indicating they had deep talks that lasted for hours... but the reader doesn't get to see much of those conversations. As a result, we have to accept on faith this growing relationship between them, as opposed to seeing it progress. It also limits our sympathy towards Gabriel -- who we know must be a good guy, but we aren't given much to go on. On the other hand, we get *lots* of complicated conversations with Linden, and as a result, I felt more attached to her twisted-situation husband than I did to Gabriel. The complexities of that relationship clearly drew the attention of the author more than the somewhat boring idea of her growing attached to the nice servant boy. Since the relationship with Gabriel is supposed to be a big deal, I felt frustrated that such a fumble had occurred with him, but otherwise, that was my only real issue with things.

I wasn't thrilled with where the ending put us -- very Hunger Games in the sense that it's not a cliffhanger, but there's still a lot to do for the characters, so future books are clearly indicated by the forward-reaching vision. At least there's that, as I'm definitely excited about the next books in this series and can hardly wait to see what the next installment brings for Rhine, Gabriel, Linden, and the rest. Lauren DeStefano has certainly created an interesting world here, quite different from all the other dystopian worlds on the shelves right now, and if you enjoy YA lit, you should definitely make sure to read Wither.

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