WITHER (The Chemical Garden Trilogy #1)
Simon & Schuster
Available March 22nd
Received from publisher for review
Rhine is going to die in four years. Her death will come at age twenty along with every other woman, just as every young man will pass at age twenty-five due to a virus infecting the younger generations. Her body will give out slowly and inexorably not long after her birthday.
In order to keep the human population from dying out, young woman are constantly kidnapped and forced into polygamous marriages, expected to produce children at young ages and do their part for the perpetuation of society. Rhine has seen the Gatherers brutally collecting girls, and she figures as long as she's careful, she will never be one of them.
Unfortunately, even with her twin brother Rowan looking out for her, Rhine finds herself at the regal home of Linden Ashby, standing before him as his one of his three wives. Initially consumed with only thoughts of escape, Rhine soon finds some semblance of home with her sister wives, Linden, and a servant named Gabriel, but she never forgets how she came to be there in the first place and what will happen to her if she doesn't adequately fulfill her role as a woman and wife.
Darkly fascinating and exquisitely grim, Wither introduces us to a bleak future where human lives are horrifically truncated, and with the reduction in lifespan comes the deterioration of morality and ethics. Human trafficking has become a premium, and the goodness and light of humanity is rapidly shriveling along with the cells of the body infected by the virus, leaving behind the brutality, the lies, and the grievous deeds conducted in name of survival and finding an antidote. In the sprawling mansion that has become Rhine's gilded cage, she and her fellow sister wives are no longer individuals with hearts, souls, and emotions but rather are strands of DNA and the carriers of future children who represent possible genetic salvation to Linden's father and resident housemaster Vaughn. We can't help but sit motionless, riveted to a story with dynamic characters, monstrous secrets, and a very uncertain future.
Smart and cunning, Rhine is a young woman who wastes little time wallowing in useless self-pity, instead constantly planning and plotting a possible escape from a dire situation dressed up in opulent surroundings and glittering clothing. She conducts herself in a manner that earns our respect and admiration, refusing to be cajoled into certain compromising situations despite the role she's playing, and maintaining an independence when she easily could have become a numbered wife–a nameless, faceless, husk of a woman who's relinquished all hope along with the control of her body. As intriguing as Rhine herself are the intricate relationships formed between her and her sister wives, each individual harboring secrets of her own, willing to share only what she wants known while keeping the most vital information close to the chest. Cecily and Jenna are both beautifully depicted, each understanding there is a subtle art to surviving their circumstances and they wield their separate paintbrushes with a cleverness and aptitude that makes the creative dance between all three young women an enthralling thing to read.
Linden is a fascinating character in his own right, a man who keeps our emotions constantly shifting between affection and resentment as his role in Rhine's predicament is kept deliberately ambiguous. At times, his seeming kindness and vulnerability slip past our defensive walls and we begin to warm to him, only to remember what brought the women to his home in the first place, just as Rhine continues to remember, and both her and our impenetrable shields snap back into place. He is both innocent and guilty, victim and villain, and kind husband and captor, so adept at maintaining his guileless facade we struggle to decipher if it's the truth or yet another illusion in a house full of false freedom, simulated marriage, and pretend emotional connections.
The one drawback of this unique tale is a lack of history regarding the virus and the unfathomable evolutionary retrogression. For such a profound turn of events for all humanity, a little more information on the cause of the virus and its initial discovery would have been welcome. We attend a variety of parties and public functions along with Rhine as she executes her role as first wife with a flawless grace, and while one such event would have sufficed for us to understand Rhine's augmenting position within the marriage's social structure, we are subjected to several more–somewhat unnecessary deviations where the page time might have been better spent illuminating the world a bit more. Overall, however, Wither is a highly enjoyable read and Ms. DeStefano has created a spectacular array of memorable characters who keep us constantly on our toes, thinking and wondering as to what's in their minds and hearts as they all attempt to live in the face of certain death.