The Glass Arrow

As a woman, the scariest dystopian books are about a future world where women have lost about 300 years of progress and are treated as chattel to be bought and sold.  Such is the case in The Glass Arrow by Kristen Simmons.

Aya has grown up isolated in the mountains with her mother, cousin and another woman and her children.  They are all in hiding outside the big city where all girls who are ‘pure’ and possibly fertile are put in a special dormitory in the city to await their turn at auction and Aya’s mother doesn’t want that to happen to her daughter.  It’s not just the idea that her daughter might become some man’s possession, but Aya’s mother knows first-hand that a girl not found to be ‘pure’ will have an X carved into her face with a knife and be given to the brothels.  Even girls who do attend and are bid on at the auction, have to face a ‘private meeting’ with their prospective buyer who sometimes take advantage of the girls, a rich pimp could bid on a girl at auction and make her his working girl.  Even if a ‘respectful businessman’ buys a girl, if he tires of her eventually, he could send her back to the dorm to be auctioned off again while he finds a new wife.

No, scraping a living out of the mountains is a better life in Aya’s mom’s mind and Aya agrees.  Brought up free and strong, she knows she is so much more than anyone’s piece of property.  However, the fresh air and food she consumes outside of polluted city make her a prime target as it means she is fertile enough to bear children, especially the male ones wanted by the city.  Just like what still happens in many countries today, girl babies are sometimes killed as they lack value.  They live when the female count is low.

Things weren’t always like this, Aya’s mom has told her stories of a time when all women walked proud and free until the Red Wars when men turned on women similar to the Salem Witch Trials and killed most women and enslaved the remainder.  These tales told deep in the mountains have always been scary for Aya to hear, but they are not near as scary as the day Trackers invade her family’s mountain home.   Freedom is never more precious than to those who have lived it and now may lose it.

Three

Do you know how you get those little cups of sorbet as a ‘palate cleanser’ during a multicourse meal? Well Kristen Simmons’ Three, the last book in the Article 5 series was a palate cleanser for me. Lately it seemed that I was reading a lot of dystopian/apocalyptic novels that had fantasy elements or just simply too many general elements incorporated into them to really be able to focus on the main aspect of the story. Three is a good, old-fashioned, stripped down tale of an authoritarian government which tells its citizens how to live.

For all that we in the U.S. call ourselves a democracy, this book seems timely. Isn’t the role of a democratic government to be representative of its people? Does anyone feel that this concept holds true today?

Ember Miller‘s life was irrevocably changed when she was designated to be an Article Five violator. Simply by being the child of an unwed union she was sent to a ‘rehabilitation center’ and her mother was arrested, tortured, and finally killed by Tucker, a soldier she now has a complicated alliance with. After breaking out with the help of her childhood sweetheart, Chase, the pair have been on the run, and the second book ended with finding the safehouse where they thought they could stop running, destroyed.

As the story begins, Ember, Chase, and old and new friends are trying to track the survivors of the safehouse. When they catch up to them, old friends are reunited and complicated alliances ensue. After hints in the earlier stories, the now enlarged group finds the base of Three, the mysterious rebel shadow organization that has been trying to undermine the current totalitarian government, but are there methods any better than the government they are trying to destroy? It’s this question that Ember has to ponder throughout the story, that and the idea that even if the people prevail, what does her own future hold? Chase appears to be irreparably damaged by the violence he has both endured and inflicted, and her own conscience is troubled by her uneasy alliance with her mother’s killer.

Ember is Everyman, or should I say Everywoman. She does not have super powers, she isn’t a ninja, and she struggles with doing the right thing. She is the proverbial ‘girl-next-door’ who is thrust into a situation that tests who she is, what she will do, and ultimately what she thinks is right for her loved ones, her country, and ultimately herself. Sometimes that’s exactly the kind of hero you want to read about, an average person who manages to make an impact.

Breaking Point

It must hard to be in the middle.  There are plenty of jokes and references to being the middle child – think Jan Brady, “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha.”  The oldest and youngest children get all the benefits of their unique positions and all the attention.  I think it’s similar for trilogies.  The first book is exciting.  It’s breaking ground by introducing us to its world and its characters.  The final book in a series sends us hurtling toward the conclusion while letting us spend some final quality time with the characters we have become emotionally invested in, the final book also reveals the answers to questions and secrets in the plot.

Breaking Point by Kristen Simmons is the sequel to Article Five and as such it has a tough job.  At this point it’s already clear who the bad guys and the good guys are, well with the exception of Tucker who seems more of a writer’s device to try to inject some tension into the story.  After all, the romance between Ember and Chase isn’t adding any tension or heat, it’s been clear to readers how the characters feel even though the characters were slow to reach the same conclusion.  Yes, there is plenty of physical action and plotting, but it all seems a little bit A-Team.  There’s another plot twist that relates to Ember’s mom which also feels like an obvious ploy to add some excitement to this sophomore effort.

This may all sound as if I didn’t like the book, but that’s not exactly the case.  As I’ve said, it’s hard hold the middle position and if I judge this second book by the difficult role it has to fulfill as the middle of a trilogy, it does ok.  It’s unfair to think it’s going to hold my attention the way a first story always does.  The first book of a trilogy is like a first kiss with someone, it’s all new and exciting, you learn about the structure of the dystopian world the author has imagined.  You fall a little in love with the characters, though they are still a bit of a mystery as later books tend to reveal some unexpected reactions, emotions and histories. The second book is, well, comfortable.  The initial heat has subsided a little and while there is a cozy familiarity with the world and the characters, it can be a little routine.  The relationship is too good to just turn away from, but you long for that first rush of feeling and hope that the third book will fulfill that early sense of promise felt.   The third book is the one that may not have the excitement of the first, but readers’ relationships with the characters and the world they live in deepens.  I hope Kristen Simmons is able to do that in the next book.

Article Five

Article Five by Kristen Simmons takes place in a world not too difficult to imagine.  In this YA dystopian novel, an internal war had taken place in the United States and the country has come under the control of the Federal Bureau of Reformation, a type of moral militia, under the leadership of President Scarboro and his totalitarian government.  Teenage Ember Miller finds herself targeted as an Article Five violator simply because her mother gave birth to her out of wedlock.  Not that she and her mom have had it easy over the last several years anyway.  The economy is shot, jobs have been hard to find and keep, food is rationed and the military has had carte blanche to surprise search homes for anything that might be considered against the Moral Statues – it’s not a huge stretch to understand the setting of the story when we observe what’s been happening in the economy and government of the past several years.

Ember’s world comes crashing down when Chase, the boy next door she has loved since childhood, returns as a soldier to arrest Ember and her mother.  The women are separated and Ember is sent to the Girls’ Reformatory and Rehabilitation Center, a brutal place run by the Sisters of Salvation, who are less than holy or charitable in their treatment of the girls interned there.  Ember is desperate to escape and find her mother and the story is one of a female hero in a world where women have been marginalized and even brutalized and the citizenry as a whole has had their rights violated.

This book reminded me strongly of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  I guess when I really think about it that was probably the first book I ever read of the dystopia genre, though it’s not YA fiction.  I was so fascinated by the story that I read it nonstop finishing it in one day.  The reason I remember it so vividly is that I was on a beach in Miami at the time, and I was absorbed in the world it presented, that I ended up with the most severe sunburn of my life.  What I liked about that book, and this one, is the way the authors are able to take actual truths and events from current times, and extrapolate these out to their extremes, so that the world building is both very familiar and therefore all the more chilling.

As a woman I was particularly fascinated by the denigration of the female characters and the backlash against women’s liberation.  In a world where women make up the majority of degree holders, but head less than 10% of companies, where there recently was a bitter fight over the healthcare plan’s inclusion of contraceptives and a congressman called one activist a ‘slut’ for testifying, these books touch upon the unease I feel whenever women’s issues are raised, or buried, even in supposedly modern and enlightened times.  Sadly, The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985 and it doesn’t feel as if some of society’s opinions and treatment of women have improved much in the almost thirty years since the book came out.  I am happy that Article Five has carried on with raising some of the questions and themes explored by its predecessor.  I also don’t think it’s any coincidence that so many current YA dystopia fiction novels are filled with strong female protagonists, do you?