I’m not sure what I was expecting when I picked up World of Shell and Bone, to be honest. The blurb makes it sounds like most post-apoc/dystopian YA: devastating war, weird obsession with young women procreating, overthrowing fascist government. I don’t think I could have anticipated what I actually got, though.
The writing is passable, if flowery. It’s obvious there’s been some editing there. It feels weird to even mention this, because editing/decent writing is like that one feminist ally dude who feels like you should salivate over his progressiveness because he thinks rape is wrong, you know? But in the world of self-pubbing, this causes the book to stand out. Same with the cover – it’s flashy and nicely done, and I appreciate that. (David Dalglish sucked me in the same way.)
Vika Cannon lives in a world where sixty five years ago, a nuclear war devastates the world (barring most of Asia, for reasons unexplained except Because China), so that the depleted populations of North and South America band together and form one country known as New Amana, run by a feminist regime, because Men Like War, and War is Bad.
There’s a number of problems here with the time line and world building. For example:
Religion is not allowed any longer, although my mother can remember a time when she actually went to church as a young child before the practice was abolished…Churches and temples still stand, but they’re used for educational purposes now, to show how religion clouded people’s thinking before the War.
Vika’s mother is still alive in the course of the story, making her ~75 years old (and 55 years old when she gave birth to Vika). At no time is religion really ever mentioned again – no older people viciously clinging to their beliefs, no cultural memory of worshipping, or gods, or anything. Just completely wiped out, except as a historical relic, in a mere 65 years.
Even more glaring is her description of race and ethnicity:
People in New Amana have interbred so the distinct ethnic groups of my grandmothers time are no longer in existence among the young, mainstream population. Now, almost everyone is some shade of medium brown with hazel or brown eyes, and hair that ranges from chestnut to soot.
Assuming the idea that In the Future Humans Will be One Race is even possible, having it happen within 65 years – ONE generation – is so outside any plausibility it just reads like some utopian wishful thinking. For what reason is unclear, given what a crapsack shithole New Amana is and how often the author reminds us of it. Under a feminist regime, women are still basically walking wombs, but at least there’s no race issues anymore? Jeez, who knows.
The whole underpinning of Vika’s story is the problems she faces under the New Amana government comes completely undone the more you learn about the world she lives in. There’s a huge focus and pressure on women to procreate, despite the nuclear war creating a continent-wide nuclear desert and scarcity of food and resources. Women who currently haven’t had children are forced to wear red armbands with big zeros on them, for… some reason? It’s never really made clear why, even when Vika gets pregnant and gets a new armband (with a golden tree heavy with fruit!). Given how much of your life rides on being able to give birth and emigrate to Glorious China for a life of hard labour/soldiering, armbands seem like an awfully flimsy protection.
Or how about the fact that the government, which the book solemnly makes clear to us Is Bad And Wrong, desperately wants women giving birth, but they are only allowed six months to try and conceive (reduced in the book to three months, due to emigration bottlenecking), before they are arrested and gassed to death. Why a world scarce in resources wants more children is beyond me, but it’s the motivating factor for most of the book for Vika and her peers, but why they gas the women (and not the Husbands) under a feminist regime is beyond me.
Oh, sorry, did I say women? I meant “females”:
A Husband must have utmost faith in his female at all times.
“The Rads have some terrorist females,” Moon replies.
That is some Save the Pearls shit right there. Men are subjugated, lesser, more or less indistinct from one another – but at least they have NAMES. They have titles!
The Radicals? Legitimate, lifted from the pages, redditors:
Rads are dissastified with the feminist angle of the government, and oppose nearly everything it does… they wear black to symbolize their oppression.
The Rads have always been vocal about “their” daughters being taken away, even though they know full well going into the Match process that the children belong solely to the female.
In order to force the men to break up their protest, they are sprayed with acid by the maintenance crews – lavender acid! Misandry is real here, you guys. Oh, by the way, though Guards and Escorts are women, for some reason, Maintenance crews are the enforcer types, and they’re all men. Confused yet? I sure am.
The Radicals main objective is to destroy the Asylums where the Defecteux – the Defective – are taken “for the good of the people”. Ostensibly, the excuse is that unfit children should be studied so that people can stop producing kids with developmental disabilities or in the case of Vika’s sister, epilepsy. Of course, there’s no scientific advancement involved, they’re just giant rape factories! Which… again, why do they exist then? If something serves no utilitarian purpose in a place so strangled for resources, why do they have it, especially when they are gassing perfectly healthy women? The stakes are way too high for women alone in this feminist regime, and it makes absolutely no sense to me.
Vika and her Husband, Shale, witness a neighbour’s son be taken to an Asylum for being sickly, and he begs her to help but Vika refuses, nervous at the retaliation SHE might suffer. Later that night:
I part my legs. There’s a pause. Shale adjusts himself, puts his knees on either side of me. I wait for the starting words, my eyes trying to search his out, but it is too dark in the bedroom. Finally, he pushes off me. “I’m sorry,” he mutters, “I can’t tonight.” And he disappears into the bathroom again.
Look. I do not want to see the main character force him. Rape is awful, and it’s impossible to cheer for a protagonist pro-rape and coercion. BUT Vika is the one who dies if they fail! It’s her life on the line! I would hate it, but at least with the world-building, it would be consistent for her to make him stay. In fact, if house husbands are so important to women in this world, why they aren’t consistently doped with viagra and/or calming meds (as we’re regularly reminded by the narrative, men might be lesser, but they are Biologically Stronger than women still, and we need to be careful not to anger them.) The fact that Vika just lets him go was the point where a strangled “waak??” came out of my throat.
Via Shale’s connection to the Radicals, he convinces Vika to help him (when she does, he shows her his appreciation by buying her a bunch of cooking utensils on the black market! Because she likes to cook! But she can’t, because it’s unfeminist!) She comes with him to a meeting, because she wants to be a part of a plan to break into the Asylums and free the children there (including her sister):
The door opens wider and the man steps out. He’s dressed in the Rads’ black uniform, a black bandana around his mop of curly hair. He thrusts his chin at me. “Who’s the cunt?”
When we enter, I stand still a moment, allowing my eyes to adjust to what is all around me. The most taboo of le marche noir material is slathered on the walls. Twentieth century style posters of women in compromising positions and skimpy outfits are everywhere.
Wow, I can’t imagine why charmers like these are hunted by the feminist government! It’s because they’re scum. Why on earth I am meant to swallow the idea that a uniform race exists and religious memory mostly obliterated within 65 years but “bitch”, “cunt” and porno mags still exist is beyond me because it’s impossible.
The second half the book is mainly a blurry mess. Vika and Shale leave Ursa to go to Toronto to rescue her sister, they’re betrayed, she leaves Shale behind and finds a refugee camp full of Nukeheads and asylum escapees including her sister, who is thirteen and raped into catatonia basically. Vika is captured by a Rad and she is raped. The book ends with Vika and her sister on a boat, and Shale magically alive. The only passage of any note once leaving her city is the magical makeup scene, part of an idea to help her sister by throwing a birthday party for her and the other Asylum escapees:
Soon I am braiding a whole group of girls’ hair. After that, I decide to work on their clothes. Yellow coveralls aren’t very becoming, we decide, so I loop some twine around their belt loops on either side of their waists and string it in tight to cinch in the waist. Some of the girls make flower cuffs out of wildflowers and grass. Others grind red and pink flowers into a paste and use it to stain their cheeks and lips. I watch in wonder as they are transformed from lost little girls into graceful young women.
And of course, then the girls have no problems dancing with men at the birthday party! Hurray, they’re healed from their aversion to men! Take that, feminism!
If this book was written by a dude, I would just be all over tearing him up one side and down the other. Internalized misogyny is one hell of a drug, though, and it’s a bit more complicated than Victoria Foyt’s white supremacist fantasy world. The “feminist” government is clearly not written with any kind of feminist theory in mind, which, okay, ideologies can be perverted, maybe even within the short time frame set up in the book.
The hell of the whole mess is that this idea could have maybe worked with a little more research, a little more honesty and a little less desire to cash in on this whole concept of reverse oppression. Don’t make the male radical dude the hero! Don’t make the main character a loathsome, braindead obey-o-bot. Start with a main character who already knows the problems New Amana has caused in perverting the feminist ideology, who has access to stories about what feminism actually is about – people live to old age in the society, are you telling me she couldn’t track down ONE secret feminist?
All the problems listed above would be cast in a completely different light if Vika had been questioning them from page one. She doesn’t start asking why until her radical husband teaches her too – and they have magic, excellent sex. Somehow.
The fact that this same issue is plaguing stories about feminist leadership since Pamela Sargeant who was writing in the throes of second-wave feminism, where some backlash was a little understandable, is depressing as hell.
If you’re breathless to read a story where women are in charge and men are scarce and unimportant, at least in A Brother’s Price, women are given equal screen time and the Wild West setting is mildly interesting. Not so much here. Perhaps between now and whenever the sequel is released, Adriana Ryan will do some much needed reading of feminist thought.
Dear god, I hope so.