So when I first heard of this book, it was via the NetGalley newsletter. It was on a brief “Read Now” status, which meant that for a certain amount of time – usually 48 hours – you could access the galley without having to be approved by the publisher.
I thought, “oh, it’s more feminist oppression porn” and figured it would be an amusing read. And for the most part, especially at the beginning, it was an amusing, eyeroll-worthy read.
But it eventually got pretty good…well, it turned into a mostly-female retelling of Lord of the Flies peppered with the main character’s incessant feminist talking points, but was good enough to keep me reading. At least, for the past week. I first grabbed the galley a couple of months ago, and stopped reading because the setting was just flat-out irritating, but I felt guilty about not reading it, and as the book’s release date got closer, I sucked it up and finished it.
So, what’s it about? Briefly, it’s about a teenage girl named Tierney, who lives in Garner County – not sure where it is, exactly, but they seem to have Scandinavian roots, so who knows…it feels like New England to me. Garner County is pretty much every single feminist’s nightmare – women are considered mere property of men, they’re not allowed to have pets, they’re not allowed to have rose-scented baths or wear perfume, they’re not allowed to choose their spouse and, of course, not allowed to have premarital sex or homosexual relationships. Any violation of the rules results in severe punishments, from beatings to hangings to being burned alive. You know, Salem, Massachusetts shit. In fact, the story seems to take place in that time frame, judging by the technology – or lack thereof.
The eeeeeevil white patriarchy that rules Garner County believes that women have dangerous magic, and have decreed that all girls of marrying age – roughly around seventeen, and after they’ve started their period – must be sent off to an island to “spend” their magic. Oh, but the eligible men of the county are allowed to choose one of them to marry, and this happens the night before they’re shipped off to this island wilderness.
Does this sound mind-numbingly dumb? Well, it does to me. The real reason for this silly ritual – called the grace year – is theorized but is never really revealed. Tierney believes it’s to break the girls. Another character (cannot remember) theorizes that it’s to cull the herd. Given that men are obviously prized above women, it’s not surprising that there’s a desire to limit the amount of women in this society. It seems like Garner County has a problem similar to China and India – women prefer to keep baby boys, rather than baby girls. Anyhow, abortion is obviously not allowed in Garner County, but the author, thankfully, never even mentions the issue of abortion.
So, it’s Tierney’s turn to go on this grace year journey. She has only one friend – Michael, son of the council leader. To her utter surprise, he chooses her to be his wife, being so nice as to say, “you don’t have to change for me.” Like any self-respecting feminist, Tierney is absolutely pissed off at him, given that she had told him of her desire to not marry and just work in the fields or something.
I thought about how the other girls weren’t lucky enough to be chosen by someone that actually liked and valued them as people, and how lucky Tierney was to be chosen by a man who didn’t even require her to change for him, and she was mad about it. I mean, I get it – arranged or forced marriages are bad, but I would have felt as if I had won the freaking lottery if my best friend chose me to be his wife. Just saying.
So Tierney and about thirty-two other girls are packed off and sent to their island hell, and even the journey there is horrifying because of the poachers who grab weaker girls and skin them alive before harvesting their parts to be sold at the apothecary back home.
A lot of the first chapter, I guess you could call it (the book is divided into like, five different parts, mostly designated by the seasons, except for the final part, of which is labeled “Return” or something) is annoying feminist drivel, because the evil society of Garner County is just so overwhelmingly European and Christian. Like we haven’t seen this before eighty quadrillion times.
But once the girls get to the camp, things get interesting. Of course, Tierney, who is skeptical of the girls’ magic from the get go, is the smartest girl in the room, so to speak. And, of course, the other girls just don’t listen to her. They want to purge themselves of their magic so they can go back to the county and be good wives and workers.
A blonde-haired, blue eyed girl named Kiersten serves as the archetypical Mean Girl. She is also a True Believer, completely convinced that she’s got powerful magic, and punishes anyone that isn’t willing to embrace their magic before working to purge themselves of said magic.
Meanwhile, Tierney keeps going on and on and ON about how there’s no magic. Well, it turns out she was right. The water in the well they drank from was full of hemlock silt, of which made the girls seriously ill, but because she kept challenging Kiersten’s rule, she was banished to the woods.
Every spooky occurrence ends up having some sort of rational or logical explanation. Tierney is not stupid – she was taught how to survive by her father, and does manage to survive out in the woods on her own. She ends up trying to escape and comes face-to-face with a poacher named Ryker, who she encountered on the way to the camp.
So, instead of spoiling the whole book, let’s say Ryker saves her life rather than skins her alive, they fall in love, have sex, and Tierney realizes that not all men are utter scum. Ryker does bring out the best in her, helping her see that Michael isn’t the villain she thinks he is, and offering valuable insight on her father’s character.
Tierney eventually becomes less self-centered and self-righteous, channeling her rage against the system into helping the other girls wean themselves off of the effects of the hemlock. She survives and returns home with a surprise that could have well gotten her killed if it weren’t for the intervention of Michael and the grace year survivors.
I thought the end was pretty strong as Tierney realized that there were a lot of people in the county – mostly women – fed up with the current state of affairs. She also learns that change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, and you might not even live to see its benefits, but you can at least pass these lessons down to your children, so that perhaps they can enact change. I think this is a good message for the people the book is aimed at – teenagers.
I started reading this, fully prepared to totally hate it and while I do not hate it, I don’t outright love it either. This would have been awesome if it weren’t for the obvious anti-Christian, anti-European angle. Feminists will love this, but eeeeeevil right-wingers like me will roll their eyes at it, at least in the beginning, and some might not even bother with the rest. I won’t recommend anything either way – I’ll leave that entirely up to you.