HarperVoyager, 2012, 339p. Reviewed for Interzone 241, Jul-Aug 2012.
This is the second in DeStefano’s “Chemical Garden” trilogy set in a world where all children are doomed to die of a virus by the age of 25. The only older inhabitants are the pre-virus First Generation. Accompanied by the young manservant Gabriel, Rhine Ellery has escaped from the mansion where she was brought after her kidnapping, leaving behind her forced marriage to the aristocratic son of the house, Linden, and the Housemaster, Vaughan, who performed sinister experiments in the basement. Her freedom does not last long, however, as she and Gabriel soon fall into the clutches of the deranged Madame Soleski, who runs a brothel in an old fairground complex. Rhine’s characteristic non-matching eyes make her an asset to be prized. After a thwarted attempt to sell her on she and Gabriel are administered a drug known as Angel’s Blood to keep them compliant, and to be the star act in a look, but don’t touch, exhibit.
Despite her difficulties, Rhine finds an ally in Lilac, who helps the pair escape just as Vaughan turns up to try to persuade Rhine to return to her marriage. Rhine and Gabriel stow away on a truck, rely on the kindness of an old woman who tells Rhine’s fortune (“things will get worse before they get better”) and then of a pair of restaurant owners – the man tries to rape her before Gabriel clocks him. Using money stolen from the restaurateur they finally take a bus to Rhine’s former home, Manhattan.
Throughout the book, Rhine spends a lot of time ruminating on her twin brother, Rowan, who must think she’s dead, and on her existence in the mansion. She also does not remove her wedding ring and in spite of her lack of years is showing increasing signs of the virus acting on her. And Vaughan’s is a presence that she can’t seem to shake.
DeStefano handles the story telling problems inherent in the second instalment of a trilogy mainly by making commendably little concession to them. There are, though, some instances of too obvious information dumping. And – without adding too much of a spoiler – you could skip it before reading volume 3.
There was, too, a whole series of wrong notes. Rhine displays knowledge of her new surroundings in the fairground and the activities of the “girls” in the compound before she could have acquired it. The behaviour of the older people she encounters does not seem much altered by the bizarre circumstances of the world. The only attempt to describe the conflict between those who seek a cure for the virus and others who have had enough of meddling with nature fails to convince. Rhine and Gabriel’s refuge in Manhattan ties in too neatly with earlier events. Rhine’s retention of her wedding ring is at odds with the attitudes and emotions she attributes to herself – and later displays. The rationale for, and logistics of, the “Gatherers” who steal girls only to shoot most of them remain unexplained. Despite all her experiences Rhine still goes out for an unaccompanied walk in the Manhattan she had been kidnapped from and then later sits on her doorstep in the middle of the night. This is a case of the exigencies of plot driving a character’s behaviour which damages credibility. Vaughan is an even more pantomimic villain than he was in “Wither” and the narrative carries a strong undercurrent of anti-scientism.
The problems with the trilogy’s background that were apparent in “Wither” are more evident two books in and the nature of the Chemical Garden is still mysterious. It would appear this world is effectively lawless but, beyond the virus, the mention of Gatherers and the dead bodies of kidnapped girls it is utterly familiar. There are still delivery trucks, restaurants, fortune tellers, brothels – even interstate buses, not to mention public meetings. It is as if DeStefano doesn’t quite believe in it herself.