Wither by Lauren DeStefano. The Chemical Garden Trilogy.

Harper Voyager, 2011, 358p.

Published in Interzone 237, Nov-Dec 2011.

A genetically based cure for cancer has left a First Generation almost immortal barring accidents. However their children and grandchildren are not so lucky as a side effect – referred to as “the virus” – kills off males at 25 and females at 20. The societal consequences include a large cohort of children of these unfortunates being brought up in orphanages or left to fend for themselves. Efforts are being made to find a cure but these are opposed – sometimes violently – by groups who think there has been too much meddling already. “Gatherers” sweep the streets for young vulnerable females to provide subjects for research or suitable wives for wealthy young aristocrats. In addition a Third World War has “demolished” all of the world, except for North America (of course.) The rest is ocean dotted with a few islands.

At the novel’s start Rhine Ellery has been kidnapped and is being transported in a darkened van with other captives. At journey’s end the girls are subjected to a selection process. Rhine’s differently coloured eyes attract the selector and, as she is whisked off in a limousine, with two others, a naïve young Cecily and a more streetwise Jenna, she hears gunshots from the van. The three girls’ fate is to become prisoners in a vast establishment in Florida run by the First Generation researcher into the virus Housemaster Vaughn and to be “sister wives” of Vaughn’s son, House Governor Linden, whose present wife is 20 and dying.

Rhine is resolved not to succumb to this (albeit pampered) existence. She strikes up a relationship with a young servant, Gabriel, and despite being officially married, allows Linden no sexual favours. Cecily, happily, and Jenna, less so, provide his distractions in that regard.

There are irresistible echoes in this scenario of “The Handmaid’s Tale” but as in that novel the background leaves a lot to be desired and fails to convince.

While orphaned adolescents live in perpetual fear and Gatherers leave discarded victims to rot at the roadside there are still business expos, televised first nights and New Year parties where those and such as those turn up to be seen. People even go to the cinema. In most respects life outside captivity in the Big Houses is depicted pretty much as in our present day. How the Himalayas, for example, could be reduced to sea level yet Florida be above the waves is something of a puzzle and though hurricanes are to be expected Florida seems very wintry here. In addition the “virus” does not behave like a virus and a cure for cancer that’s also effective against ageing is just too pat. Why the lives of girls rejected by Gatherers are worth so little remains unexplained. Surely it is more likely they would be treated as a resource not to be wasted?

All of this is unfortunate as at the level of the writing “Wither” is very good. Though she seems unaware that “none” is singular DeStefano can otherwise turn a sentence and she relates the unfolding relationships between the sister wives deftly and that of Rhine and Gabriel delicately – though Housemaster Vaughn is a bit of a cardboard villain and House Governor Linden, despite his profession as a kind of architect, is too lacking in self regard. Scions of wealthy families are not usually noted for their reticence.

The resolution, when it comes, is a bit rushed and is achieved too easily but provides ample scope for continuing Rhine’s story.

The nature of the Chemical Garden of DeStefano’s planned trilogy is a mystery; unless there is a deep plot as yet unrevealed beneath the surface of the book. It would be good to think there is. On this evidence, though, that is unlikely.

Yet DeStefano shows promise. With a bit more rigour in her backgrounding she might be one to savour.

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    […] I reviewed Ms DeStefano’s previous novel Wither for Interzone a few months ago and published that review here just last week. […]

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