Monday, January 4, 2016

Fluffy Dress Syndrome

I love big, poufy dresses.  I've never had occasion to wear one, since I definitely wasn't into the school dance scene in high school, and I've never been married (to my knowledge), and thankfully, no one has ever asked me to be a bridesmaid.  But I secretly wish that someone would invite me to a very fancy-pants party and give me a reason to buy a ballgown.  However, I've noticed something rather peculiar.  Books that have girls in fabulous dresses on the covers are usually more about the dresses than the girls, and I generally end up not finishing the book or not even bothering to pick them up.


Recently, I've been thinking that I've been too hard on some books, dismissing them without even trying to read them first.  In case you haven't noticed, I have a strange guilt complex concerning books.  I vaguely remembered receiving an e-ARC of The Jewel by Amy Ewing, but I don't think I even made it past the first chapter.  With books that have maps and diagrams, it's hard for me to read them in ARC format because those components are usually added last, but they're the elements I look at first.  While browsing the new shelves at my library, I noticed the second book in the trilogy, so I figured, "Why not try The Jewel again?"

Stepping back, this book has so much going for it.  I'm serious.  The setting is intriguing and I want to know more about this society.  It has an interesting and organic magic system, and it had the potential to catapult teens into The Handmaid's Tale.  Something about the writing was compelling, too; I found myself halfway through before I stopped and asked, "Wait, is anything going to happen?"  Then the LOVE INTEREST lumbered in and I wanted to cry.

The Jewel takes place in the Lone City, which is divided by concentric rings moving outward from the richest and most desirable area: the Jewel.  Moving down in ranks of respectability are the merchants, the factories, the farmers, and then the Marsh.  Marsh people are the lowest of the low, but in a strange twist, their daughters are the only ones who can save the Lone City.

Generations ago, the Nobility of the Jewel discovered that their wives could not give birth to healthy babies.  They would miscarry, or deliver a baby with severe or even deadly deformities.  However, girls from the Marsh were able to deliver healthy children, and so a surrogacy system formed.  Marsh girls are purchased from their families, raised with other Surrogate candidates, and then auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Violet Lasting (I admit to cringing when I saw the name, but I was determined to give Violet a fair shot, so I soldiered on) has lived at Southgate, a holding pen temporary residence for Surrogates-in-waiting, for the past four years.  In that time she's learned many things.  Marsh girls possess the ability to work magic, called the three Auguries, and Violet tests in the highest percentile for the third and most difficult: speed of growth.  As far as other magic systems are concerned, the one in The Jewel is relatively simple: girls can change the appearance of a thing, the form of a thing, and the size of a thing.  This shifting comes at a physical price.  Bloody noses, red phlegm, piercing headaches, and exhaustion are all prices to pay when it comes to manipulating matter.  I thought that this was an interesting system: simple, with three powers, and easy to understand.  It stood in contrast to the elegant but often confusing systems in other fantasies I've read.  Violet doesn't really understand why she has Augury power, but then again, her life prospects are limited to "brood mare" or "brood mare," so, you know, why waste time thinking about these cool powers you have that no one else has?

Oh, right, this is the part of the review where I'm still supposed to be finding the good in this.  Moving along...

Surrogates are ranked when they are Auctioned off; the highest ten numbers are considered the most desirable surrogates.  Violet ranks a 197 due to her Augury prowess and physical beauty.  At the auction, she sees herself for the first time in four years.  And then, that new face is made up and made over by her one-man prep team, Lucian.  Lucian treats her kindly and warmly, even as he sends her to meet her fate on the auction block.  After a furious bidding war, Violet, now only to be known as Lot 197, is purchased by the Duchess of the Lake, matriarch of one of the four main ruling families.

This is where the story started to really go downhill for me.  Violet wakes up in a luxurious room with her very own handmaiden, who is mute, and her very own parlor and scads and scads of beautiful dresses.  Honestly, I read more about Violet's dresses, eye makeup, and hairstyles than I did of actual life in the mansion.  Violet's main job is to look gorgeous and then have the Duchess' baby.  Oh, and when they go out?  Violet and all of the other Surrogates are led by leashes.

However, when the Duchess takes in her ill-mannered, rather plain niece, it's necessary to get her a Companion to teach her the ways of seduction.  Ahem.  Pardon me while I vomit.  But, tee-hee, Violet is just wandering around the house and stumbles upon this super-handsome dude who looks at her and sees her and listens to her and they fall instantly and madly in love.  After he finds out that Violet is the Surrogate and not his intended date, the Companion, whose name is Ash, pitches a hissy fit because he too has fallen instantly in love with Violet but they can never be together.  Tragic.

The rest of the book consists of Violet and Ash just randomly kissing each other and making out all over the dang place, while Lucian bravely attempts to break Violet out and save her life.  Lucian, my friend, could you wait?  Violet's over here initiating the sexytimes with Ash even though IT IS FORBIDDEN and Ash is ashamed that he's been forced to sleep with *gasp* older women.

EWWWWWW OLD LADY SEXYTIMES EWWWWWW.  This is basically how both Ash and Violet see it.  Look, I'm definitely not condoning what Ash is forced to do, but them being grossed out by older women having sex is, well, rude, to say the least.  Because even though he's been a Companion to many other girls, it's the older women who have sullied him.

Are.  You.  Kidding.  Me.

Anyway, it turns out the Duchess of the Lake bought Violet because of her abilities with making things grow, and she is going to force Violet to grow a fetus in three months instead of nine, thus producing a baby girl who will be instantly betrothed to the son of the Elector (the ruler of the Lone City) and allowing the Duchess to, I don't know, take over the world?  It gets very James Bond-villain-y in that area.  She manages to assassinate several of her rivals' Surrogates, including the Electress'.

The first time Violet is impregnated, after about two days she has a massive bleed and almost dies.  I'm certainly no expert on IVF, but the amount of blood lost during her episode doesn't correlate to a two-day-old embryo floating around in there, does it?  Why would she hemorrhage so badly?  The Duchess says that some people's bodies react more violently than others ... but that still doesn't explain it.  I wonder if they inject the Surrogates with something that will kill them during childbirth, which is one of the reasons Lucien is trying to save the Surrogates.  None of them live after giving birth.  Which is just one more thing that I added to my list of "things that make absolutely no sense in this book."

One day, the Duchess tries to explain to Violet how things work in the Jewel.  How she was supposed to have been Electress, but was cast aside.  How the new Electress wants to "lobotomize" Surrogates and just use them for their wombs.  How her family helped build the great wall around the Lone City to keep the sea at bay.  And then she verbally abuses Violet again and leaves.  Wait!  Tell me more about this wall!  What was going on with the sea?  How did these Houses become so powerful?  Ewing has so much potential here for political intrigue and world building, but she barely scratches the surface because the narrative is so focused on Violet's eyeshadow and her liaison with the forbidden Ash.

I'm going to bullet-point all of my questions about the logic of this world, because there's too many of them for me to corral.
  • If the Nobility realized that their babies weren't healthy, why not just marry girls from the Marsh instead of using IVF?  Clearly, the Marsh girls don't contribute any DNA with the process they use now.  
  • Whose embryos are they implanting?
  • Why did the Marsh girls develop Augury powers?
  • Why can't the Marsh girls use their Augury powers on fetuses inside the wombs of Noblewomen, acting as sort of doctors and guides instead of baby-carrying machines?
  • Why was the Electress, who came from the Banking sector and was therefore not "tainted" reproductively, sterilized anyway and forced to use a Surrogate for her son?
  • Why go through this elaborate process of grooming Surrogates for use and valuing a Surrogate's beauty?  It's not like she contributes in the looks department to the baby.
  • Violet is uneasy about carrying someone else's baby, but when the doctor drugs her and implants an embryo without her consent, she goes and cries for a day and then deals with it.  Why would you think this is an honor?
  • How, how, how, how, how do you fall in love with someone after seeing him for like two seconds and think that no one will notice that you're making goo-goo eyes at him and slipping away to sleep with him?  
  • Lucien says he chooses to help Violet because she looks like his sister, and that by freeing the Surrogates they'll topple the Nobility.  Care to run that past me again, because there were literally no details as to how that will happen.
Plus, a lot of the plot elements are lifted straight from other popular YA novels.  Lucien is obviously the Jewel's version of Cinna.  Violet's maid, Annabelle, is an Avox.  And didn't some people wear leashes in The Hunger Games, or at least in one of the movies?  

The concept here was actually quite sound: creepy fantasy about the Lone City and the use of young girls to bear children on the behalf of others.  Selling humans to other humans because they are lesser.  The degradation of being property.  There was so much here that the author could have really mined, but instead we have Violet being "surprised I can't see tiny sparks of light exploding in the air around us.  This is wrong.  I know this is wrong, but at the moment, I can't seem to remember why."

I can't seem to understand why I finished this, either.  I wanted to see if it would get better, if we would get some answers to questions other than, "Will Violet and Ash kiss in this scene?"

You can guess the answer to that one.



3 comments:

  1. Chuckle! I'm very glad you never had my one and only YA novel to review. You'd pick up all the glitches that both my editor and I missed after reading and rereading!

    I think from what you say that this one had worked building potential but fell down.

    By the way, there's a kind of YA girl novel cover known as the prom dress, where the heroine wears a gorgeous ball gown on the cover but never in the actual book. It's sort of related to the historical novels that chop off the heroine's head on the cover.

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  2. PS When you said she can enlarge things, I snickered a bit at one other use for growing... I need to wash out my mind!

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  3. Oh yes, it absolutely had potential, but it needed to grow. ;)

    That made me laugh really hard, btw.

    Book covers are such strange things. In this book she actually does wear fantastic dresses, but I know in lots of others it's like TULLE EXPLOSION in a book about "the tomboy princess" or something.

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