There is no denying that dystopian or speculative fiction are very popular areas of writing and publication right now; since the explosion of The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins over the last year, fiction set in some potential (and usually frightening) future has been filling the bookshelves at a nearly unprecedented rate. However, since much of this fiction is both thrilling and thought-provoking, I cannot complain!
Wither by debut author Lauren DeStefano may be one of many new entries into this subgenre but it still stands out from the masses of recently published dystopian sagas. The best speculative fiction usually grounds itself in issues and questions of the present day and Wither is no exception. For this novel, the potential devastation of the human race comes from our own attempts to improve the world--in this case through medical and scientific engineering and manipulation of human biology.
About 70 years ago, science at last succeeded in creating perfect children; a generation of babies were born to be nearly indestructable, immune to diseases and with unpredicatably long life spans. However a development that seemed to be a marvel of genetic research has turned out to be the downfall of the humanity. Every generation since that first, miraculous one is stricken with an inexplicable flaw; females die of a mysterious virus at age 20 and male die of the same illness at age 25. Most of the globe has been destroyed by war and the United States has become a nation of desperate people. While scientists work to discover a cure and orphans flood the country, young women are frequently snatched from the streets and sold into polygomous marriages with weathly men in an attempt to prevent the population from dying out.
Sixteen year old Rhine Ellery is unlucky enough to be one of these unwilling brides. Suddenly Rhine finds herself in an unfamiliar world of luxury as one of Linden Ashby's three new wives. Athough she now wear custom designed gowns and never goes hungry, Rhine remains entirely focused on escaping her beautiful prison and finding her way back to her twin brother. Even as she connects with her sister wives and begins to feel pity and affection for their equally imprisoned husband, Rhine never fully allows her determination to waver; she will live her last four years in freedom or die trying.
The premise is intriguing and DeStefano's prose is lovely and evocative; however, the real strength of this novel lies in the characters. Rhine's conflicting emotions and increasing complex relationships with the people surrounding her are the core of the novel. Her changing emotional connections with her husband, her sister wives, and the servant Gabriel are fully fleshed out and delicately developed over the course of the plot. There are no simplistic 'good guys' and 'bad guys'. The most obvious villain is Rhine's father-in-law, a First Generation scientist whose obsession to find a cure that will save Linden before his twenty-fifth birthday has pushed him into very murky ethical territory. However, even he is a three dimensional character whose motives remain sympathetic and understandable even as his actions become more and more terrifying. Wither provides us with a chilling peek at our possible future. The novel reminds us how easily those in power will dehumanize others in the rush to survive and how quickly the greater good might overpower the rights and freedoms of the individual masses in such a situation.