A Dystopian Trek in Ally Condie’s “Crossed”

Ally Condie’s YA dystopia, Crossed, and how it works as a sequel to the sleek, sanitized, Giver-esque world of Matched, its predecessor. (With a touch of poetry!)

Crossed, the second book in the Matched trilogy, sees Cassia, a heroine who only until recently trusted the word of her overbearing government, in a journey through the wilderness, in search of love, freedom, and a rebellion. Credits for this illustration are here.

Ally Condie’s 2010 YA dystopian, Matched, takes place in a highly-regulated, warped paradise of job assignments, planned deaths, and compulsory conformity, the workings of a faceless, monolithic Society in the far future, Giver-style. The Matching ceremony, the day on which the government presents to each citizen their predestined partner, plays a key role in getting Cassia, a familiar subdued, brunette, mostly complicit dystopian heroine, to question the system that’s kept her life safe and predictable lo these seventeen years, but by the end, she’s taken a second look at everything. The Society’s destruction of previous cultures. Its zero-tolerance approach to dissent. And, most urgently, at the end of book one, its swift and hushed deployment of her boyfriend, Ky, as a prop of its vague and unspoken war.

Crossed, book two, is the fallout of the possibility of resistance. In Matched, we follow a relationship mutually acknowledged to be doomed. In Crossed, where both Ky and Cassia are on the run, they have to deal with disagreements about the future they only recently realized they could have. What’s more, Cassia hears word of a rebellion brewing on the edges of the Society, the very one in which Ky, jaded by his family’s past, long ago lost faith.

It’s subdued and rather uneventful as far as sequels go––the Society, in Crossed, is more of a looming presence than, as it is in Matched, a mounting threat. In Crossed, Ky and Cassia, along with a few incidental others, trek through the wilderness to find each other, and, eventually, to find the already gathering forces of a rebellion, the Rising. This setup forebodes a laggy, unimportant middle chapter, but Crossed has a utility in doing what a plot summary would cast as useless loitering. It holds all the themes of Matched while taking some time to let the immediate danger of being pursued by authority air out in the wilderness. The same stakes are ultimately at hand, but they are examined here in a deeply personal lens. What’s more, the monotony of the Society ripens with an example to pair it against. Where the Society does appear in Crossed, Condie inextricably associates it with the destruction of the natural world, further codifying its slick, sterilized aesthetic: just the foil for the naturalism, figurative language, and poetry that defines her main characters, and their deeply-held, almost unconscious, need to rebel.

As either consequence or catalyst of this, Condie’s prose style is of the earnest, flowery variety, sparse yet heavy with metaphor: so much “ash and nothing into flesh and blood,” so much “a thought flitters into my mind like one of the mourning cloaks, the butterflies that string their cocoons along the twigs,” so much “my mother painted with water, and my father played with fire,” as to render it trite, cliché, and unbearably cheesy, but her characters are so fervent and her argument for agency so entangled with poetry and passion that it registers with striking clarity. The key to Condie’s invoking such drastic lyricism is commitment.

It doesn’t hurt, though, that she chose to set Crossed in the dramatic landscape of a canyon, the Carving, where bright red cliffs exist in stark relief beside dark, rushing waters, and consequently where her lofty prose style feels most at home. Ky, the melancholy, poetry-reading love interest, also happens to harmonize with the landscape––Condie makes it the site of his childhood and the tenuous middle ground of the issue that comes to define his newfound tension with Cassia: to, or not to, join the Rising. What Crossed does with the debate is a cut above the expected. Yes, it’s a dystopian trilogy, and the rebellion is a given, but where Cassia’s all in, Ky is rather uneasy, and what’s more, the Rising is far from the “natural” side in Condie’s natural-unnatural dystopian lexicon, and she foreshadows some discord between the Rising as a restrictive institution and the beliefs of the people who turn to it for hope. Two salvaged poems, Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” play a key role in the series, Cassia and Ky reciting parts of them like mantras. The Rising, however, has co-opted the metaphorical figure of the Pilot from Tennyson’s poem for use in their own propaganda, and it is only Ky’s suspicions––with his symbolic ties to the natural, the expressive, and the artistic––that put dents in the Rising’s promises before the thing itself even appears.

Cassia, on the other hand, is earnest and hopeful about this matter, nursing wholehearted faith in the future––and meets heartache when Ky doesn’t share her vision. She isn’t fully realized as a novel or startling heroine, but she is a fully-realized reflection of her upbringing, the Society’s purported ideals of justice and equality activated when they meet their authentic counterparts. The point is that she embodies the average of her circumstances reacting to a chance encounter with freedom, just like Ky embodies his ostracism, and reflects the want of creative freedom once had, and lost. This doesn’t make them boring or flat; it makes them painstaking extensions of their worldbuilding.

Likewise, Crossed‘s muted and internal nature doesn’t make it a pointless victim of middle book syndrome; it makes it a refreshing departure from a genre that demands armed conflict as resolution, and very rarely shifts all or most of its focus into how its characters feel about the matter. It’s a volume of careful thought and sustained commitment to its role as a meditative interlude. High-octane expectations gave the book mixed reviews upon its reception in 2011, but after YA’s wave of dystopian popularity has crashed, it’s worth revisiting what Crossed does with setting, character, and art: it takes a long, introspective trek through a canyon, as opposed to the straight and narrow path.

Thank you for reading! My name is Pippin, and this blog is my passion project for all things bookish (and, to be frank, mostly young adult sci-fi). I’d love to chat about this book, or anything else, really, in the comments: am I blinded by my teenage nostalgia for this book? Am I missing a killer dystopia that more people should read? Is Ky Markham too angsty? Tell me below!

Scott Westerfeld’s “Specials” Ends With a Flashy, Unnecessary Bang

Westerfeld’s victories in this volume are largely conceptual, and all in the details. He skillfully invents a subculture for these Specials and uses the tools of previous volumes––the language, conformity, a strong sense of physicality––to make its allure convincing and illuminate the psychological factors that keep people in line where the influence of systems stops.

Young dissidents hide (and hoverboard) in the ruins of the 21st century throughout Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy. It becomes an especially important staging ground as the resistance gains momentum in the finale, Specials. Credits for this illustration are here.

This terminal volume in Scott Westerfeld’s foundational dystopia, the Uglies trilogy, follows a familiar tune.

The promise of earlier books, from the series opener, Uglies and its thought-provoking take on coming of age and its unfortunate implications, to the middle volume, Pretties, and its mind-bending complications, turn out to be too ambitious to sit comfortably in Specials‘ 350 pages, and too lofty to decisively resolve.

Tally, the teenage heroine who saw the cracks in the system in book one and suddenly found herself a part of it in book two, winds up yet again unwillingly modified by the government of her city, this time “enhanced” both physically and mentally into a man-hunting machine who can track dissidents like prey and do the government’s bidding with maximum efficiency.

The government in Westerfeld’s series doesn’t rule with an iron fist, exactly: it transforms its citizens into perfectly beautiful, perfectly brainwashed “Pretties” once they come of age. Constantly occupied with their cliques, parties, and thrills as a result of it, the policy of compulsory cosmetic surgery at 16 is the gift that keeps on giving––humanity is too infantilized to cause many problems or raise objections to the status quo. For the few that remain, the government has Special Circumstances, or “Specials,” on the opposite end of the surgical brainwashing spectrum, an agency with faces designed to elicit fear and its own distinct, government-implanted delusions.

Westerfeld’s victories in this volume are largely conceptual, and all in the details. He skillfully invents a subculture for these Specials and uses the tools of previous volumes––the language, conformity, a strong sense of physicality––to make its allure convincing and illuminate the psychological factors that keep people in line where the influence of systems stops. From Pretty-isms like “bubbly” and “happy-making” emerge Special-isms like “icy,” and new internal logic that capitalizes on our characters’ needs to feel superior to the “bubblehead” Pretties to match.

Tally, however, has been fed indoctrination, questioned it, and overcome it two times over now, once in Uglies and once in Pretties, and Specials has her do it yet again, from the ground up. In spite of this hurdle, or perhaps because of it, Specials is the speed round version. It’d be reductive to spend the same amount of pages in the same battle––one that frustrated many readers when they met a bubbly, brainwashed Tally in Pretties with the clock turned back on her character development. In Pretties, though, her starting point is alien enough to make the battle discernibly different. Specials doesn’t add anything new: the surgery has brainwashed Tally before and she has recovered from it before. It’s a nearly identical struggle, in a slightly different flavor.

This is a valid reason that might make the sidelining of Tally’s struggle with her new identity a wise move. But Westerfeld’s deconstruction of the Specials’ superiority complex is the subject of the book’s most memorable scenes––including one very devastating kiss––and it injects crucial friction into a romantic subplot that otherwise fades into a dull thrum. But the book doesn’t decide what to do with it either way, leaving a well-developed subplot that, when the action deems it necessary, just disappears.

The “Specials” issue expires too early in part because, this being Tally’s final volume, we have bigger fish to fry. As the romance has the happily ever after, the dystopian has the collapse of the corrupt regime.

Westerfeld’s take on this front, even though it can sometimes feel like an obligatory conclusion, has a real streak of realism to it. Rather than making Tally the absolute mastermind, he taps her to play a small role in an ongoing shift that began before she decided that her political situation was bogus: Specials sees her dealing with auxiliary consequences and hurrying the gradual change along until her own circumstances see a breaking point.

This decision allows the scope of the dystopian world order to come across, but doesn’t put armies at a 17-year-old’s command to do it. In keeping with this, Westerfeld’s choice of self-governing cities as opposed to a massive totalitarian state or empire makes some interesting strides towards progress in this fictional world possible within this final volume, but overall the pace of revolution is glacial. It is effected by clandestine systems of couriers, and in a refreshing turn, Tally is important, but not the center of the world.

With all this in place, the threat of war that emerges in the final third of the book feels trite and excessive, less like a decision that truly befits Westerfeld’s fictional world and more like bending to the explosive expectations of a YA sci-fi finale. But the Uglies series, action-heavy as it is, has always been internally-driven at its core. When it isn’t, it’s fueled by relationships, rather than weaponry. The doomed friendship between Tally and Shay, an electrifying supporting character, centered the tension between the devotees and the free-thinkers in the previous two books, and Specials only begs for this third-act war plot because Shay is so noticeably absent.

The series succeeded in the past because of its interior, reflective nature, even in the face of all the sci-fi bells and whistles. That is where its impact is strongest. It’s not a political thriller––though Specials tries to incorporate that quality with its villain, Dr. Cable. It’s not a revolution story, either, and even though war appears, it’s not a war story. This isn’t something to fix with hard sci-fi optics. It’s something that, like it ultimately concludes about people, is better left unchanged.

“Rook” Combines Dystopia and History, To Mixed Results

After the world ends, in Sharon Cameron’s 2015 dystopia, Rook, strikingly little changes. After technology is disrupted, and life is thrown into disrepair, hundreds of years pass, and eventually, France and Britain enter into their late 18th-century forms, so that Cameron can set her YA adventure novel amidst a strikingly familiar French Revolution, complete with an arranged marriage subplot, and particularly free of most of the things that make science fiction interesting.

18th century France (and the according revolution) meet a post-apocalyptic world in Sharon Cameron’s YA homage to The Scarlet Pimpernel. Collage by Pippin Hart. Credits in this post.

After the world ends, in Sharon Cameron’s 2015 dystopia, Rook, strikingly little changes. After technology is disrupted, and life is thrown into disrepair, hundreds of years pass, and eventually, France and Britain enter into their late 18th-century forms, so that Cameron can set her YA adventure novel amidst a strikingly familiar French Revolution, complete with an arranged marriage subplot, and particularly free of most of the things that make science fiction interesting.

As far as dystopias go, Rook is an interesting case––it’s a far-future work of speculative fiction that desperately wants to be a work of historical fiction, and likewise, the real nature of the setting is easy to forget. The fact that this is post-apocalyptic Earth and not the literal, actual 1700s is something Cameron rarely deigns to remind you of, what, with her novel’s engagement parties and liberal guillotine usage and total lack of technology. Some characters even charmingly trade in relics from the present day, but without breadth, care, or a sense of loss, the “Nintendo” logo engraved in an ancient piece of plastic in a prized collection is less an element of world-building and more a Pixar-style Easter egg. Her characters don’t even have access to firearms, a state of affairs behind the period she’s trying to emulate, by the decree of a post-apocalyptic non-government with no objectives, no structure, and no historical context.

Paris, now “The Sunken City” in Cameron’s novel, has a vaguely-defined upper class, but no royalty to speak of, and a municipal agenda consisting mostly of public executions of enemies of the state. There’s no concrete reason presented in the book for mobs of the citizenry to go about killing merchant families, no economic downturn or ongoing abuse of power by the rich to set this in motion, or, at least, none that sticks. Key details in this book, buried as they are under long, repetitive, over-explanatory narration, are easy to miss.

At the helm of this guillotine-happy government’s busy execution schedule is Albert LeBlanc, an absolute bloodhound of a police chief. Though he’s decidedly not the main character, he does receive an excess of page time, through Cameron’s decision to splice her novel with frequent, movie-like intercutting. This is a surprising investment, but it very nearly pays off. Cameron zooms in on her cold, calculating villain to reveal someone with even less reason and strategy than it seems, a man slavishly devoted to a goddess of fate, with such irrational fervor that it replaces ideology entirely. The thrill of the chase, however, is absent: LeBlanc isn’t competent enough to offer a real threat, and his character doesn’t expose the flaws in Rook‘s young, plucky leads as it’s supposed to. They spend the entire story plotting a daring escapade to snatch prisoners from under his nose, and the affair proves simple, and woefully easy.

The heroes go relatively untested the whole way through, denied a wider context, and thus, a meaningful cause to fight for.

Usually, in YA, when the cocky anti-hero appears, even in works that spare every expense in developing their ensemble, he gets taken down, if only a single peg, if only half a peg, if only because he is forced into humility because of a romantic subplot.

Enter René Hasard, a blunt, smirking mischief-maker, the unwanted fiancé offered to the main character Sophia Bellamy as a last-ditch effort to save her family from financial ruin. The romance that unexpectedly (“unexpectedly”) blooms between them receives the most careful and dedicated attention of any plot in the novel, but it still wavers inexplicably between complete faith and absolute distrust. Whenever things are quiet on the political intrigue front, some doubt regarding his past comes to the fray. Romantic scenes are well-written at times, but on the whole, the romance’s development is badly structured: the more Cameron keeps teasing at some dark secret, the less satisfying it is when it comes time for the happy ending, and the promise of conflict completely falls away.

Sophie also happens to be the victim of an unfortunate love polygon. Her childhood friend, Spear Hammond, is the blunt point of the love triangle. He goes about wooing her with little awareness of her actual wants, and an extremely combative attitude towards René, which puts the novel in a unique position to really interrogate those impulses, poke at them, make fun of them, maybe. The classic childhood-friend-to-lover archetype often does all these things to the female protagonist and gets no flack, from her or from the narrative, but Rook seemed poised to call Spear and his patronizing instincts into question. But his depiction, lacking in complexity and suddenly ending with a bitter smack of self-sacrifice, is probably the book’s greatest wasted opportunity. He’s of an awkward, in-between status, jumping between tolerable and reprehensible in a way that does the novel no favors. Sure, he shows a hint of having layers, but Rook doesn’t know how to handle them.

It doesn’t know how to handle Sophia, either. Like many familiar YA characters, Spear is obnoxious masculinity criticized only very shallowly. Sophia, like a fair share of teen heroines, has limited and largely superficial demonstrations of strength that have mostly to do with weaponry, but evaporate as soon as she’s really in trouble, and requires her bickering love vertices to rescue her.

Rook, even as a work of suspense, or romance, is lacking. Considering its world-building, almost everything is squandered. It isn’t a re-imagination or a re-invention of history. It’s history repeated, to underwhelming and distilled effect.

“The Black Key” Sticks a Shaky But Satisfying Landing

Amy Ewing’s last word on her vivid, thought-provoking world leaves a bit to be desired––it doesn’t expand things like The White Rose, or give off a powerful atmosphere like her first book, The Jewel. But ultimately, it still yields gratifying and complete endings for most of her cast of characters, and they are how this finale fights all the way to the finish line, albeit with a delay.

A young woman fights to topple an exploitative regime in the final book of Amy Ewing’s Lone City Trilogy, The Black Key. Collage by Pippin Hart. Credits for components used in a long trail of links starting with this post.

After two books of world-building and lead-up, The Black Key carries the corrupt royal leadership of the Lone City to its foregone conclusion: a decisive rebel victory. Amy Ewing’s last word on her vivid, thought-provoking world leaves a bit to be desired––it doesn’t expand things like The White Rose, or give off a powerful atmosphere like her first book, The Jewel. But ultimately, it still yields gratifying and complete endings for most of her cast of characters, and they are how this finale fights all the way to the finish line, albeit with a delay.

As it takes the forefront in the third installment, Ewing’s long-awaited rebellion emerges astonishingly simple for all of the hopes resting on it. As it rages on and accomplishes its plans in a single day, the book introduces obstacles that our lead, Violet, and her ample, well-trained ensemble, efficiently push out of the way. In the darkest hours of her fight, no one is ever really cornered; no situation ever truly dire. Ewing gets her characters in trouble plenty, but in all save a few circumstances, it never truly sticks.

There’s reason, though, that the long and arduous process of a massive political shift is condensed in this book. The government Violet and company have to topple is a city with a very small elite and not a massive, war-ready national federation, and Ewing has one tool on her side that most authors in dystopia don’t: her rebels can use magic to literally move the Earth beneath their feet, and a massive united front of discontent for the taking. With a bit more complexity, a bit more flesh, a bit more bite, the rebellion in The Black Key could’ve been as compelling as its setup.

Instead, the finale doesn’t really make an attempt at that. The fighting is a seventy-page interlude at the end, occupying a strange middle ground between an afterthought in a trilogy mostly motivated by unspoken tension and pivotal conversations, and the ultimate focus in a story that is mostly about a coup. These two options don’t go well together, but this combination is what Ewing has to execute in her third act as a consequence of the vague last stand she kept alluding to on the horizon.

The character moments she truly excels at have to interrupt the action as it goes on, and as we endure descriptions of magic and all the havoc it wreaks, the endless violence, the movements of volunteer troops, there’s an ache somewhere for a final fate decided with groundwork, or with politics, or the backstabbing and deception book one does so well.

Tragically, this book approaches it, when Violet steals away into the ruling district, the Jewel, in order to keep an eye on the Duchess of the Lake, her old mistress. The plot never slows, however, to give her a second look, the way it did with the series opener. When a certain plot twist drops, in a character-driven scene during the final incursion, it lands without sufficient shock, exposing the Duchess’ softer side without providing ample justification. She’s woefully underdeveloped here, and makes for an unfortunate villain by virtue of it. With additional attention, maybe. But the Electress, an originally upper-middle-class citizen ascended to the throne by marriage (and, most likely, ruthless ambition to boot), hardly appears, though the loose threads of a plot from the end of The Jewel possibly could’ve facilitated it.

But where plot fumbles, Ewing’s work on the ensemble is in full form, as Violet has to tap into her empathy for other members of the working class, understand and negotiate the complicated world of the royalty with slightly more power this time, and confront the consequences of her rebellion and all it brings in closer, less abstract, more personal ways.

Because Violet is disguised as a servant in the Jewel, we see less of Ash, Raven, Sil, and all the surrogates they recruited in book two (a choice that results in less gratifying stories for the additional surrogates: Olive, due to her absence, gets the particularly short end of the stick). We see more of Lucien, Garnet, and Carnelian, though, and Ewing’s careful consideration of their circumstances is where The Black Key gets most of its insight.

Lucien, the high-ranking servant who’s been masterminding this whole rebellion business since the beginning, is a fuller and freer character than he’s ever been: if the rebellion isn’t all that complicated, its leader is. In this book, his role as an almost father-figure to Violet gets a more substantial chunk of the story’s attention, the toll this has taken on him creeping a bit more into view. Lucien’s actions in this installment are wholly and unquestionably defined by love, a motivation that would be distant, if not unthinkable, to the cynical, closely-guarded character we met in book one.

Garnet, another supporting player with an endearing and impressive character arc, gets really subtle and unique moments to reckon with his royal heritage including possibly the best moment of the book: the Duchess of the Lake’s “You’re with them? Fighting with whores and servants?” to Garnet’s, “Yes, Mother. I am.”

Garnet, having been shuffled into an uncomfortable arranged marriage, finds himself more devoted to the rebel cause than before, but keenly aware of the cost, particularly to the people around him. A few sobering scenes of this are enough to broaden the novel’s perspective: it becomes no longer about the downtrodden and oppressed rising up against their chains––now it’s that and the story of complicity at the top, with an entire class of people quietly suffering.

Carnelian, the Duchess’ niece, whom the Duchess constantly berates for her humble upbringing, also adds a tinge of flavor to this perspective, and becomes the fascinating, morally-grey figure that the Duchess herself once played. When Carnelian’s last moments in the novel come, though, they’re thoroughly earned. It’s enough to make you wish the rest of The Black Key were given that same luxury.

“The White Rose” Blooms in the Shadow of “The Jewel”

At the close of the first installment of Amy Ewing’s Lone City trilogy, Violet, a surrogate of the upper-class in a violent and corrupt dystopia, has just landed in scalding hot water with her mistress, the cruel and calculating Duchess of the Lake.

Young women prepare to seize control of an isolated dystopian government’s natural resources in Amy Ewing’s sequel to The Jewel, The White Rose. Collage by Pippin Hart. Photo credits for components used in this post.

At the close of the first installment of Amy Ewing’s Lone City trilogy, Violet, a surrogate of the upper-class in a violent and corrupt dystopia, has just landed in scalding hot water with her mistress, the cruel and calculating Duchess of the Lake.

For reasons that explicitly spoil the first book, The White Rose follow Violet and a downtrodden ensemble of other servants and surrogates as they flee the royal inner circle of the Jewel for a safe house in the vast, quiet farming district, with the burdensome strings of possible revolution attached.

All things considered, this second book follows the expected trajectory of a dystopian series fairly closely. The subtlety of The Jewel is quickly ushered away into the margins in favor of a much more explosive kind of storytelling––the first half of the book, at surface, is a ceaseless rush of running, hiding, and smuggling, with short interludes where the characters screw it up.

But on closer inspection, The White Rose still has richness to offer, even as the mystery and intrigue of the first book falls away.

The concealed-history reveal regarding the Lone City’s origins is what saves this installment’s world-building from falling to the wayside as the revolution plot takes the spotlight: even as Ewing draws conclusions for her novel’s current affairs, her use of history keeps adding to the dimensions of her world. Unearthing records becomes The White Rose‘s chief asset as it concerns plot twists, and Ewing’s choices in the dark past of her dystopian land on a familiar note that echoes the real world, but leaves enough room for the Lone City to become something of its own, without the burden of conforming to allegory.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the thing that sets Ewing’s series apart from other miserable un-futures is her addition of a magical element. In the first book, it’s a set of abilities called the Auguries that allow the surrogates to bear children quickly and with the royalty’s preferences for appearance. Here, though, a much deeper and broader outgrowth of the natural world comes to the fore, more like the Star Wars-style force than the codified skill system that the surrogates have been taught to exhaust and abuse.

The underlying truth behind the Auguries illuminates the failings in a system that treats people like products the way that the Auguries themselves and the pain they cause acted like a proxy for forced childbirth––bringing unspeakable pain to the physical realm, where it can be described, inspected, and reckoned with. In this regard, dark dystopia and fantasy fit together beautifully, with the technical, clinical, cold aesthetic going up against the ancient, natural one. In the plot to overthrow and exploitative royalty, Ewing decides to tap into something much older, lending her work the mystical power of a fantasy, while escaping, like Star Wars does, the call to fully explain the magic and its origins, and keeping a gritty, modern, sci-fi edge.

Violet’s doubts about her ability to tap into this power appear, logically, but this development’s shadows on the supporting cast are much more interesting and well-defined: the minor players and their pasts, hesitations, and ideas about the revolt are possibly the only areas where the second book notably exceeds the first.

Raven, the best friend Violet was parted from when she came into the service of the Duchess of the Lake, gets a comprehensive treatment in this volume, where we finally see the fabric binding them together more closely. As the sharper, fiercer foil to Violet’s more subdued strength, she has to come to terms with her own servitude and how completely it took those things from her, a subplot Ewing handles generously, and further enriches by pouring it into magic.

A few times, Ewing fails to commit to the scuffles the characters encounter as they make their escape from the Jewel––and uses Raven’s abilities to get them out unscathed––but ultimately, The White Rose doesn’t neglect her. The most vital relationship in this novel isn’t a romantic pairing; it’s the love between Violet and her best friend. It’s into this relationship that Ewing pours the heart-felt confessions, the sacrifices, the solemn promises, and as a result, the whole book benefits.

Garnet, the Duchess of the Lake’s ne’er-do-well (depending on who you ask) son, also sees a deep, thought-provoking character arc in The White Rose, Ewing combining his privilege with a desire to make amends that lends him both earnestness and biting self-awareness. Raven and Violet’s bond may be the most important character element in the book, but in a stunning turn of events, this sardonic agent of moderate chaos steps out to become book two’s scene-stealer, what, with his quips and surprising glimpses of heroism and slowly-emerging conviction. He’s like the Effie Trinket of this trilogy, mixed with a few extra drops of vinegar.

The truly wide range of characters in Ewing’s vision is beginning to show as one of her work’s closely-held triumphs. The rebellion on its own isn’t a particularly innovative use of the idea, but the wide array of characters and motivations she uses to propel it forward (and their begrudging cooperation) is very nearly worth it all. In a particularly valuable exchange, Ash, one of the characters on the run with Violet and company, brings up the girl he was hired as an escort for, the Duchess’ niece, Carnelian. He remarks on the fact that for all the heartache she caused them, she, too, has suffered at the hands of the royalty, and then says something that really expands the scope of the revolution, and gives it the means to matter. “We can’t choose who we free from them, Violet,” he tells her, as he comes into his own. “It has to be all or nothing.”

“The Jewel:” A YA Revelry In Horror and Splendor

The elite wield power over young surrogates in the Lone City of Amy Ewing’s The Jewel. Collage by Pippin Hart. Photo credits for components used under this post.

Dystopia and luxury combine in the most astute and inventive of ways in The Jewel, a 2014 YA sci-fi with comparison titles the likes of The Selection and The Handmaid’s Tale.

As incompatible as pretty dresses, court tension, and clinical horror may seem, The Jewel gives us reason to believe that these things go hand-in-hand in a society built on exploitation, where an insular inner circle results in birth defects and fertility problems, and thousands of poor women’s reproductive organs are readily available for leasing.

Amy Ewing’s work on The Jewel, her debut, was frequently derided at release for being unoriginal, but when half of YA’s tastes lie in subdued intrigue and people in fancy clothes concealing their feelings for one another, and the other half has a morbid curiosity for violence, squalor, and the sickening potential of the powerful left unchecked, combining the two, like Lauren DeStefano did in 2011 with Wither (another marvelous book), is actually kind of brilliant.

The Jewel follows Violet, a surrogate-in-training, as she leaves the holding facility she’s been kept in since she was twelve to go into service as a child bearer for a wealthy family––who can’t do it themselves because generations of inbreeding have rendered them sterile––and, to be perfectly honest, enjoy parading surrogates as symbols of their wealth, often literally on a leash.

Most of Violet’s life from this point on has been concealed from her: she doesn’t know how the system that created her operates, she doesn’t know what will happen to her after she’s fulfilled her purpose, and she doesn’t know why she’s been shut out from her family since the moment a doctor diagnosed her capacity to be a surrogate. She’s just been taught to live with this uncertainty. As a gear in a machine that never stops churning, it isn’t her function to know the work of the other ones. She just has to keep moving and hope no one in power singles her out.

Of all the genuine human experiences Ewing connects with in her book (and the reach is far broader than the love story this 2014 YA release is bound to include) the one she captures best is being someone in power’s means to an end. The most complex relationship in this book is the one between Violet and her more-or-less owner, the Duchess of the Lake, as Violet grapples with the position of being at her complete mercy, and struggles to retain a sense of self as her agency is stripped away. Sometimes this happens in obvious ways like the smack of terror that accompanies the first appearance of a human leash, and sometimes in quieter ones, like the way carrying the Duchess’ baby and her body’s slow unbecoming inch closer with every invasive doctor’s visit.

The thing is, the Duchess would insist, cross-her-heart style, that she’s one of the better ones, but Ewing never neglects the crucial component that makes every conversation with a landlord so uncomfortable and every “I’m your boss but also your friend” sentiment so hollow. The Jewel understands, in a modern, disconnected sense, what it means to be someone else’s product.

Not that the Duchess is having such a high time herself: Ewing’s depictions of the people in power can be just as interesting and multifaceted as her portrait of her protagonist in servitude, only enriched (pun intended) by a bitter spike of depravity. In the Duchess, we see a woman who quickly learned how brutal the rest of the ruling class would be if she weren’t brutal in their place. She also secretly has it out for anyone, like Violet, lucky enough to be ignorant of the depths of the ruling class’ malice.

But the most interesting depiction in this stripe is that of the Duchess’ niece, Carnelian, who has to sit and hold her tongue as her aunt publicly languishes over the deep, deep embarrassment of having a relation who hails from slightly less well-endowed circumstances. The way Ewing uses Carnelian (and to a different extent, the Duchess’ own son, Garnet) allows us a unique window into the calcifying process as it happens. Every time Carnelian’s youthful sentimental nature is rebuked, you can see a cruel, spiteful rich woman shaping up in her future. It’s in these characters’ dimensions that we can see how power propagates itself through its heirs: by destroying them.

The most vivid passages in the book, though, are all concerning the auguries, special powers related to manipulating matter that allow the surrogates to produce healthy offspring with the royalty’s DNA that the royalty can’t. The auguries, interestingly, don’t outstrip the clinical elements of the story, or come off as out-of-place. As a system of magic, Ewing’s creation is startlingly brutal and gives us a way to conceptualize the violence of reproductive exploitation when the politics of the book can sometimes obscure it from view.

The Jewel relies on a very specific kind of repulsion to get its point across: very little physical abuse crosses its pages, but these barely post-pubescent girls are being pushed to the limit in some right, and the way Ewing describes the dull ache that spreads with the use of the auguries, as well as what it feels like to have life literally sucked out with every use, brings to visceral detail the horrors of gestation that loom large in the fears of a sizable number of teen girls, but are only rarely, in YA, spoken into view.

The Jewel, in tradition with other books like it, ends with whispers of rebellion, but, with such keen nightmares as Ewing describes––how could it not?