Wither by Lauren DeStefano
Series: The Chemical Garden
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2011
Genre: Science fiction
Sub-genre: Dystopian, YA
There's been some debate as to whether Wither qualifies as post-apocalyptic or dystopian, especially with the way "dystopian" has become an over-used word lately, particularly in YA fiction. You can make a case either way, and I debated the question for a bit before ultimately deciding that for me, it comes closer to dystopian. While the story takes place in a world that's come very close to being entirely destroyed by war, with entire continents being unlivable, that bit of world-building has very little relevance to the actual plot of Wither. It's a background detail, something Rhine never deals directly with. I'm sure this will change in the other two volumes in the projected trilogy, and maybe those books would fit more snugly into the post-apocalyptic category. But Wither itself deals mostly with the fall-out of "man tries to tinker with things to bring it closer to perfection but fails epically," the result of which is an environment of fear and in which young girls are a commodity instead of people. We don't see much of the society at large, but in the confines of the world Rhine has been unwillingly dragged into controlling the commodities is the name of the game, which makes me want to label Wither as dystopian, even if its sequels are less so.
If you're in the market for something action-y and suspenseful, this is not the book you want. Wither takes its time, focusing on character development more than anything. While trapped in such a limited space, Rhine gets to know the people around her quite well, including her "sister wives," her husband, her father-in-law, and some of the servants. At sixteen, she's in the middle of the wives, with the eager and pixie-like Cecily younger than her and the sedate and removed Jenna older. Both Cecily and Jenna are delightfully complex characters, and while readers might not always like them, they're interesting to read about.
Ironically, I felt like I got to know the two of them better than I did Rhine. She has a fairly well fleshed out backstory, but a lot of her actions seemed to take place in a vacuum of emotions. I could understand how Cecily and Jenna worked, what drove them, what they might do in a given situation, but Rhine stayed an enigma.
Publisher: Sourcebooks, 2010
Lessons in French is basically the regency version of "high school sweethearts reunite after many years." It's a really well done variation, sweet and fun and funny. Callie and Trev are flawed and likeable characters, and the relationship between them is wonderful. This isn't a relationship that relies on straight lust; they're friends first, and always have been. They connect on a number of different levels, and the romance between them feels like a natural extension of the solid friendship they've already built. I can't tell you how much I love when a love story has the couple start as friends and drift into romantic territory from there,
There was an interesting subplot about Callie's suitors and the reasons they broke off their engagements, but the payoff on that one didn't live up to the buildup. While it didn't seem out of character for the guilty party to have organized something like that, it did seem rather impractical, making wild assumptions about several parties.
But that's one small misstep in an otherwise charming and funny novel. Kinsale put an afterword in the book that says she wanted this to be something light and happy, a story to make you smile. Mission accomplished.