I put off writing this review while I tried to unravel my feelings about the characters, the plot, and its execution. I was hooked right from the get-go and based on the strength of Szpara’s writing, I couldn’t put the book down. So it was something of a disappointment when I retrospectively learned that although the premise of Docile was new to me and masterfully captured my attention, it isn’t nearly as clever or original as I initially (and perhaps naïvely) assumed. Instead, Docile is standard slavefic – a subgenre I never knew existed – and it adheres closely to its established tropes. So while I was swept up in the story and the twisted loyalties its principal characters evoked, it doesn’t break any new ground. Szpara carefully baits his hook, and this reader was caught – hook, line, and sinker. It’s slick and extremely well done. Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, he side-steps (or ignores) the many difficult questions raised by his words, and my final grade reflects that.
To be a Docile is to be kept, body and soul, for the uses of the owner of your contract. To be a Docile is to forget, to disappear, to hide inside your body from the horrors of your service. To be a Docile is to sell yourself to pay your parents’ debts and buy your children’s future.
In the futuristic world of Docile, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer – unless they agree to sell themselves as repayment for their debts (they can also go to debtor’s prison, but Szpara never elaborates on this option). Elisha Wilder’s family inherited their massive debt, and when he was a young boy, his mother tried to pay some off some of it by becoming a Docile, or slave, for a ten year term. She opted to take Dociline, a drug that makes its users highly obedient, resistant to pain, and unable to form long-term memories while under its influence. Unfortunately, long after the end of the contract, when the drug should have left her system, she still behaves like a Docile. More zombie than mom, she drifts through life – a polite stranger to her family, and a cautionary tale to those who might consider following in her footsteps. But Elisha, desperate to keep his father from selling his beloved younger sister into servitude, and to pay off their exponentially growing debt, decides to sell himself instead. Unlike most Dociles, he plans to invoke his right to refuse Dociline; in this fictional world of debt and slavery and drugs, he’s one of the only Dociles to ever do so.
Alexander Bishop III, trillionaire and CEO of Bishop Pharmaceuticals (the maker of Dociline), can buy whatever he wants whenever he wants it, but he only wants his father to stop trying to run his life. In a last minute bid to thwart dad’s matchmaking machinations, he impulsively announces he’s taking on a Docile. Alex ignores his father’s heavy handed attempt to influence who he picks at the Office of Debt Resolution (a clearing house for Dociles), and instead picks Elisha, a candidate his father deemed unacceptable. The contract is for more money than Elisha dared to hope for, and after a brief conversation, Alex brings him home. Initially, both men are terrified about a future together.
Unbelievably, in this fictional world, Alex – who Szpara alternately paints as sympathetic and pathetic – doesn’t question whether the Docile system is good or bad; Dociles and Dociline ‘help’ the poor out of debt. Elisha doesn’t want to be a slave, but he’s determined to keep his sister safe, and he naïvely clings to his belief that in refusing Dociline, he can somehow keep a part of himself away from Alex. But Alex immediately sets to work erasing the real Elisha, brainwashing him into doing whatever he wants, whenever he wants it – and doling out praise and punishment in equal measure. Friends, Alex doesn’t have a secret heart of gold. He’s selfish, manipulative, and unwilling to see anything wrong with his actions. And when Elisha refuses to take Dociline – in front of a group of peers, sure to report back to his father – Alex can’t force him. Instead, he commits to making Elisha the perfect Docile without it.
So, if you’re still with me this far, you might be wondering who could possibly stomach this story? Well, Szpara totally sucks you into this fictional, highly disturbing not-so-distant future, and slowly, inexorably lulls the reader – just like Elisha – into believing Alex really isn’t as evil and selfish as he appears. The end result is that Elisha ever so slowly becomes the perfect slave – relying on Alex for everything, trying to be perfect for him, unable to think or decide for himself – even as it costs him a relationship with the family he was trying to save. And ultimately, that perfection comes at an even greater cost: after submitting to Alex’s every whim and decision, Alex begins to regret and reflect on his relationship with Elisha, and he abruptly ends it. Elisha – confused, hurt, alone, terrified and unable to make decisions for himself – is left to fend for himself. When he’s contacted by a shadowy group working to end the system of debt slavery and take down Bishop Pharmeceuticals, a reluctant Elisha agrees to help. He’s already lost everything he loves. Oh reader, the whole thing is so fucked up and awful.
It’s a lot to unpack isn’t it? Unfortunately, once Alex begins to realize what a fool/asshole he is and cuts Elisha loose, Szpara loses his way. The laser focus on his principal characters and the disturbing changing dynamics of their relationship are instead sidelined for a complicated suspense-lite storyline, underdeveloped secondary characters (I didn’t like any of them), and minimal world-building. The author never acknowledges the history of black slavery in this fictional dystopian world (this story takes place in Maryland), or explores how and why a new, similarly abhorrent and grotesque form of slavery seemingly exists with little opposition. Szpara ignores these not insignificant questions, and instead tries to spin the story into a legal suspense thriller, with a creepy ‘is it love?’ story on the side. It’s a shame; when the author is focused on Alex and Elisha, the story works. He masterfully wreaks havoc on Elisha’s sense of agency, and Alex’s imploding view of his life and work.
When I started reading Docile, I was blown away by its devastating and horrifying premise, but even though I alternately found it fascinating and repellent, I was invested in the principal characters – men who caused my feelings to fluctuate wildly between sympathy and frustration, straight up anger, and pity. Unfortunately, after the fast-paced, and engrossing first half, the second half is a complicated mess. Szpara fails to deliver on the promise of the first half, and ignores a Pandora’s Box worth of questions about this fictional world. I recommend Docile with reservations.
Note: this book contains the following – sexual slavery, slavery, sexual assault, discussion of rape, coercion