I was utterly thrilled to get a copy of Julia Whicker’s Wonderblood for review, as it seemed like it would be right up my alley. I’m a huge fan of dystopian fiction, rival queens, and anything having to do with carnivals, and this book contained all of those elements. Unfortunately though, I was unable to immerse myself in the story, and I came away feeling quite disappointed.
This is a hard book to describe, not because I want to avoid spoilers, but because parts of the plot just don’t make a lot of sense. I reread several sections in hopes of gaining a clearer picture of things, but it didn’t help. So, if you find yourself mystified by parts of this review, I can only say that’s how I felt while reading the book.
The novel is set five hundred years in the future. A disease known as Bent Head, which seems to bear some resemblance to Mad Cow Disease, has ravaged the land, leaving the world pretty close to barren. Survivors of the illness have banded together into nomadic tribes who constantly fight one another for supremacy and survival. Resources are at an all-time low, so living conditions are pretty poor, but most people are convinced that one day a fleet of space shuttles will descend from the sky to save those who have proven themselves to be worthy of their salvation. Exactly what it takes to be considered worthy wasn’t fully clear to me, but it seems to have a great deal to do with being incredibly savage and bloodthirsty.
Our main character is a young girl named Aurora, who lives with her brother who seems to be the leader of their tribe. To her way of thinking, there’s not much that sets her apart from the other girls and women in her community, so she’s stunned when the chief of an extremely powerful tribe invades her brother’s camp and claims Aurora as his bride. She’s only fourteen, and she has a hard time with the idea that she’s now married to a man close to three times her age, but no one else seems at all disturbed by this, and Aurora eventually realizes that she has no choice in the matter and settles in as the wife of one of the land’s most powerful warriors.
Soon after her marriage, Aurora learns of a prophecy that will somehow make her a queen. The particulars were pretty hard to make out, but I think her husband’s great prowess as a warrior and the immense amount of honor he is owed is going to make him king at some point in the not-too-distant future, and she, his pretty, biddable young wife, will therefore be crowned queen. Aurora can’t fully grasp the implications of all of this, but she does understand that being queen will grant her a life far greater than anything she has ever dreamed of. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who are less than thrilled by Aurora’s good fortune, and she soon finds herself embroiled in a battle not all that different from those her husband wages on a weekly basis. True, she and the women who oppose her aren’t going after one another with swords and pikes, but they are incredibly brutal individuals who will let literally nothing stand in the way of what they think they deserve.
The world in which this novel is set is so incredibly bleak as to make it really hard to read about. I’m used to a certain amount of darkness in my reading, but this is above and beyond most of what I’ve recently encountered. Everyone exists in a sort of survival mode that requires them to be ready for violence at a second’s notice, and the author doesn’t hesitate to describe the brutality they inflict upon one another in great detail. There are a lot of references to people beheading their enemies and carrying the heads around on pikes as a way of warding off evil spirits, something that made me feel sick to my-stomach on more than a few occasions. So, if you’re looking for a bit of light reading to help you chase away the doom and gloom of your daily life, you definitely won’t find it here.
Aurora is supposedly our main character, but we’re never allowed to really know her; something about Ms. Whicker’s writing made me feel as if the characters, Aurora included, were kept at a distance. Perhaps seeing things from several distinct points of view might have been helpful. As it is, we are treated to a wide variety of different perspectives, but none of the characters is developed enough to make them seem like real people with hopes and dreams that set them apart from the rest of the cast. In fact, it’s often hard to tell whose point of view we’re getting at any given time. They all just sort of blend together in an disorganized mess.
It would have been helpful to learn more about Bent Head disease and how it managed to decimate the world. Some vague references are made to a time before Bent Head, but they don’t do much to fill in the gaps. It’s almost as if the reader is expected to have some prior knowledge of the world and the events that shaped it, but I’m not sure how that’s possible since Wonderblood is Ms. Whicker’s début novel.
In short, this is one of those books that didn’t end up being nearly as good as its synopsis made it sound. The basic plotline was intriguing, but the execution made it difficult to get through, and it’s a book I am unable to recommend.
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