Initial reaction:Before I start this review, I want to clarify a few things. First, I’ve read the whole of this novel. I’m not judging it on the cover (though I think in the measure of this review, I’d like to talk about that separately), and I’m not judging it on just the premise alone – I read the entire book. Technically I read this book twice if I count the hour long read that I zipped through to see what would happen with it (this was in a copy loaned to me at first, but then when NetGalley approved me, I returned the copy and went by the NG’s e-copy to make my notes and highlights), and then another time for clarity of details. I’ve taken notes, I’ve highlighted my e-copy to include excerpts and statements in the following review. So I’ve been through the whole of this with a patient eye. Probably too patient, and probably moreso than many of my peers would probably be if they knew what was in this book.
Second, I’m a woman of color, and an avid reader. I’m not one to skirt talking about racial issues and the harsh realities that people of color face each day. I think being able to recognize multiculturalism in our society is an important thing, and talking about racial/cultural differences and hardships and being able to come to terms with them comprise much more than talking about the differences in our skin tones.
So, Victoria Foyt writes a YA novel that promises to “turn the tables” on racism. To make a young adult audience understand that there’s more to a person than just their race. She aims to create a novel that approaches racial attitudes with sensitivity and fresh insight.
Well, I’m here to say for the record that Ms. Foyt failed miserably on all those counts.
Is there a coming of terms for Eden finding acceptance for who she is? Ultimately yes, but goodness it was a rocky road of ill description to get there, and it manages to insult multiple minority groups in the process (Thank you for thoroughly insulting African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, the Huaorani people, Aztec culture, among other groups). I would not recommend this for a YA audience, to be honest, and I’m going to outline just how badly it comes across. The characters are flat, the worldbuilding is lazy, the research and science is haphazardly drawn, the handling of racial issues I can’t even begin to say how mediocre they came across, and the premise/execution is not only incendiary, but also misogynistic and culturally inaccurate, with many elements thrown together without much rhyme or reason. Much of the narrative is naive, completely skewed, and I was not only offended, but horrified at the level of ignorance.
This by no means a reflection of reality or even a plausible future. It’s drivel.
In due perspective, if this book is any reflection upon the author’s ideas on racial relations, cultural expansion and love in today’s culture, I think Ms. Foyt has a long path of learning to do.
I’m going to be personal for a quick before diving headfirst into this review. This is the hardest review I’ve ever had to write, and as such it’s difficult to know where to begin with Foyt’s work. I don’t get into the habit of telling people what or how to write, but it comes with the territory that if you write on a subject of any tonality – especially if you’re dealing with tough issues like racism, prejudice, and establishing cultural histories in a constructive manner – you have to be knowledgeable and sensitive to your subject(s).
I believe that Victoria Foyt lacks understanding of any of the cultural histories that she expounds upon in this book. Her point on using the book as a way to illustrate how racism hurts and how to come terms with loving one’s own identity is mostly lost with how disconnected it is with its subject matter. It’s as if she looked on Wikipedia and said “Ooh, here’s an indigenous tribe (Huaorani), and I’ll pick from these groups (i.e. Aztec), and I think I’ll put this cultural historical backdrop with this other one, mix it up and see what happens. Ta-da! I’m ‘cultural’!”
That’s clearly no way to go about it. It’s never a good idea to approach dealing with racial/cultural acceptance by perpetuating fears, clichés and practicing tunnel vision when it comes to the crude perception, description and depiction of ANY group. Foyt, unfortunately, violates all of those respective dimensions. I struggle between thinking whether she was aware of this, or if she really approached it without knowing just how incendiary it would come across. It’s difficult to say she was completely unaware of them because the elements are so infuriating and blatant.
If you take the book by it’s barest bones, taking out the racist/misogynistic/non-sensical language – it progresses as a very formulaic YA dystopian romance. Girl resides in post-apocalyptic society ravaged by a natural disaster that decimates the population. Girl is among the minority living under the rule of an oppressive majority, even among some who seek to eliminate her kind. Girl seeks to escape with her father – who’s working towards a way to live in the society against the dictations of the oppressive majority rule and societal limitations. Girl meets member of the majority that she absolutely hates and doesn’t understand, but then she comes to *love* him by some turns of events. And Girl must join forces with that Majority member to overcome obstacles to their plight and their *love*. By the end, Girl comes to accept her role in the world, comes to find happiness with those she’s aligned with, and moves forward to the next plight of her journey. The end.
Sounds harmless if you think about it that way, right? I almost wish it had become another story entirely, because those bare bones aren’t a bad format, but the details of the story are ultimately what will matter in terms of how the story comes across.
Let’s consider the other elements, starting with the cover and how it ties in with the story. Horrid Photoshop attempt aside (and I would not have picked up this on the cover alone – it’s just not flattering), there’s a lot about this cover that does tie in with the story. I can’t hide the fact I’m offended by it, both with the premise and collective story behind me. I said this once in another review I wrote (via “League of Strays” by Schulman), but I think it bears repeating here: “…the one thing that should be clear is that a person of any age should never feel afraid enough to hide who they are – no matter what the dimension entails – gender, age, race, orientation, religion – what have you.”
In this case, the storyline deals with race and how a girl has to hide herself to be a part of another race in order to blend and abide by the terms of her society. I’ll leave you to think on that while I move to the other elements of the cover. The eyes above the half-white, half-“disguised” girl are those belonging to a jaguar, which is the partial identity of one of the “majority” members that the main character comes into company with during the story. And finally – the leaves represent the jungle/forest that the story eventually transitions to.
I’m going to take extra care in saying this next bit. Let me explain this because the author may not have intended to do it and may defend it in every argument she makes to kingdom come, but the implications are that on the cover and IN the collective story – it uses Blackface and mocks the experiences of people of color. This whole book is a mockery of the experiences of people of color – of multiple groups of people of color.
You might be thinking, “Rose, why would you say these things when it’s obvious that the author says she’s speaking against racism in this book?” Well, let’s get into the specifics of the story, out from the bare bones.
17- year old Eden Newman is the protagonist of this book – the girl showcased on the cover. There’s no subtlety in her naming – it draws upon Creationist allusions in Christianity, which means somewhere down the road, the creation of a new race is probably going to have something to do with Eden. This is further asserted with Eden’s appointed role in this dystopian society – she has to find someone to mate with before her 18th birthday or else be cut off from the limited resources in the environment desolated by solar overheating. The problem, in Eden’s view and with her role in the respective society, is that she’s a “Pearl”, the pejorative for Caucasians in this story. There are other specific pejoratives in the story as well – “Coal” for Black, “Amber” for Asians, “Tiger Eye” for Latinos. “Cotton” even for Albinos. *rolls eyes*
I have a problem with the use of slurs in this book, not just for the naming but for their respective, and I would say inaccurate, function in this work. For one, slurs are intended to dehumanize and degrade the person or group they’re oriented toward. They are supposed to harm/hurt. “Cotton” and “Coal” – in the real world, have been used as pejoratives before, with various combinations. If the author had bothered to do her research (even taking as much as 2 minutes to search on Google) on the etymology of slurs and where some of them are derived, maybe – just maybe, she would know how they function. Precious stones are NOT slurs. And I don’t buy the explanation Foyt gave in the aftermath of criticisms of this. Quoted from the author’s post:
“Why are whites called Pearls, while blacks are called Coals? Imagine a gritty, post-apocalyptic world where all that matters is survival. What good will a pearl do you when luxury items have no use? Coal has energy, fire, and real value. It is durable and strong, not easily crushed like a pearl. Pearl is a pejorative term here. Coals are admired. Coals oppress Pearls because they fear that those with light skin will add to a population unable to survive “The Heat,” and drain meager resources. ”
Three counterarguments to this: first, this isn’t just a black/white issue – Why were the other races given their respective naming in measure of precious stones? That was never explained in the book – not for function nor offending context (much like neither Coal or Pearl were explained – if your book doesn’t explain these things, it’s a bad sign.). Second, isn’t it contradictory for a slur against a respective group to have such a championing meaning? If the term “Coal” is a pejorative AGAINST the race it’s intended for, and Eden uses it AGAINST the group she hates, why is it that the meaning is actually COMPLIMENTING their role in the society? Sense this does not make. (Even still, the argument Foyt makes with coals vs. pearls is inaccurate with respect to their physical properties.)
Third: if these identifications are meant to be slurs – why are they championed as identification for these groups than what they’re actual names are concerned? Does everyone in this society identify by the slurs used against them, or is Eden just that racist? If it’s an actual “slur” as it’s intended, then maybe she would realize how wrong it was once she ended up with the man she supposedly loved, because she would know its use would be offensive, just as much as Pearl was when used against her.
Even with these considerations, I was far more offended by the frequent uses of “bitch” towards women in this book and the italicized use of “them” in this book than some of the so-called slurs that are used. Eden’s the target of one of those uses of “bitch”, but the others are used by Eden to describe her “Coal” female superiors among others. For example:
“That bitch Ashina was fifteen minutes late, and Eden wanted her break.” (Chapter 1, not really characteristic of someone who’s in fear for her life and has dwindling self worth in the presence of the majority rule, is it?)
“Was the bitch trying to set her up?” (Chapter 7, Eden referring to Ashina yet again…)
“Jamal and that bitch were in cahoots?” (Chapter 7, Eden reflecting on Jamal’s – a “Coal” she admired and trusted at one point in the story – betrayal and referring to Ashina, AGAIN.)
“Damn Bramford for picking the lock on her heart. Damn the hunger the kiss had awoken in her. And damn that conniving selfish bitch, Rebecca.” (Chapter 31 – Eden falling in love with her “Coal” counterpart, Bramford – who’s actually helping Eden out of the oppressive society alongside Eden’s father. Rebecca is Bramford’s former DECEASED lover, who Eden is jealous of, though it should be noted that Rebecca betrayed Bramford. Eden actually acts for a time in the guise of Rebecca as to fool Bramford and “make him suffer”. I’m not even going there. I just can’t.)
Then there are the uses of the italicized them, which are patronizing enough towards “Coals”. They’re supposed to be the oppressive majority in this book, but I couldn’t help but think how insufferable Eden was with her use of these terms. It was hard to feel sympathy because Eden sounds like a spoiled brat instead of someone who’s suffering under oppressive rule. Examples:
“And yet if Eden were one of them, she would be safe.” (Chapter 1, Eden claims she wants to be a part of the majority because she thinks they’re more “beautiful” and “safe”, but this comes across as patronizing.)
“Eden flinched. One of them was touching her.” (Chapter 1. Sure, Ms. Foyt. You’re writing about racial relations and understanding prejudice, and yet you have one of them touching the character and and inciting fear and disgust at the gesture from Eden’s viewpoint. Seriously, this isn’t right.)
“She suspected that every Coal passerby wanted to hurt her, though the statistical odds against that were high. And her sensors, which automatically translated the babel of foreign languages into English, the official language, told her it wasn’t true. Still she could never shake the fear of being around so many of them.” (Chapter 3)
The last one I’m quoting as stand alone because it was the one that shook me the most, though there are a total of about 9 instances in the text where them used, probably in the first five or six chapters. It presumes the assimilation of languages in this supposed distant future, plus establishes a fear factor against another race than hers in this supposed future. How is this not an example of Eden being prejudiced herself? How the heck is this turning the tables on racism?
It should be noted that Foyt had many chances to show why the different divisions between these groups were, and to delve into the complexity of the hatred and dissention among them. She didn’t do that.
I’m getting a little ahead of myself because I haven’t expounded on the direction which the story takes from it’s initial grounds, but rather trying to outline its constructional problems. So now I’m going to take a bit to talk about the characters and progressive plot.
We’ve met Eden and know her aim in the society is to mate and survive in her respective society according to the “rules” established, but there are other people around her who are also in her inner circles. There’s her father, who just so happens to be a genius “Pearl” scientist who’s trying to find ways of surviving the “Heat” so they can emerge from their underground society and live among the realm without being under the rule of the “Coal” majority. There’s also Bramford, a high ranking member of the majority class of “Coals”, who secretly helps Eden and her father both by subjecting himself to experiments that mess with this DNA and are supposed to be adaptations that will help them live on the surface.
The scientific explanations in this book are bogus, if even in just the premise alone. I don’t know if Foyt knew about the existence of “melanin theory” and how it’s been knocked down many times as unscientific and culturally incendiary (especially in how it contributes to racism within and outside of their respective populations), but this book plays into that non-theory very heavily. While it is true that melanin does act to counter effects of UV rays from the sun, it’s not an absolute shield. The effects of global warming as being a “cautionary warning” in this book are noted, but it’s not a heavy theme. It’s just a plot device. Not to mention the book completely skirts the issue of how adaptation comes into play when residing in a specific environment, and how melanocytes adjust melanin production depending on the climate one lives, and that CAN shift with generational adaptations. Still, high melanin count doesn’t mean an absolute protector for people of color. If the elements are enough to where a large population dies from the affects, and it kills life on the surface, then it’s going to be a factor in killing people regardless of their skin tone.
I’m not sure what Foyt was thinking with a lot of the leaps taken in this work. It doesn’t feel realistic even considering the sci-fi/fantasy tag. Trying to also legitimize the science in this by throwing in scientific names for species didn’t help matters much either, I saw right through it and found the alternating names distracting and far too heavily loaded into the work.
In any case, Bramford, Eden, and Eden’s father are working under secrecy, even as there are external forces at work in the society that threaten them. Eden’s actions get them into trouble when she spills secret information to someone she thought was an ally (Jamal, a “Coal” she thought was a potential mate). Adding to the complication are a group called the FFA, who champion eliminating all “Pearls” from existence *rolls eyes*. There’s really not much about the FFA to really note their respective role in the story.
Eventually, the plot shifts to where they have to escape the lab, and Bramford, as a result of the experiments becomes a half man/half jaguar adapting to the environment. I guess Foyt was right on one note about this being a “Beauty and the Beast” love story, but it’s so farfetched and plays right into so many racial stereotypes. It’s not even subtle. I never knew the point where Eden really shifted into loving Bramford. It was more like a light switch that suddenly came on in the progression of the story. Eventually Eden finds herself in the company of the rainforest and the Huaorani (which…I don’t understand how a rainforest would be able to survive some of the disaster elements this book gave from the beginning? Another point of contradiction.)
Misrepresenting the Huaorani culture and Aztec histories, as well as trying to blend Christian elements within it or whatever else the author was trying to do with it threw my patience out the window. I read on to the end, but didn’t have any investment in the characters to care. even when it eventually reaches it’s noted resolution and “lesson”.
I’m going to stop here, because there are far too many problems in this work to be able to write about in the mishandling of racial issues and cultural expansion. It’s incredibly patronizing to people of color on multiple standpoints, for someone supposedly writing to be against racist principles and establish cultural understanding, it doesn’t help Foyt’s case. This needed a far more able, sensitive, and knowledgeable voice to carry the respective story.
I would not recommend this book for anyone, let alone a YA audience.
Overall score: 0.5/5
Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from Sand Dollar Press/Bookmasters.