The city has become a dark place since the Affliction came. The vast majority of the population died and even now the plague carts stalk the streets of the poor quarters, collecting the ever growing number of dead. The outside world has been lost, for all anyone knows the city may be the last place where humans still live in the world.
The Prince rules as a tyrant, his draconian whims carried out as he funnels wealth, resources and supplies to the select few within his inner circles. People he considers useful he controls through threats, his army and kidnapping their families: including the scientist who invented the masks – the only thing that can guarantee safety from the Affliction if worn all the time. In the street, riots tear up the slowly decaying city a buildings fall to ruins. The poor without work, with little food and no money for the expensive masks, struggle to exist.
Araby lives a life of considerable privilege in this world, with wealth and standing, but no happiness. Her father is obsessed with his work, her mother tormented by fragile nerves and Araby living constantly shadowed by her twin’s death. She lives a shallow life constantly seeking distraction from her memories, from her pain, from who she is – seeking drugs and alcohol and petty pleasures to find oblivion. But she has friends who slowly pull her out of her shell – through need or affection – and they’re far more involved in the world, and changing it, than she imagined.
This book is dark, grim and gritty. There’s not a lot of hope, the scene is one of despair and pain and loss and that doesn’t let up for much of the book. We get people desperately fighting to change things, but the loss is higher than the gain, the cost is hard and hope is hard to find. People die – they’ve died in enormous, near extinction numbers, they continue to die every day. The city, perhaps the world if there is any world left, is reduced to a desperate, lawless, oppressive state, subject to furious mobs and the draconian whims of a brutal ruler.
It’s not very fluffy. Even with the love triangle, it isn’t fluffy – and I don’t think it should be. It’s grim and shouldn’t be lightened, the subject and world don’t suit lightness and it would be jarring - and awfully self-absorbed – if it did. It doesn’t let up – and it shouldn’t, it’s really well maintained and keeps the sense of the place and the horror firmly fixed with it. The setting is truly excellent and exceedingly well written
In keeping with the scene, the protagonist, Araby, is similarly dark and depressed. She has lost her twin to the plague and she blames herself – in fact, blaming herself is pretty common for Araby. She made a vow never to experience anything her dead brother never had chance to – honouring him by denying herself his experiences, punishing herself for his death. She seeks oblivion, brief escapes from the world and her pain by taking drugs and alcohol. She thinks often of suicide and her friends and family worry about her happiness. She is well written in accordance to the book’s writing style – she fits the setting and she fits her world – she has every reason to feel depressed and hopeless and the writing conveys the full sense of this terrible bleakness she feels.
But I did find her extremely hard to identify with or get behind. She is so invested in her grief and loss, seeking oblivion that it becomes hard to get to know her. This is especially hard when she’s surrounded by people who, it seems, are fighting to make a difference or protect the people they love while Araby is turned inwards entirely with her grief and pain. She is a well written character within that and it really does present what she is going through, but I can’t help but feel that it would have been more interesting to follow Will or Elliot or even April than Araby, especially since there’s apparently a lot more to the story we just don’t know – and may have known far more following one of the more active characters.
This improves somewhat as the story progresses and she finds reasons to live again. Araby also becomes a more active participant in the story, but still, her activity is so often based on the wishes and desires of others. She starts to help Elliot because he convinces her of the worthiness of his cause - but she doesn’t get involved in his cause. He comes to her with a mission, she completes it, then she falls back again, there seems to be no engagement from her. I think the only independent action she has is trying to help Will’s family unprompted, but it still feels so little. Even that was not a manoeuvre she could complete without being saved and rescued. but it’s still hard because we end up then with a classic love triangle.
I’m not a lover of love triangles, I feel they’ve been done a lot and there’s rarely anything new to add – especially since most love triangles are either full of 2 men snarling at each other over a woman and often show the very obvious ending from the very beginning. I will say this love triangle is different in some ways – while there is a very obvious choice and preference for Will through much of the book, that does change and Elliot definitely becomes a reasonable possibility. It isn’t a love triangle where the ending is obviously written in stone, even though there are strong indications. So, as far as love triangles go, this was pretty well done – even with Elliot and Will snarling at each other.
Inclusionwise this book is, sadly, completely erased of minorities – which I unfortunately expected with a dystopian steampunk. It did have some excellent class commentary though. While the rich enjoy balls and distractions – and go to clubs where they can indulge in sex and drugs and alcohol, the poor struggle to find enough to eat. Araby has several of the masks that are essential to avoid the plague, different masks for different occasions. Yet the poor save up money for months, even years, to get one single mask for their kids so they can go outside safely. It’s a gross representation of how the difference in health care, in standard of living and general lives are different depending on class – down to their basic chance of survival.
I do have an issue with Araby’s drug taking. She takes drugs to find oblivion in the beginning of the book and several times during – and it’s apparently a habit. And then… she just stops. No withdrawal, no more than a brief “oh I want it” musing.
I won’t say I enjoyed this book, but I didn’t dislike it either. I just think there could have been a wonderful story of gritty survival from Will’s eyes, or desperate revolution from Elliot’s eyes, or cunning planning and drive through April’s eyes – instead we see this world, these major events, through Araby’s eyes.