Monday, July 15, 2013

Enclave & Outpost (Razorland Series #1 and #2) - Ann Aguirre

 Before I start this review, I just wanted to note that my younger readers (or those of you who are squeamish) may not want to read this review and especially the book because it deals with some very, very dark subjects.  This is also a suuuuuper long review (I ended up summarizing a good bit of the novels which I ordinarily try not to do), so if you want to know about the books without having to read the entire review, skip down to the bit where I summarize my feelings in the Overall section.

I read both of these books in one night (as well as 1.5, but it’s just a shorter story following Deuce’s bffs, so I won’t go into it here)!  I love the world that Aguirre sets up in our post apocalyptic future (and not one that far in the future I might add).   I honestly think her world building is probably my favourite part of the books, particularly in the first book.  I also enjoyed her characters, even if I didn’t necessarily like them all as people.  While at a first glance they might not appear to bring anything new to the table, they are easy to relate to and bring up issues about blame and forgiveness that I thought were really interesting and that I don’t often find in YA fantasy.

The first book opens with a quick background on where humans are now.  Small communities are spread underground, and they have to have very strict control on population and hygiene because communities are easily wiped out with lack of food and disease.  There are three categories people are sorted into when they come of age: Breeder, Builder, and Hunter, each with more prestige attached respectively.  Deuce has always known she wants to be a Hunter, a job that requires members to protect the community from what we would call zombies, as well as scavenge for any food in the tunnels.  Each hunter works with a partner, and Deuce is paired up with Fade, the only person in the community who was brought in as an outsider (they allowed him to live because he survived for a few years on his own without help, and was therefore seen as useful to the community).  Until she was paired with him, she never questioned the rules her community set, and this questioning gets both of them exiled to the Topside, which is seen as a death sentence.
While I can see the rules coming off as strict and unreasonable, for the most part I actually agreed with the community leaders, and I think that is part of the reason why the book isn’t one I’d put on my favourites list.  When survival is the only thing you can think of, putting people in strict roles and not allowing marriage for love, only allowing certain people to have children…yes it seems despicable.  But communities that close to complete destruction simply don’t have the capability to support more members.  Of course, when (spoilers), obviously things have gone too far.  So again, while I would never wish the lifestyle on this community on anyone, I also feel like it is feasible this is how communities would be run after an apocalyptic event like the one in their world, and that a lot of knowledge would be lost.

In the middle of the first part of the book we are introduced to a community of people Deuce nicknames the “Burrowers”.  They more closely resemble what we would call dwarves (in the physical and mythological personality sense) and have evolved to adapt to their environment.  Not a whole lot of description is given to their community structure, but I loved that Aguirre not only put in varied ways societal structures, she also had people evolve to adapt to the post-apocalyptic world physically, not just socially.  

After Deuce and Fade make it Topside, they stumble into gang territory.  Topside in the city, everything is run by various gangs.  It’s survival of the fittest, and that only applies to boys.  While below, where Deuce is from, people don’t live long likely because of malnutrition and humans being unsuited to living underground, people don’t live long topside because it is eat or be eaten.  Boys never grow to be old because they die brutal, violent deaths.  This is where the story started getting really dark for me.  Girls are seen as objects.  They are rape victims, beaten into total submission to the “men” in the gang.  And not only are they raped, more specifically they are gang raped.  This is the environment Deuce and Fade stumble upon when they are captured by gang members.  

 I don’t want to summarize the whole novel (which is sort of what I’ve done so far I guess haha), but they gain two members to their party:  Tegan and Stalker.  And here is where I got really torn on my feelings on the book and where many of you will get outraged.  Stalker is the leader of the gang that captured Deuce and kept Tegan captive.  Where Tegan was gang-raped and had not one, but TWO still births.  Where Stalker was the ultimate figure of power.  Deuce and Fade force Tegan to travel with Stalker, her only option to simply return to the city and be eaten by Freaks or be forced back as a gang victim.   While Stalker himself did not rape her physically, by leading those who did and making her powerless, in a sense he is still one of her rapists.  And even if he didn’t rape her, that this was common place means he definitely has raped other girls, and as the leader, probably many, many other girls.  Despite this, Deuce feels a connection with him as she too has done unspeakable acts (letting her people kill an 8 year old boy) that she would not have done had she known what she does now.  Stalker was raised in this gang rape culture, and it is the only way he is able to rise to the top.  This book and the next try to explore whether he should be forgiven and whether it was his fault at all.  Those are questions you will have to ask yourself.  That being said, I was disgusted at how easily he IS forgiven in the book, and if you are going to pose those questions, you can’t just pretend that part of the character doesn’t exist.  Even WORSE is when Deuce questions why Tegan didn’t fight until she died instead of being raped.  It is NEVER the victim’s fault.  And this is another reason I am torn – I believe that is how Deuce would react.  At this point she doesn’t understand vulnerability.  Later in the books she admires Tegan for her strength to go on, so this is not a message that continues through the book.  On the other hand, that is a message that should never, never be sent especially in a book aimed at young adults.  I feel like this is either a situation Aguirre should have left out of the books, or if Aguirre felt that including it was important she should have dealt with the situation using a great deal more finesse than she did.

The first book ends where the second book begins – the third civilization we deal with.  This one is a return to a much more religious time.  Women’s roles have been dealt a blow that returned us back centuries.  There is much gossip because of Deuce’s lack of education, dress, and her skills at fighting.  Women are expected to be charming and pretty, nothing more.  Deuce finally finds a family and gains quite a few more traits that make her more human and likeable.  The bulk of discovery about the Freaks’ evolution is described here, and there is a brief love triangle.  By the end of the book Deuce has been exiled due to superstitious beliefs, especially perpetuated by the women in the community who are threatened by Deuce’s challenge to their accepted social roles.  This is another area where I was frustrated.  To my memory, it is almost entirely the women in society who act this way.  There are a few men who believe that Deuce dressing as a man and fighting makes her wanton, but they are not in positions of power the way the women are.  All the men in positions of power support Deuce and act rationally, whereas most of the women don't.  I kind of find that offensive, that this blow to feminism appears to be perpetuated by women.  I don’t disagree that some women WOULD act this way, but I find it hard to believe men would be more welcoming to this change than women.  The only woman I remember accepting Deuce as she is, is her mother figure, and she does that lovingly, but reluctantly.  She is shunned by the rest of the women in society.

Throughout the series they show the evolution of the Freaks.  They begin as what we expect of zombies - mindless humanoid creatures who feast on human flesh, and their own flesh if one of their own kind is injured.  But then they start showing signs of sentience – creating war and ambush strategies, their own villages and social structures, as well as expressing facial emotions.  Especially in the second book they start to show what appear to be true hatred towards human beings as a race, seeing us as mortal enemies (a sentiment that is returned wholeheartedly).  Freaks now have families – yes even little Freak children and wives. This poses a whole new batch of morality issues that weren’t there before.   With the dawn of more human attributes and a definite ability to make conscious decisions as a human would, does this change them from being just evil (to humans anyway) beings?


I thought the world building in this was amazing.  The questions asked about what makes us human, and what is unforgivable were very thought provoking.  That being said, the way rape and rape culture was dealt with especially in the above questions were…almost unforgiveable.  While I applaud Aguirre for trying to question how much Stalker was at fault, his transgressions were too easily forgiven, and more appallingly, Deuce originally sees the victim at fault.  The way women are dealt with outside of Deuce in the last two cultures we encounter are….horrifying and frustrating respectively.  
I enjoyed the books, particularly for the outstanding world building, and the action and adventure aspects were excellent as well.  If my above statements about women sound like you wouldn’t be able to get beyond these scenarios, then this series is not one for you.

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