One of the great tragedies of reviewing is that bad books always give me more to say. When I have an actual good book, I just can’t find the snark. Hopefully, it is possible for me to be interesting without making fun of something. However, I promise nothing. The Chemical Garden Trilogy is one of these happy few; they are the sort of books I have only good things to say about.
The trilogy begins with Wither. The plot: Rhine lives in an abandoned world plagued by genetic engineering gone haywire. Boys and girls are immune to most major diseases, but they only live to 25 and 20, respectively. In this land, girls are prized for reproduction and are often kidnapped for use in harems for the rich–as well as less savory fates like prostitution. Guess what happens to Rhine?
I don’t remember why I decided to buy Wither, but I don’t regret the decision. Usually, harems aren’t my thing, but the post-apocalyptic setting appealed to me. On paper, it doesn’t sound all that original, but I’ve always believed execution is everything, and it doesn’t disappoint here. Take the author’s handling of harems, for example. Normally, I hate harems because all the girls ever seem to do is fight over some guy who’s not worth it half the time. Not so here. In Chemical Garden, the girls stick together. In the series, each woman gets her own story and female friendship is far more important than the romance arcs. The most amazing thing of all? I wasn’t bored once.
Um, yes, I tend to get very put out if I don’t get a properly angsty and/or cute helping of romance in my weekly dose of YA. Part of it, I think, is that romance is automatically emotionally engaging. Most romantic relationships carry a formula, some more subtle than others. The beauty of a love story is its familiarity. We grow attached to character types and situations, and while we don’t want the same story, we DO appreciate variations on tropes we love. I’m not saying writing romance is easy, far from it, but I do believe romance has a better chance of gaining reader investment simply because we have so many formulas for different types of relationships. Making platonic relationships engaging can be harder, which is why I was so impressed when I was able to dive into the third one, which barely included any love. Instant emotional investment without romance is rare for me, I am ashamed to say.
Possibly, I barely noticed the absence of romance because the girls all had individual personalities. There’s Rhine, who just wants to find her brother and feels deeply conflicted about the luxury and good treatment she receives, Jenna, who trusts no one and escapes through bad romance novels, and Cecily, a spoiled brat who is possibly the strongest of them all. Even though I didn’t start out liking all the characters, I felt each of their deaths by the end (don’t worry, not all of them died).
However: This series gave me a rough ride. Some of the medical experiments forced me to stop reading temporarily, and it took me an entire year to work up the courage to buy the third one. But I got it for Christmas, after which I let it sit–dreading more medical experiments. Finally, I gritted my teeth one night and read a few pages. The next morning, I finished it in four hours with my heart full and my eyes wet.
This series may not be for everyone, but it certainly was for me.