I borrowed this from my library’s fairly limited selection of ebooks (because I was too lazy to leave the house and actually go to the library). Did you know libraries often have ebooks? I feel like it’s an underutilised resource, but if they’re anything like my library, they don’t have all that many and you have to read them on your phone using the Libby app, which isn’t great for someone with light-related migraines. (Thanks, eyeball demon.)
Anyway. That was a digression.
I liked the first half of this book a lot. The protagonist, Wren, is my favourite kind of emotionless antihero who kills people and occasionally feels bad about it but not in the way an actual functional person would. I’m a sucker for assassins and the like — I wrote a blog post about it a few weeks back.
Okay, so she’s not exactly human. She’s a Reboot — she died, and due to a virus, came back slightly superpowered and borderline evil. They’re not zombies, though you’d be forgiven from thinking they were, not least because there’s a subplot that involves a desire to eat human flesh. Mostly, they’re like humans, minus the emotions.
Of course, it emerges that Wren isn’t as emotionless as everybody thought, and here is where I started to like the book a lot less. Not because I wanted her to remain emotionless — her awkwardly expressed affection for her cellmate Ever was something I enjoyed about her characterisation — but because of how those humanising emotions were depicted.
You see, this is when she starts to experience sexual attraction for the first time. She remarks that Ever would be delighted if she heard about this: “Her eyes would have lit up with the hope that I was a real person after all.” This idea is pervasive: that somehow, by feeling lust/love for another character, Wren proves she isn’t a monster. That she’s human after all.
And you know what? As an asexual reader I’m pretty sick of that narrative. Just for once, can the humanising emotion NOT be about sex? Can we have a monstrous character who proves their innate humanity by their deep platonic affection for a friend? Can we not act like the thing that makes you human is wanting to sleep with someone? Because what I get from that is that you think I’m some kind of emotionless monster (or robot, sometimes I get to be a robot), and that’s… getting really old, you know?
Also, once the romance subplot kicked in, Wren actually became a much less interesting character. It seemed like she went from emotionless to having way too many feelings in no time at all, and I didn’t feel that was entirely convincing for her as a character. I would’ve liked the romance a lot better if it was more gradual and awkward, instead of 0-60 (with 60 being constant kissing and declarations of the impossibility of life without the other person) in no time whatsoever, you know?
That was frustrating, because up until then, I’d been really enjoying the book. I liked the worldbuilding, and the idea of this virus; I liked the Reboots as a concept. And, as mentioned, I’m a sucker for antiheroes. I would happily have read a whole book about Wren training Callum (a new and lower-level Reboot), and all the dangers that would have entailed. In fact, it would have been an interesting subversion of tropes. Instead of a YA novel about being the trainee in a life-or-death situation, it could’ve been a story from the POV of the trainer. There’s a daring escape and a lot more drama later on, which could definitely have been integrated, but just… minus all the romance stuff in the middle, please?
I also thought at first that it might make a good comparative title for one of my own books (mostly because it features an emotionless antihero with a poor grasp on morals), but the love story sort of put paid to that.
Sigh. So much potential. And so much about it that was still enjoyable. But, yunno, you don’t have to feel sexual attraction to be a ‘real person’, and I found Wren a lot more relatable when she still thought kissing was weird and unappealing. Once she decided it was great, my interest waned.
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