Genetic tinkering has created a population that is super-long lived and healthy. That is for one generation. But as subsequent generations are born, this same genetic mutation causes them to die very young, with tuberculosis-type symptoms such as coughing up blood. Young women all die at age twenty and young men at age twenty-five.
This state of affairs leads to a dystopian world where girls are kidnapped off the streets and forced into polygamous marriages to wealthy young men. Though vigilant, at sixteen, Rhine is stolen from the life she knows with her twin brother, and forced to marry Linden Ashby along with two other sister wives as Linden’s first wife, the love of his life, lies dying in another room. Though life with Linden is easy compared to her previous existence, Rhine wants to escape back to her brother, Rowan. As she sets about devising a plan, she becomes more entangled—and in love—with her servant, Gabriel.
Although Wither qualifies as science fiction, I think it has more appeal to the fantasy or romance fan. No plausible explanations are given for the fact that people’s genetic makeup is suddenly killing them off at an exact age. There has been a war, which is supposed to have broken up all the continents except North America. How? Chemicals in the air are toxic. There are all kinds of dystopian features that simply have no explanation. This new world is not very carefully structured.
That said, there’s much for the romance/fantasy fan to enjoy here as characterization and relationships are its stronger features. Rhine’s sympathy for her husband Linden, who is naïve (too much so for me to credit) and has no knowledge of the evil designs of his father, the Housemaster Vaughn; her empathy for her sister wives, and her concern for the dying first wife, Rose; her fear of her father-in-law, Vaughn, who is something of a mad scientist; and her ability to pretend to be happy while plotting a way back to her old life.
Some of the details of the relationship between Linden and Rhine are pretty implausible. Although she is the favorite of the three new wives, and Linden claims to love her, she manages for many months to have no sexual relationship with him just by saying things like ‘let’s take a walk.’ Still, he doesn’t suspect that she isn’t in love with him. I suspect this is because the reader will want Rhine to find her true love, and it appears that Gabriel is that guy.
What I would have loved in this story isn’t addressed. Rhine’s life with her brother was very rough. Each night, one of them had to stay awake guarding the house from the many predators and orphans who sought food and shelter. Once, Rowan killed a burglar, who may have intended to capture Rhine and sell her. As girls are often grabbed off the street, Rhine’s every moment must be on high alert. Yet, once she is a virtual prisoner in Housemaster Vaughn’s palace, she always thinks back on her ‘freedom.’ When Rhine, as the favorite of Linden’s wives, gets to go out with him to parties, her older sister wife always tells her, “Say hello to freedom for me.” But none of them were really free before. It seemed more like the issue was whether she would die standing—fighting for freedom that she didn’t ever have—or live (in luxury) on her knees. Her desire isn’t to get back to freedom, but to reenter a battlefield. Yet that isn’t discussed at all. And I so would have liked Rhine’s take on that.
Wither is the first in The Chemical Garden Trilogy.