Araby Worth just wants to forget.
Forget her dead twin brother and all the things he’ll never do, forget the plague that devestates the city, forget the pain and the misery and all the things that used to be true. For the rich of the city, the answer is the Debauchery Club and others like it, where drugs and drink and dubious pleasures can be had merely for the asking, and for a few precious moments she can simply forget.
But there are some who don’t want her to forget. There’s Will, the doorman at the club, drawn to glittery girls with unnaturally colored hair, who wants to show Araby the good that’s worth living for. And there’s Elliot, the prince’s nephew, who looks to her- the daughter of the scientist who’s made the only significant advances against the plague- for help in staging a revolution. In a city where life is fragile and fleeting, where contamination can help at any point, wracked between the murderous impulses of a crazy prince and the rioting forces of a rogue reverend, Araby has to decide for herself if there are things worth dying for.
And the harder choice- are there things worth living for?
If the title sounds familiar, it’s because it draws its inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s story of the same name. And if I may say, rather does it justice.
It’s a captivating world of extremes. The city and country are never named, there are never any dates given, so it could be anywhere that has a deep harbor and swamp. We get a definite Victorian sense- the basic level of technology, the clothing, some of the remnant attitudes- but it lends flavor rather than nailing us down into a specific mindset. It gives us a city entirely isolated from everything else, nearly floating in time and space and becoming something entirely defined by the plague. In a world where death is imminent, there’s still a huge divide between the rich and the poor. The poor are more susceptible to the disease from hunger and privation, from more constant exposure. The rich are locked away in clean towers, and if the foods aren’t the imported luxuries they were before, they have more than enough. The rich have easy access to the masks developed by Dr. Worth; though not foolproof, the porcelain half-masks significantly reduce the risk of exposure. Where the poor struggle to earn another day, another week, another meal for their children, the rich go play in the clubs where decadence and decay coexist.
It is an incredibly tribute to the skill of the writing that we have so much interest in characters that are generally unsympathetic. For a great deal of the book, Araby is simply adrift. All she wants is oblivion, so she goes along with what she’s told, goes places she doesn’t have a particular interest in going, because as far as she’s concerned her life ended the day her twin brother Finn died. She made a vow that she wouldn’t do anything he wouldn’t get to do, but every day she’s still alive breaks that. She’s cold, inside and out, and the prickly return of warmth is genuinely painful. Despite that, she has a deep goodness to her as well. Even when she tries not to care, even when she can be callous about a starving child’s potential to survive, she does care. She doesn’t think there’s much of a difference she can make, but what small things she can, she does. Small things, like trying to get a mask for a child who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford one. Handing out apples, sending a care package of food.
Her course over the story is captivating, as she slowly emerges from a cage she’s constructed for herself. It’s a terrifying prospect, and she comes into a world where nothing is certain and she doesn’t have any idea who to trust. There’s a core of strength that always had the potential to be there but this is the first time she’s had to rely on it- the first time she’s had to decide to use it.
Elliot, nephew to insane Prince Prospero and older brother to Araby’s best friend April, is a destructive force of nature, even as he’s a large part of the impetus that forces Araby to grow. He’s damaged, perhaps even broken, vacillating between extremes of personality that make it difficult to trust him. He can be ruthless, even admits he shouldn’t be trusted, but there’s something painfully vulnerable about him that’s…endearing is the wrong word, but I think compelling would be apt. He’s dangerous to everyone and everything around him, reckless and intense and not nearly steady enough to place faith in him as the leader of a revolution. That he’s ultimately well-intentioned isn’t exaggerating the truth- that he’s capable of carrying out these intentions without dragging everyone to hell is more in question.
For all that Will is a better person, he’s just as dangerous in his own way. Where Elliot forces Araby to act, Will forces her to feel, and with the ice that coated her heart after her brother’s death, that may be more painful. He’s guardian to two younger siblings- easily my favorite characters of the book- and has the sense and maturity to acknowledge that the allure of glittery girls is too often without substance. His hope that Araby might prove to be more is part of what pushes her to become more. He’s earnest and open- except when he isn’t. For all that he’s willing to speak of, there’s more that he doesn’t mention. His openness is deceptive, but his warmth isn’t.
The politics of the city are both murky and restless. Prince Prospero rules from a castle three hours from the plague-ridden city, but there’s little doubt that his word is both law and death. There’s also no doubt that he is absolutely insane. Araby’s family plays a delicate dance in serving the prince but keeping a safe distance from him, a manuever far more involved than Araby’s ever realized. Prospero makes it a point to control all the scientists of the city, and thus control in some measure access to preventative measures. But there’s another power rising in the city, more sinister than Elliot’s attempts at revolution. Reverend Malcontent appeals to the frightened masses, the panic stretching into terror as more and more come to feel that science has failed them. Religion has been a lost art long enough that Malcontent proposes his own, and he has a large share of followers that are more than willing to shed blood to bring about their vision of grace.
This is an amazing book, moody and dark and atmospheric, full of choice and life in a world of death and despair, and it’s one you don’t want to miss. Release was moved up to 24 April 2012, so put it on your calendars!
And in the meantime, I’ve got an ARC up for grabs. All you have to do is answer this question in the comments: what classic book or story would you love to see in a YA retelling? For example, I’d love to see a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s original The Little Mermaid, complete with tragic ending.Added 3.23.12- ARC will also be accompanied by fun swag from Bethany Griffin! In light of this, entries will be extended through 3 April 2012.
Until next time~