Book Review: Fever, Lauren DeStefano (2013)

April 3rd, 2013 4:10 pm by Kelly Garbato

Before the Fever Breaks

four out of five stars

Trigger alerts for discussion of rape, violence, and drug use.

In a two-star review of Wither, one Amazon reader commented, “I really just couldn’t stand Rhine at all. She kept saying she wanted to be free. But what point was there to being free. She was safe, and treated well, and it was terrible where she was.”

Freedom or comfort – this is the choice facing Rhine Ellery at the end of Wither. Within the walls of Vaughn’s estate, Rhine will never want for creature comforts; she has more food than she can eat, the latest in technological toys, and a “husband” and sister wives who love her. Somewhere (far, so far!) outside of the gates are her twin brother, Rowan; the Manhattan home they shared with their parents, now five years dead; and, perhaps most importantly, choice: the freedom to choose her own path in life, no matter how hard or short it might be.

If you know exactly how and when you’ll die, which would you choose?

* Warning: minor spoilers ahead! *

Naturally – for The Chemical Garden would be a one-book trilogy otherwise – our hero chooses freedom. Fever picks up where Wither leaves off, with Rhine and Gabriel’s escape from Vaughn’s mansion. The pair wash up in South Carolina, where they’re almost instantaneously kidnapped again: this time by Madame Soleski, an eccentric first generation brothel owner. Built on site of a 21st century carnival, Madame’s “carnival of amour” is an especially absurd version of the scarlet districts Rhine so carefully avoided in Manhattan, complete with a working Ferris wheel and giant striped circus tents. Here, Rhine and Gabriel are drugged with aphrodisiacs and painkillers and forced to perform intimacy for paying customers. Dubbed “Goldenrod” by Madame – who names all her girls after colors – Rhine is deemed “too valuable” to be prostituted outright.

After a thwarted attempt to sell Rhine to a Gatherer – a favored john at the carnival – Vaughn shows up to retrieve his fugitive daughter-in-law. With a little help from Lilac, a kind-hearted prostitute-slash-sex slave (it’s never really clear whether she’s with the Madame voluntarily, although every one of the sex workers arguably operates on varying degrees of non-consent, ranging from outright enslavement to drug-fueled dependency and simple lack of choices) and Jared, a security guard, Rhine and Gabriel manage to climb the electrified fence (always fences, holding the human cattle in) and escape to freedom once again. With Lilac’s young, malformed (“malfie”) daughter Maddie in tow, they make their way to New York in search of Rowan. Instead they find the charred ashes of Rhine’s old home.

A name and address written in crayon in one of Maddie’s ancient books leads them to Grace’s Orphanage – and to Claire and Silas. Here Rhine and Gabriel find refuge, albeit briefly; just as Rhine begins her search for Rowan anew, she’s struck down by what appears to be the virus – three years early, a fate similarly suffered by her sister wife Jenna. Even 1,000+ miles up the coastline, Vaughn still has his hooks in her – literally. When he first purchased Rhine, Jenna, and Cicely, and unbeknownst to them, he implanted his newest human property with trackers, so that he’d always know where they were. This is how he tracks her to New York – and her declining health, along with a not-so-subtle threat against her new family, is how Vaughn coerces Rhine into returning to the mansion.

Fast-paced and full of suspense, I found Fever to be every bit as readable as Wither – though I do admit a slight preference for the latter. Gabriel’s character is never fully developed, and his relationship with Rhine remains murky. While I could understand the two choosing to run away together – clinging together in the stormy sea of their oppression, much like Offred and Nick in The Handmaid’s Tale – the relationship never really advances in Fever. On the plus side, Fever introduced three characters of color: Claire, Lilac, and Maddie – Maddie, who calls to mind Fray’s Loo and will alternately steal and break your heart.

Some reviewers have complained that Fever is more of a “filler” book than anything else; the story ends more or less in the same place it began. “More or less” being the key phrase.

While it’s true that, for all her travels, Rhine doesn’t get far, by Fever’s (near) end she winds up in a much worse place than the wives’ floor: Vaughn’s basement of horrors. Here, she and fellow captives Deidre and Lydia (former “domestics” – child slaves – whose services were no longer required when Rhine escaped and Rose died, respectively) endure inhumane, involuntary experiments, the least of which include testing new drugs with hallucinogenic side effects. They’re sedated, restrained – and artificially inseminated (read: medically raped). Deidre, if you remember from Withered, is all of ten years old. Lydia, also quite young, miscarries several pregnancies before dying – bleeding out on a cold metal table.

Whatever she thought Vaughn capable of, Rhine discovers that the truth is a million times worse.

Fever also gives us a glimpse of the outside world. Through Madame’s “carnival” (too charming a name for a rape factory, I think), we see what other fate awaits the girls snatched up by Gatherers – the life Rhine might have been thrust into under other circumstances. The young women who arrive at Madame’s doorstep travel a number of paths: they’re orphans, Gathered girls, addicts, young women with nowhere else to go. Madame gets or keeps them drugged and sells their shelled bodies to whoever can pay up. Different girls fetch different sums: young and pretty, the Reds are Madame’s favorites; the Blues, with their “murky” and missing teeth, are less expensive; and those girls who lay dying of the virus are sold at a discount. Even in death’s shadow, they are not granted a reprieve. Madame provides illicit birth control for her “best” girls; the babies born to the others become Madame’s property, child laborers and, later if they are girls, sex workers.

While reading Wither, I wondered more than once why any next generation teens would choose to bear children that they’d have little hope of knowing – children who would most certainly grow up to be orphans themselves. In Fever, we learn that President Guiltree outlawed all forms of birth control. A member of the pro-science faction who himself has nine wives, the president wants to keep the birth rate up so that scientists like Vaughn have plenty of warm bodies on which to experiment. While he’s eager to spend a small fortune rebuilding bombed out research labs, no money is allocated toward practical health care: the next generation is a lost cause. It’s also rumored that he actively supports the Gatherers. In any case, there is no justice system to speak of – kidnapping, owning, and vivisecting other humans no longer appear to be criminal activities. The title of president, of course, is now one that’s inherited rather than bestowed upon a democratically elected leader by the people.

Wherever slavery exists, none of us are free. Rhine’s story illustrates how, in such a world, any one of us could be snatched up and tethered to another. Whether your captor is seemingly kind and compassionate, like the naïve Linden – or cruel to the point of monstrosity, like Vaughn and Madame – you remain a piece of property, an object to be bought and sold. A gilded cage still has bars.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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One Response to “Book Review: Fever, Lauren DeStefano (2013)”

  1. Book Review: Sever, Lauren DeStefano (2013) » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] Suffice it to say that those who enjoyed the previous two books in the trilogy – Wither and Fever – will not be disappointed. In fact, if you thought of Fever as mere “filler,” most likely […]

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