Book Review: Stung, Bethany Wiggins (2013)

June 5th, 2013 4:20 pm by Kelly Garbato

“Sleeping Beauty” Meets “28 Days Later”

three out of five stars

Trigger alert for discussions of rape; also, minor spoilers ahead!

In an ill-fated attempt to save the world’s endangered bee populations – and prevent the inevitable global famine which would surely follow – the scientists in Bethany Wiggins’s Stung design a new, genetically modified species of “super bees.” Immune to the effects of existing pesticides and fatally aggressive toward their less high-tech honeybee cousins, humanity’s so-called solution causes more problems than it solves: finishing the grim task begun by people, the Frankenbees drive naturally occurring bee species over the brink of extinction. They also turn on their human creators, spreading a deadly “bee flu” that’s ultimately responsible for thousands – if not millions – of human deaths.

After a promising vaccine fails – those given the antivenin develop superhuman strength and go mad – the government falls back on its “last resort”: a new pesticide, specially formulated for use against the GenMod bees. The only downside? It kills pretty much everything in its path: plants, (nonhuman) animals, even some humans.

In the wake of this destruction, the United States dissolves into a collection of city-states. In Denver, Colorado, there is safety behind “the wall” – but only for those citizens privileged enough to buy their way in with money (honey is the prevailing currency) or essential skills. At the age of 15, boys must join the militia, where they are tasked with defending the wall from “beasts” (those who received the vaccine and subsequently turned), “fecs” (refugees living in the sewers, many of them recipients of the vaccine who have yet to turn), and “raiders” (uninfected outlaws who traffic in women and beasts). Girls inside the wall are expected to marry young and have children.

Ruled by Governor Soneschen, life inside the wall is almost as cruel as that outside. With seven men for every woman, females are treated as a precious commodity – “commodity” being the key word. Whereas raiders kidnap and rape women to death, women inside the wall are seemingly forced into marriage – and can be abandoned on the “wrong” side of the wall at their husband’s will. (As with many aspects of this world, the details are a bit sketchy. The upside to this is that rape is constantly alluded to, but never described in detail.) Likewise, when residents hit 55, they’re given a choice between “humane” “euthanasia” (scare quotes because there’s nothing humane about an unnecessary death, and euthanasia this is not) and life outside the wall. Elderly people are seen as possessing little intrinsic value, though it’s doubtful than the Governor himself will ever face such a choice.

Similar to dog or cockfighting, once-human “beasts” are forced to fight to the death in the pit for the amusement of the elite. Also reminiscent of our treatment of nonhuman animals is the extensive “othering” of infected humans. Confronted with a “Level 10” beast who looks and acts shockingly normal (spoiler alert: it’s our narrator Fiona!), members of the militia and residents inside the wall employ a number of strategies to dehumanize and objectify her. When, cuffed at the forearms and ankles, she trips and falls, the soldiers attribute it to her stupidity. In the pit, acts of compassion are dismissed or reinterpreted: one Level 10 beast isn’t “protecting” another, but rather “saving” her for unspeakable acts at a later time. While waiting their turns in the pit, beasts are kept in rows of cages; the narrator describes the room as “like an animal shelter.” Fecs and beasts aren’t allowed to shower, but are instead hosed off, like elephants in the circus; during her “shower,” Fiona’s hands are immobilized by a meat hook hanging from the ceiling. And so on.

Against this backdrop, seventeen-year-old Fiona Tarsis awakes in her childhood bed with no memory of how she got there. Without a single memory of the past four years, in point o’ facts. Nor does she know where the strange, spider-like tattoo on her right hand came from. Her house is inexplicable filthy, broken, abandoned – much like the rest of the city. With the questionable help of a Fec named Arrin and her childhood neighbor Bowen, “Fo” must recover the past four years – and the secret that Governor Soneschen will kill to protect.

At its core, Stung is a dystopian reimagining of Sleeping Beauty, with a twist – a sci-fi fairy tale in which it is the damsel’s kiss that reawakens the Prince. The story is interesting enough, though Wiggins’s themes aren’t as sophisticated as, say, those found in The Hunger Games; nor is her prose as poetic as that of Lauren DeStefano (The Chemical Garden Trilogy). While Wiggins attempts to make Fiona a well-rounded heroine – her ignorance of this new world often means that she’s in need of rescue; but look, she can shoot a gun! – she’s mostly lacking in personality. Ditto love interest Bowen. Wiggins tries to paint him as a defender of women – even as he (ab)uses his authority to force Fiona to change clothes in front of him, her thirteen-year-old’s sense of embarrassment a source of amusement to him.

The ableist nickname he gives her – Fotard (and she, him: Bowtard) – is problematic as well. Even as they decry other forms of ableism – Bowen’s mother suffered from chronic, severe depression, and Fiona’s father was a disabled, wheelchair-bound veteran, “defects” which made them ineligible for residency inside the wall – they casually throw around variations of the word “retard.” Not okay.

Additionally, the world building is cursory, resulting in several inconsistencies and plot holes. For example, if women are so rare and priceless, it hardly makes sense to toss them over the wall once they reach an arbitrarily chosen age. While women 55 years and older may no longer prove “useful” from a reproductive standpoint, they’re still sexual beings. It stands to reason that such a society would include a thriving underground sex work trade, into which such women would enter either willingly or not. Raiders commonly rape the infected, so I hardly think a geriatric sex worker is a stretch.

All in all, STUNG is an action-packed summer read. I devoured it eagerly enough, but it’s not the sort of story I’ll be thinking of next month or even next week. As far as YA dystopian fiction goes, it’s in the middle of the pack.

3.5 stars, rounded down to 3 on Amazon.

(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: Stung, Bethany Wiggins (2013)”

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    […] – Napping in the grass while mom reads Stung. Spoiler alert: it was so not worth it. […]

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