Book Review: The Glass Arrow, Kristen Simmons (2015)

April 8th, 2015 11:16 am by Kelly Garbato

Meet The Handmaid’s Tale’s Younger YA Cousin

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher. Trigger warning for rape – including allusions to rape, at least one rape attempt, medical rape, and general rape culture – human trafficking, slavery, and violence.)

My ma taught me one thing from the beginning: My body is mine. My own. No one else’s. Just because someone thinks they have rights to it, doesn’t make it true. I thought I understood that before, but here, in this place, it’s become more clear than ever how right she was. My flesh and blood – it’s the only thing I own, and I’ll defend it until I can’t fight anymore.

Behind us are two or three dozen country people from the outlying towns. With them are cages of chicken and goats, sheep, even cattle. That’s where we fit on market day. Between the executions and the livestock sales.

Fifteen-year-old Aiyana (Aya to her family; Clover to her captors) is a rarity – a free woman living in the forests of Isor. Along with her mostly-adopted family – her cousin Salma; fellow refugee Metea; and Metea’s children, Bian, Tam, and Nina – Aya hunts and gathers the food she needs, prays to Mother Hawk for guidance, and just generally goes about her business, all while evading detection by the feared Trackers.

In the nearby city of Glasscaster, women are items to be bought and sold. Property. Slaves. Young women may be purchased for sex (read: rape) or for breeding, only to be foisted off on pimps in the Black Lanes after they’re all “used up.” Along with “First Rounders” (read: virgins), “wild girls” are among the most valuable of them all – not only do Magnates take especial pleasure in breaking these formerly free women down, but their time outside of the city and its attendant pollution has blessed them with superior fertility. Lucky them.

Though hardly charmed, Aya is happy – that is, until the fateful day when young Bian leads the Trackers right to their camp. Aya is caught – crippled by an electric wire and then trapped in a Tracker’s net, like so much wild game – and taken to the Garden for grooming and eventual sale. Through a calculated campaign of sabotage, Aya manages to avoid the first few monthly auctions – yet she’s unable to escape punishment in solitary. Not that she’d want to, mind you: that barren patch of land behind the Garden is her only escape. It’s where she befriends Brax, a wolf puppy trapped in the city’s sewers – and Kiran, a mute Driver boy who works at the stables across the way. Can these unlikely allies help Aya escape Glasscaster and reunite her with her lost family?

There are so many things I loved about The Glass Arrow – too many to list, I’m afraid. While I spotted a few of the plot developments coming from a mountaintop away (Brax; Kyna), many of the twists proved unexpected (Daphne, on both counts; Varick; Salma). The ending is hopeful, yet understated enough to maintain believability; Aya’s victory is mostly a personal one. (Then again, you know what they say about the personal being political.) Simmons’s writing is both engaging and entertaining; she suffuses the book with a healthy dose of feminist sensibility, yet the action moves along at such a steady clip that it never feels like a political treatise.

What initially drew me to The Glass Arrow was its comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale. Margaret Atwood is one of my all-time favorites (if I were building a dream team of writers, say for a flash fic contest, she’d be my first-round pick) and The Handmaid’s Tale is at the top of my list (in terms of Atwood’s work, it’s second only to the MaddAddam trilogy). So I both gravitate towards books deemed Atwoodian, while simultaneously side-eyeing them with skepticism (there’s only one Margaret Atwood, okay).

But the comparison here isn’t that far off; The Glass Arrow is similar to The Handmaid’s Tale, in both content and quality. It’s kind of like The Handmaid’s Tale’s younger YA cousin, once or twice removed. (It has a bit of a fantasy vibe, even though it’s completely lacking in supernatural elements; I credit this chiefly to Aya’s rustic forest lifestyle.)

One of the most striking similarities for me is the idea of suicide as the last/best/only means of escape. Straw Hair’s gruesome yet calculated suicide brought to mind Offred’s contemplation of suicide – and the many subtle indicators that her handlers have planned for just that: “I know why there is no glass, in front of the watercolor picture of blue irises, and why the window opens only partly and why the glass in it is shatter-proof. It isn’t running away they’re afraid of. We wouldn’t get far. It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge.”

Likewise, Aya’s “purity test” is reminiscent of Offred’s monthly OBGYN exams. While rape is a pervasive element of the story – including allusions to rape, at least one rape attempt, medical rape, child rape, and rape culture in general – Simmons thankfully steers clear of especially graphic depictions of rape. The most horrific scene for me is the purity test that Aya is subjected to prior to purchase. Drugged so that she’s paralyzed but fully conscious – aware of what’s going on, yet unable to resist in any way – Aya undergoes a gynecological exam in front of a small audience of hostile men. To me, this is far worse than any threats doled out by Greer. Again, it’s not terribly graphic, but it made me physically ill just the same.

Just as with the handmaids – who assume the name of the man they “serve,” e.g., Offred, Ofglen – in Isor, women are renamed once they enter the Garden (or a similar grooming facility); in this case, after flowers and plants. While not quite as disorienting as the system in The Handmaid’s Tale – where names change regularly and quite literally advertise one’s property status – this still serves as a rather potent way of stripping women of their power, their voice, their very identity. Who are we if we’re not allowed to be ourselves? What do we have if not our names?

Of course, there are some notable differences. Whereas the subjugation of women in The Handmaid’s Tale has a strong religious basis, the Magnates and Merchants of Glasscaster seem almost lacking in religion; they are secular, if not atheist. (This stands in sharp contrast to Aya’s strongly held, earth-based (ecofeminist?) religious values.) Depending on the conditions in the city – are there enough fertile women to keep the population stable? – the city men seem mostly content to leave the townie and forest women alone. Certainly, they aren’t storming across Isor, demanding that everyone adopt their way of thinking/living or else perish, as happens in the Republic of Gilead.

Additionally, while the division of women into different classes – broodmares, sex workers, domestic help – is roughly mirrored in The Glass Arrow, there seems to be more permeability between the borders. Sex (rape) with handmaids serves a strictly procreative purpose (a tenant emphasized by their unassuming, even purposefully dowdy appearance); husbands aren’t supposed to enjoy it. In contrast, women in Isor are ranked not just by fertility, but appearance as well. Literally ranked, by scores displayed on a giant screen behind the auction block. Sex for recreational purposes is not frowned upon in Isor, even if it’s with a fertile female.

The endings also bear some similarities, although if memory serves, The Handmaid’s Tale strikes a much more melancholy chord.

While I love the world that Simmons has created – or rather, the heroine who challenges it – well, here’s the part where I nitpick.

I wish we could have seen more interaction between Aya and Amir. The Mayor purchases Aya as a “pet” for his young son; she escapes not a day later. At first I’d hoped that we’d see Aya try to influence the boy’s mindset and upbringing, à la Dana and Rufus in Octavia Butler’s Kindred (not that it did Dana and her ancestors much good, but still). Probably the plot couldn’t have veered remotely in that direction, given Aya’s total lack of power and privilege; Dana at least was able to wield Rufus’s very survival as a form of protection. Even so, it would have been interesting to see her try.

And Brax. Oh, Brax. You are the true glass arrow in this tale.

Last but not least, diversity. We only have three obvious POC in the entire story: Amir, whose mother was a WOC, making him biracial; Jasmine, a dark-skinned woman who appears in a single scene, only to be punished for breaking the purity rule; and Buttercup, a dark-haired girl who according to Aya has “slanted eyes” (a cringe-worthy term, but maybe not out of place given the context; i.e., it’s unlikely that Aya’s ever seen an Asian person before). It’s possible that Aya is a WOC – with brown eyes and long black hair “in twists like sheep” – but it’s never clarified outright, at least that I recall.

It’s strongly implied that Daphne is attracted to women; she and Buttercup perform lesbianism for an audience of prospective male buyers, yet when Daphne tries to “practice” in private, Buttercup shoots her down – a rejection which really seems to sting. I would have loved to have seen this explored further.

As far as contemporary novels go, it’s not bad, but I think it could be better.

The Glass Arrow : Read it if you heart The Handmaid’s Tale; you like fast-paced action-adventure stories featuring strong female protagonists with an underlying sociopolitical message; you loathe love triangles, but not necessarily romance; or creepy/infuriating dystopias are your jam.

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


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Not much. Aya describes Buttercup’s “slanted” eyes several times (not my favorite term, but also not unrealistic, given that Aya’s been isolated in the forest much of her life and has likely never seen an Asian person before); this, along with her straight black hair, led me to think that she’s Asian. Also, it’s strongly hinted that Daphne is attracted to women; while Buttercup is happy to perform lesbianism for an audience of prospective male buyers, Daphne seems to want to pursue their relationship in private as well, and is hurt by her friend’s rejection. There’s also one character, Jasmine, who is described as dark-skinned, but she only appears in a single scene. Finally, Amir’s mom was a woman of color, making him biracial.


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