Written by: Gabrielle Zevin
Pages: 354 (Hardcover)
Series: Book One (Birthright)
Disclaimer: free for review from publisher via Zeitghost Media.
Why I Read It: Ironically, two days after I posted my say no to free books spiel, I get an email from Zeitghost Media promoting a new book and asking if I'd like a review copy and/or do a giveaway. TWO DAYS. Seriously, I had to laugh that I started getting such emails AFTER posting this big bad treatise on why bloggers should say no to free books! But I said no, and I've been saying no until All These Things I've Done popped up. The book had caught my attention previously, and advertisements for it had really caught my eye, and I adored the premise. So I gave in and said yes to a review copy, and since it's a review copy, I decided to read it sooner rather than later.
The premise: ganked from publisher's website: In 2083, chocolate and coffee are illegal, paper is hard to find, water is carefully rationed, and New York City is rife with crime and poverty. And yet, for Anya Balanchine, the sixteen-year-old daughter of the city's most notorious (and dead) crime boss, life is fairly routine. It consists of going to school, taking care of her siblings and her dying grandmother, trying to avoid falling in love with the new assistant D.A.'s son, and avoiding her loser ex-boyfriend. That is until her ex is accidentally poisoned by the chocolate her family manufactures and the police think she's to blame. Suddenly, Anya finds herself thrust unwillingly into the spotlight--at school, in the news, and most importantly, within her mafia family.
Spoilers, yay or nay?: Nay. Rather, there are some vague-ish spoilers, but nothing so definitive that it ruins the reading experience. However, if you're paranoid or in a hurry, feel free to skip to "My Rating" and you'll be fine. Everyone else, onward!
So let's talk about the premise: it's fantastic. Modeling a dystopia after the Prohibition Era, but using coffee and chocolate instead of alcohol? That's great. Zevin even gives us a hint as to how and why chocolate became a necessary evil on page 36:
Daddy always told me that there was nothing inherently evil about chocolate, that it had gotten caught up in a larger whirlwind involving food, drugs, health, and money. Our country had only chosen chocolate because the people in power needed to pick something, and chocolate was what they could live without.
I like that little explanation because all my life, we're being bombarded by studies that say, "This gives you cancer! Or makes you fat!" and then a year later another study comes out to prove the previous study wrong. I like that little explanation because it feels like anything that tastes GOOD has become a sin to eat, because it'll make you fat, and obesity is an issue in the U.S. Put some health nuts in the government, and I can totally see chocolate getting banned.
And there's other little issues of control that we see in this future New York: minors can't have their own phones, and no one can publish (like in a blog) without proper licensing. And emails require postage, which really cracked me up because I remember when that notion was originally introduced.
However, setting was seriously lacking… I kept forgetting I was in New York and kept substituting an anonymous city. And that's a minor detail compared to what happened to the premise in my mind when I started really considering it. For starters: chocolate, really? Coffee's an issue too, mind you, but despite the little pat explanation the author gives us, it still raises the question: why?
Were there no women in the government who made this decision? Because seriously, as a general rule, women love chocolate. Were there no coffee drinkers in the government who made this decision? Because seriously, I bet if a study were done, there would be more coffee drinkers in the U.S. than non-coffee drinkers.
Now the bans would make sense if the product itself were in short supply: maybe coffee and cacao beans are becoming more and more rare due to a new pest. And if there's water rationing, and you need water to make coffee or whatever, then it stands to reason: these items would be banned because the ingredients to make them are in short supply.
But then you have to wonder: if that's the root cause, what about other things that require water to be made? Liquor isn't an issue in this world, yet liquor needs water in the distilling process, and lots of it. And that's just one example.
I also have a hard time equating sugar/caffeine high with an alcohol buzz. At the beginning of the book, we learn that Gable is acting differently than normal because he's had too much caffeine, but he's portrayed as someone who's drunk (and later, when he bangs on Anya's door for chocolate, like a drug addict -- this drug addict comparison makes more sense to me) and isn't in control of his actions. And I had to ask myself: how realistic is that? Because nobody acts like that when they've been drinking coffee or eating chocolate, so then the question becomes how would someone act if they're weren't allowed to have it and then consumed a whole lot all at once?
I still don't think you'd get that scenario. I really don't, and that really challenges my ability to suspend disbelief, because while I love the premise on paper, in practice, it's not really working.
I also have to take into consideration that unlike most teens this book is marketed for, I'm a huge fan of The Wire (focus on drugs) and Boardwalk Empire (Prohibition Era), and therefore have seen a far more mature take on how these particular issues affect society. It's a weird dichotomy, how this premise sits in my mind because of that. On one hand, I appreciate the clever twist on it; on the other, I have such a hard time swallowing that such a society and crime ring would be created out of chocolate of all things.
Moving on: I really disliked the table of contents at the front. Each chapter heading is far too specific, and I ended up being spoiled for the book before I ever really started. Seriously? Who thinks that's a good idea in a novel? I don't mind chapter headers, but I don't need a table of contents. This isn't an anthology or a collection of essays. Hopefully, the publisher will remove that for the paperback publication, because getting spoiled sucks. And if it was the author's idea? Consider this an electronic slap upside the head. STOP THAT.
I also found myself getting a little tired of the author's writing style at times. It'd get rather clunky in places where the author was obviously not trying to re-tell something to a character that the reader already saw happen. So I appreciate the desire to cut repetition, but I hope the author finds a more graceful way to do this in the future, because once I started noticing clunkiness there, I started noticing it in other places too.
The romance never really worked for me. Win was a sweet guy, but I never really understood what attracted him to Anya to begin with, other than the obvious: he just thinks it'd piss his father off. I'm not saying he doesn't truly care for Anya, but it's such an odd match. I don't blame Anya for exploring the relationship, because he's a cute guy and he's into her, but she's stronger without him, and that's one of the strengths in the book, when Anya is focusing on helping her family and friends instead of moping about her relationship woes. Like Anya, I couldn't believe Win really wanted to be married. Usually, it's a girl who wants to do something like that really soon in the relationship, not the guy, which just makes Win a little hard to believe in. Then again, maybe it's just the curse of the Beta-Hero: the Alpha male has charm and charisma that works as long as he's not being TOO Alpha, but by comparison, Beta males tend to come off as less interesting. I like Beta males in fiction when they're portrayed well, but here, things just didn't click, and trust me, it wasn't like I wanted Anya to hook up with anyone else (except maybe that Japanese guy. He was interesting).
I also didn't care for the narration style, when it became clear that Anya was telling this story from some point in the future; to my ears, it sounds like she's telling the story to a child or grandchild, but sometimes, her futuristic asides really pulled me out of the story.
My Rating: It's a Gamble
For the most part, I was quite amused and taken with the premise, and I really enjoyed the parts of the story where Anya is focused on her family and doing everything she can to help them. The romance was the weaker part of the book, in part because I didn't truly believe in it, despite Win being a cute, nice guy. I had other issues with the narration and the writing, certain things pulled me out of the story in the narration, and sometimes the writing itself was just plain clunky, which was as surprising as it was disappointing. That being said, it's a fast read with a lot to offer, so long as your suspension of disbelief isn't shaken by some of the world-building elements, like mine sometimes was. For my two cents, I doubt I'll continue the trilogy.
Cover Commentary: It's a very compelling cover. The melting chocolate heart, the grayed out numerical list that coincides with each word in the title. It's not your typical YA cover (which means I'm betting the publishers will decide to go in a different direction for the trade paperback cover and put, yanno, a girl on it), but it's all the more compelling for it. This would definitely catch my eye in the store. Oh, another clever thing: if you take off the dust jacket of the hardcover, the front cover is a "chocolate bar." Not a real one, not one you can eat, but rather a facsimile of the chocolate bars in the book. Quite nifty!
Next up: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman