A Girl Called Fearless by Catherine Linka: Uneven, But Relevant & Gripping
I don't know if I suffered as severe of dystopian burnout as a lot of readers, largely because I'm self-aware enough to know that any faction-based world irritates the crap out of me, so I managed to avoid a lot of the popular dystopian-ish novels that hit the shelves in the wake of The Hunger Games' popularity.
(Seriously, what is with all the factions, dystopian authors? I just don't get it.)
I've picked up a few recently that I've enjoyed at varying degrees. I enthusiastically enjoyed Maureen McGowan's corporate conspiracy-meets-X-Men Dust Chronicles action-adventure series; I was profoundly let down by the promising water-contamination novel The Ward by Jordana Frankel (that book had so much promise!).
Catherine Linka's debut, A Girl Called Fearless, likely sits somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, yet it manages to shine a bit more brightly than many others because it's both thought-provoking and gripping.
Privileged Avie Reveare has grown up in a world decimated by a food contamination disaster. A synthetic hormone in beef created an exceptionally aggressive form of ovarian cancer, decimating the female population of United States, leaving only the very young, very old and a handful of vegetarians and women who had undergone hysterectomies before the outbreak still living. Men are unaffected and this human disaster has created massive economic insecurity and enabled wealthy, powerful men to control the lives of the few remaining young women.
The power is guised under the auspices of "protecting" women via a Paternalist movement, which effectively created a commodities market for young girls as wives of these powerful men. They trade their daughters for investments in their businesses and even auction marriage rights to young women at high end auction houses.
Avie has a bit more freedom than some of her peers. She still attends school and dreams of attending college. However, when her father's business--a bio-tech company researching the contamination that killed her mother--starts to fail, he's quick to sell her marriage contract to a wealthy, older man, her world collapses into two choices: Run to Canada, which offers asylum to escaped American girls, or be a captive in this man's home for the rest of her life.
When faced with this "choice," she turns to her childhood friend Yates, who's involved in in the anti-Paternalist movement. As the day of her contract signing draws near, it becomes more and more obvious that the only choice she has is to run away from everything she knows, including Yates, who may be more than a friend. What follows is an action-packed, chilling journey as Avie makes her way to the border.
By far the strongest element of A Girl Called Fearless is its critical examination of gendered power.
The Paternalist movement consolidated its power in just ten years, completely tipping the balance of power in their favor. I imagine some readers will side-eye this rapid transformation, but as someone whose academic background is in women's studies, I found it to be chillingly realistic. Many, many regimes have taken advantage of circumstances and become oppressive forces is far less time and the control of women is often a central means for exerting that control.
The commodification of women's bodies in this novel's world is chillingly real and doesn't differ in terms of the way it's hidden in the language of protectionism from the way many politicians talk about women's bodies in our world.
Avie's has internalized this culture, and sees her own world--full of body guards and limited opportunities--as so very small that she can't conceptualize anything bigger, which points to the insidious nature of misogyny. I found this thought-provoking and sad.
I do wonder how other readers will view Avie--she isn't a big, "strong" (I have so many issues with the terminology) YA heroine that's bold and brave. Rather, she's scared and running seems like the only option.
Unfortunately, while the concept of the world is compelling, the details in the world-building disappointed.
The decimation of the female population of the country is triggered by food contamination, which is completely believable, since our food systems are in not-great shape. However, the "exceptions" which allowed some to survive are confusing and a bit nonsensical. For example, vegetarians survived the outbreak, but it's never explained why this contamination was only transmitted via meat and not milk and dairy products, especially since it's a hormonal issue and milk does carry artificial hormones given to cows. (Which is why artificial hormones in food are banned in Europe.)
Similarly, I wonder about the thinking on a science level that the young would be unaffected because they had no reached puberty. If this hormone was so virulent that it killed a massive percentage of the population, why wasn't it stored in children's bodies like a grenade waiting to explode? The only reason I can summon is that the story wouldn't exist without this additional exception.
Similarly, I wanted to know more about the rest of the world's response to this crisis.
Aside from Canada's harboring of young women who escape, not much is revealed. I wondered if other countries had offered aid, if American men smuggled women from other countries in to serve as their "wives," and how the United States was viewed by the rest of the world.
Now, this is a close first-person perspective, and it's wholly reasonable that Avie wouldn't know any of these answers. However, she knows enough people, such as love interest Yates and her subversive teacher, who would know a bit about the rest of the world. A Girl Called Fearless would have been far stronger had these world details been included.
If you're willing to overlook the world-building issues (which I ultimately was, but it definitely diminished my enjoyment), A Girl Called Fearless is a solid choice for readers who enjoyed XVI (which I quite liked) or Wither (which I hated with a holy passion). The short chapters do a fantastic service to the story's pacing, making it a tough-to-put-down read, despite its flaws. I'm looking forward to continuing Avie's journey in the sequel.
Disclosure: Review copy provided by the publisher.