Book Review: Wonderblood by Julia Whicker
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 2 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopia
Series: Book 1
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (April 3, 2018)
Length: 304 pages
Author Information: Website
It pains me greatly to admit I couldn’t get into Wonderblood, the latest entry into the flourishing genre of literary dystopian fiction. Debut author Julia Whicker writes beautifully, with her haunting—and haunted—world and characters enticing readers into a realm filled with harsh wonders and mysteries, where one can easily become lost in the cracks and crevices of time and place. Ultimately though, it came down to a matter of taste; I found the book too unsettling and strange, and coupled with the slow and dense plot, I had a very difficult time connecting with any of the characters or their motivations.
The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where much of the United States has become vast swaths of barren wasteland. In Cape Canaveral, Florida, a king and his circle of royal elites preside over the faithful who live among the crumbling ruins of NASA’s facilities and defunct shuttles. There, they await the return of their ancestors in “the Rockets”, an event prophesied to be their salvation. Meanwhile, across the south, the roving tribal bands called carnivals continue to do their bloody work based on the doctrine of Wonderblood, which directs its followers to carry out killings and beheadings—lots and lots of beheadings—in order to cleanse the land of its disease.
In one of these carnivals, a girl known only as Aurora is captured by Mr. Capulatio, the leader of a rival carnival who foresaw her role in his campaign to overthrow the king. Believing her to be pivotal to his rise to the throne, Mr. Capulatio keeps Aurora alive and makes her his new bride despite the anger and protestations from his first wife, the prophetess Orchid. Their sacred texts say that the Rockets will only return once the True King reigns at Cape Canaveral, so when two bright spots suddenly appear in the sky, Mr. Capulatio and his legions see it as a sign to start laying siege to the city. The royals on the other hand are mystified and unnerved by the outlaw carnival amassing outside their gates, the king sending his head hierophant and astrologers scrambling to interpret the appearance of the stella novae. No one knows for sure whether they are the long-awaited shuttles carrying their forebears, but most are convinced they are a harbinger for violent changes to come.
First, what I liked: Whicker’s prose is intensely rich and evocative, painting a stunning yet stark view of the dystopian future which serves as the backdrop to her grim tale. A strong sense pervades the reader that civilization has become a ruin for so long that the world’s real history has become virtually inseparable from myth. Some of these accounts include blood and viscera raining from the heavens and poisoning the land, resulting a deadly mad-cow like disease known as “Bent Head” which killed millions and mutated animals into monstrous creatures. The people’s understanding of science and religion has also been distorted and in some cases these concepts have been corrupted and combined, giving rise to certain bizarre social or cultural practices, like keeping shrunken heads as charms and worshipping space shuttles.
However, in spite of these fascinating elements, there were still a lot of holes in the world-building. Many of them are due to the limited perspectives of our characters, many of whom have insular outlooks and are operating within their own spheres of influence, presenting few opportunities to really expand and explore the world. Their voices also feel very aloof and detached, like Aurora, who doesn’t seem to possess any kind of drive or agency to affect her situation beyond the capacity of the space she’s thrust into. While a rough life of sexual assault and abuse at her own brother’s hands may have led to this acquiescent personality, it also meant that Aurora remained rather static and undeveloped throughout the story. Things didn’t go much better with the other characters either, and some of chapters taking place within the king’s court were a downright struggle to read because I didn’t feel like they did much to advance the plot or characters. The pacing would slow to a crawl in these sections so that it seemed like even after we hit the three-quarters mark, barely anything has happened at all.
Others might also find the book’s topics and themes disturbing. There’s no glossing over this dystopian nightmare, where the credo is kill or be killed. Rival carnivals fight for territory amidst this chaos and lawlessness reminiscent of a Mad Max-type world, and the winners are driven by religious zeal to capture and behead as many of their enemies as they can because of Wonderblood. The character Aurora also experiences rape and abuse, first from her older brother and then from Capulatio, who manipulates her by keeping her imprisoned and unaware of her fate. It’s a cruel and merciless world, so if you’re uncomfortable with the idea then it might be wise to stay away.
In sum, Wonderblood offers a uniquely imagined dystopian future replete with violent and dark themes. Julia Whicker can write well, as evidenced by her gorgeous prose, but unfortunately, the plot’s slow pacing and the lack of development and depth to the characters ultimately made this one an unsatisfying read. The lack of closure was also disappointing, with the open-ended nature of the conclusion making me suspect that a sequel will be forthcoming, though at this point I’m not sure I’ll continue because I’m just not feeling the story or the characters.