In the near future, a teenager tries to navigate growing up in a world where women are treated as property in this debut YA novel.
For the past three years, 16-year-old Valley Bickerstaff has raised bees under the guidance of her beloved grandmother. Living in a river bottom, one of the few places that the insects can still flourish, Valley faces a world in which most of the planet’s bees were killed by pesticides years earlier, leading to environmental devastation in the form of famines and plague. Countries seem to have broken down into simple townships, each run by its own local leaders, and society has sadly regressed when it comes to women, who are once again considered chattel to be sold for land and money. The tale truly kicks off when Valley’s cruel Uncle Jacob promises her hand in marriage to the son of a nearby official, Mayor Tellar, who arranges a hasty wedding. “Now, I know how you young ladies like to plan these things yourself,” the mayor tells Valley. “But, your uncle wanted our agreement consummated as soon as possible. I assume you understand how important this marriage is to your family.” This leads her to immediately plan an escape. Webster has written a richly detailed work whose world feels legitimate and lived-in, letting readers gradually, seamlessly experience it, rather than overwhelming them with exposition. Meanwhile, Valley is an empathetic, compassionate protagonist who feels three-dimensional from start to finish. Her caring for the bees establishes an instant connection with the reader. The complications of her friendship with another teenager, Reyna, who has fallen in love with her, as well as the intricate bonds that tie her to her family make for an engrossing drama. Furthermore, her relationship with her grandmother, as well as the unfolding of a number of buried family secrets that cause her to question a great deal of what she thought she knew, provides a brilliant through line. The love triangle involving two young men vying for her affections is less intriguing, and at times the book’s slow pacing can lead to lulls. But if one surrenders to its gentler rhythms, the story delivers a captivating and thought-provoking read.
A tale that offers mesmerizing worldbuilding and complex explorations of gender relations in a frightening dystopia.