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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein
Kiersten White


Origin - Jessica Khoury

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: This felt like a debut that was rushed to press, and I wish the editor and publisher had given it more time to percolate, because in its current state the science (really magic, or myth) is convoluted, the characterization is not nuanced, and the depiction of Amazon natives is problematic.


What I liked. This novel has a young enthusiasm that's infectious. Ms. Khoury, with some seasoning, could have a lasting career. The premise of scientists trying to synthesize immortality in the lab is promising and different. The setting is the lush Amazon, which is a nice change of pace. Pia's haughtiness--from being raised as literally an only child in a compound full of scientists devoted to her--was palpable. (By contrast, her conversion to the native way of life was, unfortunately, too quick.)


The story. Pia is the first immortal girl produced in a private, secretive lab in the Amazon. Her "uncles" and "aunts" are the biochemists, engineers, botanists, etc, whose efforts are devoted to creating her, and eventually creating an entire race of immortals, which will be a master race and phase out human procreation. Pia longs to be part of the team, and to learn the secret of Immortis, the process that creates immortals, but she has to pass scientific and psychological tests before that can happen. She has a perfect memory, is physically beautiful (ugh), has skin that can't be penetrated with a knife, is fast and agile. The outside world has been hidden from her (mostly cultural things like Shakespeare and music with lyrics, and geography), but we're told too many times that she's gifted and practiced in every other intellectual pursuit. It gets a little tiresome to hear her list the Latin name of every plant she encounters--is this all she knows?--and smacks a bit of the author's googling. Pia never seems particularly intelligent or mature, although I think it would be possible and appropriate to show immaturity (she has no meaningful experience in life, after all) while still showing high intelligence, but Khoury doesn't manage it.


On Pia's 17th birthday, a tree falls and creates a hole in the fence of the scientific compound. Pia ventures forth and immediately meets an indigenous boy her age, Eio, who of course falls instantly in love with her, and vice versa. Pia sees children for the first time in his village, and spontaneously realizes the error of the Immortis way. The push and pull of her upbringing (making her want to be separate and different and with her own kind) versus this new discovery (making her appreciate imperfection and mortality) feels very much told and not shown. Essentially, when Pia is with the Ai'oans, she's in love with Eio and wants to be as free as the "Pia bird" he calls her (ugh, again), but when she's in the compound she wants to forget him and the Ai'oans and create her perfect mate. While that sort of waffling is believable in a teen, it's somehow presented in such a see-saw way that the overall sensation isn't one of satisfying, gradual growth. 


Pia discovers that the Secret Ingredient in Immortis is basically human sacrifice (hello, magic), and realizes that her life was made possible through the death of hundreds of Ai'oans, who were lured away from the village on the promise of a new life in modern society. With the help of Eio's dad--her favorite Uncle Antonio--and of the newcomer female scientist, Dr. Fields (Aunt Harriet), and the archery might of the Ai'oans, Pia destroys the compound while all but the worst of the baddies (Uncle Paolo) escape in boats down the river.


Problematic depiction of natives. I've seen other readers bemoan the fact that Eio is half-native, half-scientist's-son, and that fact alone would not be objectionable if it weren't obvious that his "attractive" components (his scientific mind, his height, his blue eyes) were from his white half. It does force you to ask, "Why couldn't he be 100% native and still be worldly and sexy to Pia?" Also, Pia is welcomed immediately as family, and she feels a possessiveness about the natives that verges at least metaphorically on colonialism. There are also much subtler patronizing commentaries, for example the way the Ai'oans understand (through their tales) the scientific process of immortality, but are somehow too wise and good to make use of it. I'm all for the Ai'oans having deeper knowledge of the flowers and necessary steps in the lifecycle of Immortis (based on thousands of years of their culture), but the implicit idealization of The Noble Savage makes me uncomfortable.


"Evil science" versus "moral natives." This is one of those lazy narratives that fantasy writers seem to latch onto because it's easy, or because they don't have scientific (or anthropological or political or whatever) training. Another trope is environmentalism, and evil governments that allow even more evil corporations to poison the earth, but I digress. I also have a literary complaint that the bad guys are flat and purely evil in this book--evil to the point of sadism against both animals and humans. Even Pia's mother, whose character is meant to be gray, isn't nuanced at all by the end. Her motivation is attributed in broad strokes to a lifelong crush on Paolo, but that motivation is not deep enough to make the reader feel it. 


There's no real science in this science fiction. The science that's present in the book is a little confusing. It takes generations of breeding to create the most ideal specimen you can; then you feed the person nectar from the Elysium flower, which would ordinarily kill you, and blood from a dying victim, which is--what?--a binding agent or some such. I don't know. I read through it twice and I still didn't retain it.


What's the purpose of Pia's sheltered life? The book would tell you the motivation is to keep Pia from having wanderlust, to keep her focused, and to prevent her from developing a moral compass so that she'll be willing to kill other people in order to create the immortal race. But her isolation is so thorough (almost unbelievably so--how do you redact an entire library or even a single set of encyclopedias?), it also leaves her fundamentally, paradoxically uneducated, and probably should make her immature and dehumanized. Khoury senses this, and catches Pia up too quickly through Aunt Harriet, Eio, Uncle Antonio, and the Ai'oans.


Missed deeper questions. I had hoped that Ms. Khoury would delve more deeply into some of the potentially rich themes. For instance, Pia is a sentient experimental subject, who has to come to terms with being created--through no fault of her own--by a horrific process that sacrificed innocent people. (She pounds away verbally at the guilt she feels, but that's not the level of thematic depth I was hoping for.) Another missed issue is hinted above: what sort of person do you become with no cultural or literary education, no knowledge of geography or politics or history? 


An unnecessary Epilogue. I have no idea why we had to hear about Pia from Aunt Harriet at the end, when otherwise this book was told in first person.


In sum. An author to watch, a good first effort, but an example of a publisher screwing up a debut with hype and hasty editing.