Thursday 2 February 2017

#CBR9 Book 8: "Of Metal and Wishes" by Sarah Fine

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Wen, a young woman, whose family were clearly of a higher social status before her mother got sick and died, now works as a doctor's apprentice for her father. Wen and her father are Itanyai. They both live in a large factory complex, Gochan One, treating to the workers of a large slaughterhouse. In the same larger compound, there is a factory producing textiles and one making advanced war machines, to further the military might of their country. Most of the workers at the factory know that the bosses charge them heavily for uniforms, lodgings and clothes, but they have no choice but to keep working, if they want to make money.

No one's as heavily indentured as the new seasonal workers, who are Noor. While the Itanyai are clearly described as more traditionally Asian, with almond skin, dark hair and eyes, the Noor seemed a lot more Caucasian, probably more Slavic of origin. The Noor are believed to be a savage and brutish people, who have tried to rebell against their Ita overlords, and been subdued every time. Many of the regular workers are unhappy about the arrival of the Noor, believing they will bring bad luck to the slaughterhouse.

One of the beliefs among the workers is that there is a ghost haunting the premises. Someone has carved out an altar, where superstitious workers leave their most treasured possessions to wish for favours. Wen scoffs at this, and goaded by some of the other women, challenges the ghost to prove his existence. Shortly after one of the Noor workers, who had humiliated Wen in the cafeteria by tripping her and trying to look up her skirt, is badly injured on the factory floor. Wen is terrified that she indirectly caused the injury and wows to befriend and help the Noor boy. She sells some of her beautifully embroidered dresses to pay for his care, and later risks her own health to help her father nurse the Noor workers through a flu epidemic, which seems to hit the foreign workers harder than the natives. She grows especially close with Melik, who's one of only two Noor workers who speak her language and the de facto leader of the foreign work crew.

Having had terrible proof that the Ghost does in fact exist, Wen can't help but be curious and starts to investigate. She discovers that a young Itanyai worker died on the factory floor several years before, and that her father was the one to pronounce him dead. She starts to suspect that her father knows more than he's letting on, and as she continues to snoop, discovers that the Ghost seems very interested in her as well. Once she discovers the truth of his identity, she needs to acknowledge that he seems to have a peculiar attachment to her, and is willing to do pretty much anything to protect her, whether she wants him to or not.

This book is like an alternate universe retelling of The Phantom of the Opera, set in a sort of Steampunk version of Asia. It's an interesting book, and I liked the twists on a familiar story, as well as the explorations of prejudice, imperialism, misogyny and racism, but the world-building is distinctly vague and some of the characterisations leave a lot to be desired. Wen is clearly quite stubborn and an open-minded and good person. She seems to be a very dutiful daughter, but possibly due to the subservient position of women in Itanyai society, she's quite passive. She and her father seem to be the only ones who don't pretty much demonise the Noor and are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

There's not just rampant sexism everywhere in this story, pretty much every guy who isn't Wen's father, Melik or the Ghost seems to see it as their natural right to ogle, grope and generally sexually harass Wen. Her boss is clearly a sexual predator, with a history of abusing women, but also other guys seem to see any woman who doesn't conform to the strict purity standards of the society as completely fair game. It's also implied that Wen is bringing this unwanted attention on herself, because she tends to wear the beautifully fitted and embroidered dresses her mother made her, rather than the shapeless brown sacks that the other women at the Gochan One complex wear. This is problematic, and made for an uncomfortable read.

The Ghost is clearly more than a bit unhinged, and has an unhealthy obsession towards Wen, willing to seriously injure or even arrange deadly accidents towards anyone who he feels mistreats her. I was both fascinated and extremely creeped out by the various defensive measures he's set up in the cellars of the slaughterhouse to keep his lair secret. Melik is almost unbelievably sensitive and chivalrous compared to all the other dudes in the story (Wen's dad excepted, he's great, if underused). He never pressures Wen about anything she isn't ready for, which may explain why she appears to fall for him so incredibly quickly.

I really wish that there had been a bit more complexity and nuance to the supporting cast in this book. Everyone working at the factory hate the Noor and while Wen have a few women who initially seem to be friendly towards her, they are quick to judge her and abandon her when things start getting complicated. It seems strange that no one apart from Wen and her father are even the slightest bit progressive and open-minded.

All in all, I liked the book, but didn't love it. It did interesting things with the source material and while neither of the main characters were all that complex, they are at least entertaining tropes to read about. For the faint of heart, there is some gore in this book, what with being set in a slaughterhouse and some really gruesome accidents/attacks take place later in the book. It's also important to note that while the general plot of the story is finished off, the book ends on a cliffhanger. This is part one of two, and would be very unsatisfying to read on its own.

Judging a book by its cover: I like the strange dream-like quality of this cover, with the model's features very hazy because of the thin sheeting she's looking through. The dress is reminiscent of several that Wen wears over the course of the book, and I also like how it reminds me of an old-fashioned nurse's outfit, since that is pretty much the role Wen plays in the book. It's a good, if not exactly striking cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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