Miriam Black is an early 20-something drifter with bleach blonde hair and a surprising ability to hold her own in a fight. She also knows when and precisely how you’re going to die. Only if you touch her skin-on-skin though. And it’s because of this skill that Miriam became a drifter. You try dealing with seeing that every time you touch someone. But when a kind trucker gives her a lift and in her vision of his death she hears him speak her name, her entire crazy life takes an even crazier turn.
This is one of those books that is very difficult to categorize. I want to call it urban fantasy, but it doesn’t have much supernatural about it, except for the ability to see deaths. The world isn’t swimming in vampires or werewolves of goblins. I also want to call it a thriller what with the whole try to stop the trucker from dying bit but it’s so much more than chills and whodunit (or in this case, who will do it). Its dark, gritty style reminds me of Palahniuk, so I suppose what might come the closest would be a Palahniuk-esque urban fantasy lite thriller. What I think sums it up best, though, is a quote from Miriam herself:
It starts with my mother….Boys get fucked up by their fathers, right? That’s why so many tales are really Daddy Issue stories at their core, because men run the world, and men get to tell their stories first. If women told most of the stories, though, then all the best stories would be about Mommy Problems. (location 1656)
So, yes, it is all of those things, but it’s also a Mommy Problems story, and that is just a really nice change of pace. Mommy Problems wrapped in violence and questioning of fate.
The tone of the entire book is spot on for the type of story it’s telling. Dark and raw with a definite dead-pan, tongue-in-cheek style sense of humor. For instance, each chapter has an actual title, and these give you a hint of what is to come within that chapter, yet you will still somehow manage to be surprised. The story is broken up by an interview with Miriam at some other point in time, and how this comes into play with the rest of the storyline is incredibly well-handled. It’s some of the best story structuring I’ve seen in a while, and it’s also a breath of fresh air.
Miriam is also delightful because she is unapologetically ribald and violent. This is so rare to find in heroines.
We’re not talking zombie sex; he didn’t come lurching out of the grave dirt to fill my living body with his undead baby batter. (location 2195)
As a female reader who loves this style, it was just delightful to read something featuring a character of this style who is also a woman. It’s hard to find them, and I like that Wendig went there.
While I enjoyed the plot structure, tone, and characters, the extreme focus on fate was a bit iffy to me. There were passages discussing fate that just fell flat for me. I’m also not sure of how I feel about the resolution. However, I’m also well aware that this is the beginning of a series, so perhaps it’s just that the overarching world rules are still a bit too unclear for me to really appreciate precisely what it is that Miriam is dealing with. This is definitely the first book in the series in that while some plot lines are resolved, the main one is not. If I’d had the second book to jump right into I would have. I certainly hope that the series ultimately addresses the fate question in a satisfactory way, but at this point it is still unclear if it will.
Overall, this is a dark, gritty tale that literally takes urban fantasy on a hitchhiking trip down the American highway. Readers who enjoy a ribald sense of humor and violence will quickly latch on to this new series. Particularly recommended to readers looking for strong, realistic female leads.
4 out of 5 stars
In this steampunk vision of a possible dystopian future, carbon usage and genetic engineering caused the world to nearly collapse. Whole nations have been lost to starvation due to exorbitant prices charged by the genetic engineering calorie companies and also due to the rising seas from global warming caused by carbon usage. Domestic cats have been wiped out by cheshires–genetically engineered cats that can appear and disappear, just like the cat in Alice in Wonderland. Thailand, through strict military enforcement of calorie and carbon consumption, has managed to hold back both the sea with a sea wall and starvation. The Thai work diligently to rid their nation of windups–genetically engineered living creatures. As Buddhists, they believe these windups have no souls. Within this world we see glimpses of five very different lives. There’s Anderson, a foreigner from Detroit who claims to be running a factory but is actually a calorie company spy. His manager, Hock Seng, is a survivor of the Malaysian civil war where Muslim fundamentalists attempted to kill all the Chinese immigrants. Jaidee and Kanya work for the Environment Ministry, also known as white shirts. They are the military enforcers of all the environmental laws, but they are struggling against the Trade Ministry that wants to open their borders back up to foreign trade. Finally, there’s Emiko. She is a Japanese windup girl. The Japanese created windups due to a severe lack of young people to care for the old. She came over both as a secretary and lover of her owner who had to do business in Thailand, but he then decided it would be cheaper to leave her behind than to take her on the return trip. She now is a spectacle in sex shows in the ghetto of Krung Thep. These lives slowly intertwine, and through them, Bacigalupi shows how easily civil war can erupt.
I fully admit that this book was out of my comfort zone. I don’t normally read books on political intrigue and intertwining lives. I tend to stick to ones that talk about one individual person, and that’s what I was expecting from a book called The Windup Girl. That’s why I took the time to write a detailed summary, so you all would have a clearer picture of what this book is about than I did. This is another one of those books that I almost gave up on early in. Bacigalupi doesn’t take the time to truly set up the world. Things have names and are briefly or not at all described, so you have to fill in the gaps yourself. I think if I hadn’t read steampunk before, I would have been at a loss. For instance, he never explains exactly what a dirigible is, although we know they are sky ships. It is not until the end of the book when one gets blown up and a character refers to it as a creature that it becomes apparent that they are living creatures used as sky ships. This is just one example of many ways in which the world building is sloppy. It takes until solidly halfway through the book for a clear picture of Krung Thep to emerge. Additionally, this is one of those books that tosses around non-English words where English ones would entirely suffice. For example, all of the foreigners are called farang, not foreigners. It makes sense to use a Thai word where there is no English equivalent, but it’s just superfluous to toss them around when there is one. Technically these characters are supposedly speaking entirely in Thai. We know that. Bacigalupi doesn’t need to throw Thai words in periodically just to remind us. Still, though, I kept reading beyond the first couple of chapters, mainly because I bought the book on my Kindle app, and I don’t tend to waste money. In the end, I’m glad I kept reading.
Although the setting and world building is rough, the story itself is quite interesting. Many perspectives are offered on these issues that potentially could become issues in real life. What are the rights and roles of genetically engineered living beings? Is nature the way it’s always been better or genetic engineering the next step in evolution? One of the pro-genetic engineering characters states:
We are nature. Our every tinkering is nature, our every biological striving. We are what we are, and the world is ours. We are its gods. Your only difficulty is your unwillingness to unleash your potential fully upon it. (Location 6347-6350)
It is an interesting question. Will our next phase of evolution happen in the traditional manner, or is the next phase actually us using our brains to improve?
The Buddhist concepts sprinkled throughout the text are also quite enjoyable. The characters struggle to maintain their belief in karma and reincarnation in spite of the issues of windups. It clearly depicts how religion must struggle to adapt to change. Additionally, the concepts of fate and karma and how much one can actually do to improve one’s lot in life are explored in an excellent manner through multiple characters. It reminded me a lot of how the Dark Tower series explores the similar idea of ka (fate). One sentence that really struck me on this theme was:
He wonders if his karma is so broken that he cannot every truly hope to succeed. (Location 8388-8393)
I was just discussing a similar concept with a friend the other day, so it really struck me to see it in print.
Additionally, the ending truly surprised me, even though it’s evident throughout most of the book that a civil war is coming. I always enjoy it when a book manages to surprise me, and this one definitely did.
Overall, although Bacigalupi struggles with world building, his intertwined characters and themes are thought-provoking to read. I’m glad I went out of my comfort zone to read this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys the themes of fate, evolution, nature, karma, or political intrigue.
3.5 out of 5 stars