The Glass Arrow: Shallow world-building, sloppy characterization

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Glass Arrow by Kristen Simmons fantasy book reviewsThe Glass Arrow by Kristen Simmons

I was about as close to a Did Not Finish with Kristen Simmons’ The Glass Arrow as I can get without putting a book down, so you can tell already where this review is going to end up.  As usual in these situations, preferring not to belabor the point with regard to what I consider a bad book, I’ll keep this review relatively brief.

Simmons sets her story in a world where women are treated as breeding cattle, basically. They’re bought and sold at auction, painted and sculpted and costumed. Their numbers are carefully managed by census and “reduction when needed,” and those who live in the wild are hunted by Trackers and brought back to the city because these “wild” women have more boy-producing wombs.  The best they can hope for is to be that rare achievement:  the “Forever wife.”  The protagonist, Aya, is taken in by trackers in scene one, and we then spend time with her in what has to be the most incompetently run prison/spa/auction-prepping place ever.  When she’s placed in solitary confinement, she meets a young man who takes a potentially-dangerous interest in her (dangerous for either or both of them depending on the kind of interest it is).  The question that drives the plot mostly boils down to this: will Aya be sold in sexual slavery before she manages to break free and return home to the wild and the family she’s sworn to protect ever since her mother died?

You just know because of its basic premise this book will be marketed in elevator-pitch fashion as “It’s The Handmaid’s Tale meets …“ (fill in any recent dystopia with a spunky, tough-as-nails young female protagonist who falls in love).  But there’s no way anyone should reference Margaret Atwood’s deserved classic in the same breath.  One might be tempted to say it’s the “YA” version, but this is exactly the sort of “lower the bar” view of YA I loathe.  Writing for a younger audience doesn’t give permission for sloppy, shallow or predictable writing. Unfortunately, that’s mostly what we get in The Glass Arrow.

Problems are rife and immediate. World building is shallow, which is bad enough, but far worse is it never made sense in almost any way it was presented.  We’re told girls like Aya are a treasured resource, but she’s treated in the completely opposite fashion. They have superhuman guards called Watchers that were somehow constructed/formed by … advanced science, I guess?  But nothing else in the society gives any sense of such capability.  Even on the most basic level the world creation failed, as when Aya passes through a market and notes: “People pay an enormous amount for real food because it’s so rare … But a fish filet — one like I could spear in a mountain stream in thirty seconds flat —  that goes for fifty, sometimes eighty credits. Most can’t afford it. If they could, the mountains would be packed with men stripping the land clean.”  But nobody stops mining diamonds because only the wealthy can afford them. If fish could fetch that kind of money (I can only go by context it’s a lot; we’re given no sense at all of how money works), then the mountains should be packed by people, the ones trying to get rich.  Unfortunately, this is just one of many such examples.

The plot of The Glass Arrow has major issues, relying way too much on implausible incompetency or coincidence. Cameras are everywhere save in solitary confinement. Guards are right there, except when they aren’t.  We’re told Watchers don’t talk, until they do.  Villains are utterly incompetent. The free and open “wild” turns out to be filled with people who are always right there when they need to be. At least one character acts wholly out of character. And it’s certainly no spoiler to say that Aya and the boy she knows for 20-some days (“knows” is a loose term since he’s apparently mute and so there’s no actual conversation) will fall in “love.”  Nor is there a depth of characterization that can make up for these major issues of setting and plot.  Aya is the kind of character we’ve seen a million of lately, with little to distinguish her or give her any real sense of individuality, while the boy is even less sharply drawn.  There are stylistic issues as well, but as I said, I don’t want to belabor the point. I think my view by now is pretty clear — Not Recommended.

Published February 10, 2015. Young adult. Once there was a time when men and women lived as equals, when girl babies were valued, and women could belong only to themselves. But that was ten generations ago. Now women are property, to be sold and owned and bred, while a strict census keeps their numbers manageable and under control. The best any girl can hope for is to end up as some man’s forever wife, but most are simply sold and resold until they’re all used up. Only in the wilderness, away from the city, can true freedom be found. Aya has spent her whole life in the mountains, looking out for her family and hiding from the world, until the day the Trackers finally catch her. Stolen from her home, and being groomed for auction, Aya is desperate to escape her fate and return to her family, but her only allies are a loyal wolf she’s raised from a pup and a strange mute boy who may be her best hope for freedom . . . if she can truly trust him. The Glass Arrow is a haunting, yet hopeful, new novel from Kristen Simmons, the author of the popular Article 5 trilogy.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. It’s almost exactly the plot of Ursula LeGuin’s “Wild Girls” novella, which I would recommend reading instead.

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