Wings, by Aprilynne Pike; HarperTeen
I’m sure we’ve all noticed this, but it seems like every YA supernatural/fantasy book that’s been published within the past couple years or so shares a packaging design style with the Twilight series: single bright images (flowers or half a full-lipped face, or, in this instance, petals in water) surrounded by dark backgrounds. The effect of this style is dramatic and attractive, but it’s gotten so rampant as to be cliche–I’ve even noticed that several publishers are rifling through their YA archives and repackaging old works in this style (c.f. the recently re-released works of L.J. Smith, who will probably show up here at some point). But, while these books share design elements with Twifail, not many of them have the dubious honor of a blurb from that series’ author front and center on the cover. I knew when I saw S. Meyer’s glowing praise on this book that I was in for a treat. Which is to say, I knew I was going to hate it until I died.
Wings is about an orphan named Laurel (HAHA GET IT IT’S A FLOWERING PLANT … okay, I can’t rag on Pike for this too much; achingly appropriate names are a common fantasy trope and I’m certainly guilty of this offense), a young girl whose story begins after about a hundred pages of stilted, bland exposition and oblique references to the ‘reveal’ of the story (LOL SHE DRINKS SPRITE BECAUSE SHE’S A FAERY GUIZ). For about the first third of the book, nothing out of the ordinary happens; Laurel moves to a new town with her mother and father and starts attending public school after having been home-schooled for most of her life. However, there are clear cues throughout that Laurel is ‘different’ from her mundane peers: she doesn’t eat meat, she has flawless skin, she never washes her hair (yet it remains perfectly clean and buoyant); she’s essentially the living embodiment of a magazine ad, and the text even makes reference to the supermodel-level of her physical beauty.
If you’re sitting there and thinking, gee, this story places an awful lot of weight on appearance, then you’re starting to understand the seedlings (trying to keep with the plant theme here) of my rage.
Laurel meets and makes friends with a boy named David, who is, commendably, an actually nice guy, though–like every other character–a bit bland. He’s faultlessly supportive, attractive, and intelligent, but I guess that’s better than the OTHER stereotype of YA fantasy fiction, Mr. Stalking Is Love.
Oh wait. He’s here, too, in the form of Tamani, a mysterious boy that Laurel meets when she returns to her family’s old property for some alone time. You see, just when Laurel feels like she’s starting to fit in, a giant flower sprouts out of her back and puts a real damper on her social life, especially because she at first thinks it’s a cancerous tumor. Not that she would ever see a doctor about a possible tumor or anything; Pike has neatly avoided having to deal with the situation in a reasonable fashion by making Laurel’s adoptive parents into doctor-hating holistic healing hippies.
Tamani reveals what everyone with even a fraction of a working brain cell has already sussed out by now: Laurel, like him, is a fairy. Her childhood home is on a plot of land that houses a gate to Avalon, the fairy realm, and that’s why she had to grow up among humans–so that she could protect it, and become its legal inheritor upon her adoptive parents’ death. Except then they fucked it all up and moved, which has caused the fairies to flip out trying to befuddle everyone who comes to see the land in order to keep it from being sold.
Tamani adds that he’s been watching Laurel for basically her entire life AND that, though she doesn’t remember it, they were best bros before she was given over to live a human’s life.
Here’s my problem with Mr. Stalking is Love and his comrades: it’s not that I hate the character trait in and of itself. I have no problem with the inclusion of creepy dudes in a story. I love creepy dudes. What I don’t love is how the narrator never acknowledges, either implicitly or explicitly, that the stalking behaviors are problematic. Tamani’s comments about watching her since she was taken in by her adoptive parents are coupled with narrative description that emphasizes his desire for Laurel, which to me is just a sparkling cocktail of creepy. Laurel is thrilled and flattered, of course, and also seems pretty unfazed when she questions him about the glittery smears he left on her arm the next time she sees him and he responds that they are fairy jism.
I’m not making this up. The story couches it as innocuous because Pike conceives of fairies as plants: female fairies ‘bloom’ (hence the back-flower) periodically, and when male fairies are in the presence of a blooming female, they produce pollen. Which is to say they become aroused and ejaculate on her. You can put it any way you want, Pike, and it is still going to be skeevy, because that’s what’s going on.
And, again, it’s not these events in and of themselves that disturb me. It’s that they go unexamined by the text. Laurel is just kind of like ‘Oh, okay’ when Tamani explains his embarrassing glitter-jizz and the narration treats it as just a funny ha-ha, refusing to explore the weird and threatening sexual dimension that this male/female mechanic implies.
I’d like to tell you that Tamani is the story’s biggest problem, but he’s not. Like Twilight, almost nothing of real import happens until the last forty-odd pages, which are crammed with incident and what passes for ‘action’ in Pike’s deathless, blunt-edged prose. You see, the fairies have failed to befuddle the latest prospective buyer for Laurel’s old house, and the deal is almost set to go through. This turns out to be a greater problem than anyone imagined: David and Laurel discover via some reckless investigating that the buyer is actually a troll, a.k.a. Public Enemy #1 to the fairy race.
The trolls are described as misshapen and ugly; reading their descriptions kind of reminded me of how warp-spasms are described in Irish epic poetry–eyeballs bulging, wrongly jointed limbs, etc. One of the trolls is so grossly proportioned and so mentally frail that she’s referred to as little more than a dog, an image reinforced when Tamani shoots her dead later in the narrative. Not that you’re meant to feel any pity for these guys or anything. They’re uniformly evil, and their vile natures are directly related to their hideous exteriors.
The specific argument that Tamani puts forth is that trolls are evil because they’re asymmetrical. Conversely, fairies are uniformly good because they’re symmetrical, and humans can go either way because we are sometimes symmetrical and sometimes not. Yes, indeed, this world’s entire theory of moral character is based on whether or not you were born to look like a supermodel. If that doesn’t inspire your gag reflex, then you and I are probably not going to get along.
This book’s underlying messages are even MORE insidious than Twilight’s. The book DIRECTLY equates beauty with morality and ugliness with vice. Trolls behave badly out of self-loathing for their deformed bodies and they cannot be reformed, no matter how hard the poor beautiful fairies try. There is no gray area. There are no characters who question or complicate this dictum. Mix this absolutely reprehensible message with the already problematic situation of Tamani’s stalk-lust and you have a veritable cauldron of disquieting and downright offensive suggestions for teen girls.
Love the beautiful, for they are surely wholesome and kind.
Hate the ugly, for they surely mean you harm.
Submit to your boyfriend, because he only wants to protect you.
Rating: Half a Coke can. The only thing that keeps this thing from dipping into the negatives is that the secondary female character isn’t portrayed as a heinous bitch–though she’s also barely there–and that ‘fairies as plants’ isn’t a terrible idea, just a terribly executed one. By the way, I’d really like to meet the professional reviewers who complimented this writer’s prose. I would like to meet them and I would like them to share with me their obviously prodigious drug stash.