Initial reaction: I definitely have a number of constructive things to say about "Stung", but in the string of YA dystopian novels I've read, this proved disappointing on many levels. The thematics, the cliches, the structuring and characterizations. And that hurts considering the premise is quite interesting.
In the measure of YA dystopic fiction that I've personally read, there have been many titles I've completely and thoroughly enjoyed. Nancy Farmer's "The House of the Scorpion", Patrick Ness's "Chaos Walking" trilogy, Sarah Beth Durst's "Vessel", Moira Young's "Blood Red Road," to name a few. I would even count Ernest Cline's wonderful "Ready Player One" in that consideration. But for many of the prevalent titles I've perused in this genre, there have been others that have really dropped the ball. Despite having interesting premises, some cede to what one of my friends has coined the "dystoromance" genre. Meaning? The book might have an interesting backdrop of a dystopian society and sci-fi/fantasy leanings, but it's never developed. It takes a background seat and merely provides the court for the main event - the romantic relationship of two leads within the novel.
If the only problem with Bethany Wiggins' novel "Stung" were its classification as a "dystoromance" novel, I might've been disappointed, but I certainly wouldn't have been upset about it. I thought the novel had a very interesting backdrop with respect to a society where the mutant bee population was responsible for spreading a flu that wiped out the population on a wide scale, and so a vaccine was developed for it, but the vaccine started transforming people into beasts after certain levels. A young woman named Fiona, who had been comatose for many years, wakes to find her environment completely changed, a mysterious mark on her skin, her brother a beast, and on the run in an environment she no longer recognizes. Heck, she barely recognizes herself because she was 13 years old before she went comatose, but wakes to find she's in a body similar to her elder sister - a young woman.
Sounds interesting, right? Original? Inventive?
Believe me when I say that this novel is absolutely none of these things. And as much as it stings me to say this (no pun intended), I went into this novel expecting a enthralling, resonant story, but came out of it feeling like it was an underdeveloped, disconnected, offensive, infuriating and insipid mess. Having read Wiggins "Shifting" (which I rather liked despite some issues) makes it worse because there were a lot of elements in this novel that were similar to that novel, and carried over several of the problematic measures that were in that work.
I know I'm sounding blunt about it, but there's really no easy way for me to convey my disappointment with this novel. Fiona is an insufferable heroine to follow. True, she's a 13-year old trapped in a 17-year old body. She's going to have maturity issues and a rough time catching up. She's going to be flawed, she's going to make mistakes. I get that. I wouldn't expect anyone else to think less in that consideration. There was even a part of me that thought she'd be more emotionally damaged and shocked by the revelations she came to. But while it was dealt with somewhat - which I do give credit for - I'm surprised that it didn't have more to it in this story.
The start of Fiona's journey actually wasn't so bad, she tries to get her bearings in the middle of an environment she used to know, deteriorated and in quite a bit of disarray. The introduction of a young kid named Arrin actually peaked my interest as well, and I was actually far more interested in Arrin because it was insinuated that she was younger than Fiona and had faced quite a bit of hardship. She was also pretty funny and spot on with her assertions where it counted, resourceful as well. She was a survivor as a Fecs, disguising herself in a society that had gone militant. The story left me with a lot of questions in the beginning about why the girls had to hide the fact that they were...well...girls. Between binding their breasts and cutting their hair (Fiona didn't react well to the latter).
As the reasons were given, I realized that this novel and I would have problems. If you're building a dystopian world, obviously the issues you raise with it are going to have impact. You can't let it fall by the wayside without dealing with the weight it brings, because otherwise you fall into the danger of those measures being used simply as a vehicle for conflict, rather than for dealing with them for what they are in themselves. This novel's built in a misogynistic (women are scarce, used to mate since the population's dying, and some are hunted for more fiercely than the infected beasts, treated terribly as well), ableist (people are shunned/cast off for being either physically or mentally disabled) society where the militia controls the dealings of things inside "the wall." There's very loose worldbuilding here - those are heavy issues.
Let me make this very clear: I DO NOT like novels that trivialize rape, molestation, or denounce the roles of female characters. This book did all three and it made me so upset I had to walk away from it a few times. The problem in the novel wasn't that the novel made mention of these issues - it was they way they were handled. It was so casual, I kept thinking to myself "Why on earth is this being shown this way?"
Fiona's shown being taken advantage of in several places in this novel and I was utterly mortified and baffled by it. I understand this is world being built, but it's not realistic at all. To simplify the enemy being these men who will take advantage of any woman they come across simply because she's a woman and child-bearing and use it as a vehicle for conflict, not for the issue in itself, is uncalled for. And this is supposed to be a YA novel. Consider that. This is a disturbing trend I've seen in several novels in this genre as of late, and seriously - it's got to stop.
What made me even more upset was that the only saving grace to these actions just so happens to be the love interest.
Dreyden's introduction had me seeing red because for one - it was instalust on the part of Fiona when she notes him as her captor. For another, he treats her like crap when she's disguised as a boy, and there's really no reason for it other than the mark on her. When he finds out she's a girl, let alone the girl he grew up with, he becomes nicer to her. He does apologize in spells for his actions and I probably could've gotten behind that if he hadn't been so brash in other points of the work following that. There's really very little holding their relationship together, I felt, in the context of this novel. The romantic scenes between them arrived with awkward timing - and I'm not saying some of it wasn't decent, but it felt like an overfocus, especially with the events going on around them. I would've appreciated more of Dreyden's fears of Fiona if it weren't told to me in such explicit form. I would've appreciated not being hit over the head with not only the fact that Fiona could turn any moment, but also that it could mean his death for choosing to help her. And Fiona's memories and coming to terms do not have the weight that it should have for the seriousness they should have.
And the romantic lines are so painful. I think there was even one line where Fiona's crying and they're tongue kissing and both of them are tasting her tears on their tongues. That's not romantic, that's gross. As is the matter of someone ripping their heart out for someone else because they *love* them. It's just...over the top for sentiment.
At one point, I would've said that the characters that interested me the most were the secondary ones, particularly Arrin because I liked her character up until a certain point. But then a few revelations regarding that character pretty much made me want to put down the book and not carry on with it. I decided to do so anyway and it just became worse as it went on. It's hard to care for a heroine who screws up in almost every opportunity, even to the point where she nearly kills someone she loves (which is something that happened in "Shifting" too, though on an opposite plane, both involved a gun and shooting point blank it seemed). But when you have a mysterious, somewhat spot on side character who suddenly table-flips in motivation and personality? It feels like a cheap shot in the scheme of events in the novel.
There was only so much suspension of disbelief I could do with "Stung" and I reached my limit in several spells here with how the matters, the world, the characters were handled. The ending tied up far too neatly for the build up this novel had to offer and didn't make sense to me. I couldn't in good measure recommend this work given its issues. I've read better, more vetted, versatile worlds, higher stakes, more vivid and deep personal relations and real characters in a dystopian realm than this.
Overall score: 1/5
Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Walker Children's.