Bethany Wiggins’ Stung is a YA fantasy novel about a young woman from a dystopian future where one poorly planned scientific overreach created a chain effect of terrible circumstances. Fiona went to sleep as a 13-year-old girl and woke up in a 17-year-old body. The world she left was threatened by things she didn’t really understand, and when she wakes it seems like the worst has come to pass. The world, or at least her little patch of Colorado, is destroyed, and its people thrust into chaos. She has a mysterious tattoo on her hand—an oval with five digits on either side—and even worse, her brother is a vicious monster. She flees their decaying house and goes on the lam looking for anything that reminds her of her old life.
The brave new world our heroine finds herself in is broken into three parts. Those who live behind the wall are well off, fit, healthy, married, and procreating like nobody’s business. Those outside the wall are either beasts, Raiders, or Militia. Beasts were once children who were given a vaccine that turned them into raging zombies, Raiders pillage, rape, torture, and kill anything they get their grubby hands on, while the Militia defends the wall from Raiders and beasts alike. And Fecs, those who live in the sewers, do whatever is necessary to survive.
Fiona attracts the attention of a young girl named Arrin who alternately helps and berates her, depending on what mood she’s in. And soon they run into the Raiders, a gaggle of men who hunt women and are in turn hunted by the Militia. When Fiona is taken captive by the Militia, she re-friends Dreyden Bowen, now grown into a handsome young adult. But, of course, no one in this book is what they seem. Arrin’s cunning could also be deception, Bowen’s chivalry has hints of violence and rage, and even sweet little Fiona is far more powerful than she gives herself credit for.
There’s not much to Stung. It is basically just a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. Stuff happens to Fiona, she reacts to it, she meets people along the way who go out of their way to either help, hinder, or hurt her for no other reason than because they have nothing else to do that day, and she has her final showdown with the Big Bad. The villain isn’t even revealed until the last few chapters (though an astute reader would guess early on who it is, and I’m still not sure I buy the person Wiggins chose).
I don’t read enough YA (i.e.: I don’t read any YA) to know if this is a trend or an outlier there, but I do read enough adult fantasy to know that first person narrative is all over that genre. And I’m sick and tired of it. Harry Dresden and Sookie Stackhouse can get away with it, but that doesn’t mean every single urban fantasy since them has to be told from the main character’s perspective. I think Stung would’ve functioned better if told in third person omniscient, but maybe it’s YA standard operating procedure or something. First person means you’re stuck with whatever the narrator can see/experience/think. Anything going on outside their periphery is moot until the main character wises up to it. Which means the reader has to sit through secondary characters constantly explaining things to the narrator or the reader is left fumbling in the dark until the narrator gets around to discovering the answers. Again, that is a narrative device that can be intriguing. But Stung is not one of those cases. There is only one place in the book where being in her head makes the things happening to her all the more visceral for the reader, but our reaction would have been just as intense if it were a well-written third person description.
But the biggest stumbling block is the plot itself. Like any fairy tale, you must simply accept that the world Wiggins has created is the way it is and not think about it too much. There are plot holes on top of plot holes, and Wiggins relies too much on coincidence and convenience. The worst thing you can do is pull at plot threads until the whole thing crumbles apart and you realize you’re laying in bed at 2am and you have to work the next morning and now you’re annoyed and grumpy and how did the bees die exactly and did they do it all of a sudden or over a period of time and why….
There’s a lot to like about this book, despite all my nitpicking. The characters, while blatant tropes, are interesting and well-drawn. Fiona is the antithesis of Briar Rose, and Dreyden couldn’t be any less princely, and that’s what makes the book really work. Even without the ludicrous circumstances conspiring to bring them together, Dreyden and Fiona make a fascinating pair, and I’m rather curious to see where Wiggins takes them. Apparently there is a sequel in the pipeline, which makes sense given how the book ended.
The other good thing about Stung is that it’s a quick read, and a relatively easy one. I don’t want to sound like a boring old prude, but there is quite a bit of a threat of a specific violent act that I think is a little above most 12 year olds (as the book is marketed to). If I were working in a public library again, I’d recommend this book to older teens rather than junior high schoolers. But that’s just me. Tor.com has helpfully posted an excerpt, and I highly recommend checking that out first. If Wiggins’ writing style appeals to you, then off you pop to your local independent bookshop.
Stung is published by Walker. It is available April 2.
Alex Brown is an archivist, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.