For those of you just tuning in, this is I AM READING THIS SO HARD RIGHT NOW, where I talk about books I am loving the hell out of. Of course, I won’t summarize them, because I am a busy 21st century woman with some heavy, heavy shit on my mind. Go find your plot recaps somewhere else! I’m looking at you, teens doing book reports.
If you were my patron at the library, I’d be shoving this book into your hands like nobody’s business. I am aggressive when it comes to Reader’s Advisory. Take the books I recommend or face the wrath of an over-caffeinated, neurotic librarian!
Or maybe I’m feeling tough and ballsy because I’m talking about The Culling: The Torch Keeper: Book One by Steven Dos Santos. There are some tough mofos in this YA novel and it’s gory and suspenseful as hay-ell. The Culling comes in one of my favorite book flavors (yes, I call them flavors), Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic. Remember the Capitol and President Snow in The Hunger Games? The Establishment, the tyrannical government that rules the world of The Culling, makes the Capitol look like a bunch of pussycats knocked out on ‘ludes. I hope Dos Santos won’t begrudge me making a comparison to The Hunger Games, but I feel it’s very apt. The Culling is fast-moving and totally gruesome. It also bares a bit of a resemblance to the Furnace books by Alexander Gordon Smith, which I also enjoyed.
The Culling, of course, stands apart from The Hunger Games and the Furnace books in many ways. I’ve been referring to it as “The Gay Hunger Games”, which I have to stop doing, because people immediately imagine some sort of lip-sync for your life scenario. So, let me explain myself a little better. The Culling features families being torn apart (literally and figuratively) by cruel, totalitarian governments and bloody fights to the death. But, unlike other titles of this ilk, this novel features several gay male characters. Lucky, our narrator? Diggory? They are tough and strong and absolute badasses. They are the ideal action movie heroes. Are they into each other? Sure. But you wouldn’t think of messing with either of them for a second.
Squeamish readers better head for the hills, because I’m about to go straight into an excerpt. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, suckers! Here, all the Recruits for the Trials are gathered together in front of their drill sergeant:
Slade resumes her place front and center. “Five Recruits selected for the Trials, but only four present.” She pulls a printed form out of her jacket pocket and eyes it eagerly. “That would make our deserter–“
“Ophelia Juniper here! I mean, present!” calls a voice that seems more suited to a squealing child. She practically skips, then trots, to the spot next to Cypress. Cypress doesn’t bother to conceal a snort.
“Ophelia Juniper reporting for duty!” she proclaims. “Oh, you already know that. I mean that my name’s Ophelia.” She giggles, her hand pressed to her chest. “I’m sooo sorry I’m late. I have this habit of getting lost all the time…” Her hand twists one of her curls over her ear. “…but here I am! I made it!”
The grin on Slade’s face stretches so wide I’m expecting her lips to tear apart. “Actually, I wanted to thank you!”
My stomach muscles clench.
Ophelia presses the tips of her fingers to her chest. “Thank me? For what?”
An invisible hand wipes away the grin on Slade’s face. “For providing a lesson on the importance of punctuality.“
The hand caressing Ophelia’s curls balls into a fist.
“Owwww!!” Ophelia’s hands reach up to grasp Slade’s…”Please, stop! You’re hurting me! Ah!”
“Am I, dear? I’ve got just the remedy to ease your pain.” Slade’s free hand digs into her tunic pocket, producing a flash of silver…
Slade holds the knife directly in front of Ophelia’s horrified face, allowing her to memorize every single notch on its cutting edge. Then, dragging Ophelia by the hair, Slade dumps her at Cypress’s feet. “Will you try to prevent me from teaching this slacker a lesson, Recruit Goslin?”
Ophelia reaches out a wraps a hand around Cypress’s ankle. “Please! Don’t let her…please…help…!”
Cypress never looks at her. Instead, she just kicks Ophelia’s hand away as if she’s a pesky rat. “I will not try and help her, Sir!” Her reply is almost drowned out by Ophelia’s shrieks.
Slade smiles. “Very good, Goslin!” Then she grips Ophelia’s hair once again, yanks her to her feet, and pulls her in front of Digory. “What about you, Tycho? Are you going to try and help her?”
“I…I…” He bows his head.
“Help…me…” Ophelia is squealing now.
Ophelia reaches out to him. “Please…”
“I…I…can’t.” He turns away.
“I’ll take that as a no, Recruit.” Slade grins… Ignoring the bloody claw marks on her hand, Slade heaves Ophelia to Gideon’s feet.
“I won’t help her, Sir!” Gideon practically screams before Slade can even pose the question. He’s obviously trying to get this torment over with as soon as possible, not that I blame him. Except now it shifts the terrible burden onto me.
Slade hauls Ophelia right in front of me. Her feet drop out from under her, but Slade holds her aloft by the hair. “No! Please…no!” Her legs flail, her body racked by sobs. Her eyes meet mine, pleading. “Help me. Please don’t let her kill me!”
“Are you going to help her, Recruit Spark?” Slade bellows at the top of her lungs.
Ophelia reaches out a bloodied hand. “I know you won’t let me die. You’re not like the others. You’re good…”
“Please. Don’t say that,” I whisper, more to myself.
Slade presses the glistening blade to the girl’s throat. “Answer, Recruit Spark! Help or not?”
My eyes trace the tears streaming down Ophelia’s face. “Don’t make me do this…”
The point of the blade pricks the girl’s skin, drawing a drop of blood that knits like a poisoned thread across her throat.
“I beg you!” Ophelia’s voice quivers.
Spasms wrack my body. Could I be quick enough to knock the knife out of Slade’s hand before it find its mark?
The blade digs deeper…
“I don’t want to die,” Ophelia blubbers. “I want to see my mama…”
“No!” I shriek, drowning out Ophelia’s screams. “I won’t help you! I won’t help you!” I scream the words over and over again, my hands over my ears, my eyes closed, snuffing out any trace of this girl…
~~The Culling, Steven Dos Santos, pgs. 117-122
Hey, y’all. Don’t get too attached to any of these characters here, OK? This, by far, isn’t the most graphic passage in this book. This is only the the tip of the blood and guts covered iceberg. Promise!
One of the things I appreciated about The Culling is the fact that though several of the characters are gay, this just isn’t a big deal to the other characters. That is to say, the only good thing about this futuristic world is that homosexuality is commonplace enough to unremarked upon. Gay marriage seems to be just another typical, everyday part of society. Of course, the rest of society has become inhumane and barbaric. Oh well. You can’t win ’em all.
I can’t wait to see how this is being received with teenagers. This is so different than the other books I’ve considered for the Rainbow List thus far. Isn’t it time for more gritty science fiction titles featuring gay characters? I think we’re ready for this.
~Love and Libraries, Ingrid