Series: Of Metal and Wishes #1
Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books on August 5th 2014
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult, Retelling
There are whispers of a ghost in the slaughterhouse where sixteen-year-old Wen assists her father in his medical clinic—a ghost who grants wishes to those who need them most. When one of the Noor, men hired as cheap factory labor, humiliates Wen, she makes an impulsive wish of her own, and the Ghost grants it. Brutally.
Guilt-ridden, Wen befriends the Noor, including their outspoken leader, a young man named Melik. At the same time, she is lured by the mystery of the Ghost and learns he has been watching her... for a very long time.
As deadly accidents fuel tensions within the factory, Wen must confront her growing feelings for Melik, who is enraged at the sadistic factory bosses and the prejudice faced by his people at the hand of Wen’s, and her need to appease the Ghost, who is determined to protect her against any threat—real or imagined. She must decide whom she can trust, because as her heart is torn, the factory is exploding around her... and she might go down with it.
Do you ever read and a book and think that technically you’re supposed to love everything about it, but you just somehow find yourself completely detached from everything and everyone? That’s what happened to me while reading Of Metal and Wishes. The premise sounded like something I would really enjoy (a Phantom of the Opera retelling? Count me in!) and the story contained intriguing elements (Chinese influence, a slaughterhouse setting) but I didn’t care what would happen to any of the characters and was bored throughout.
After her mother’s death, a young girl called Wen is forced to leave her childhood cottage to live above her father’s medical clinic located next to a slaughterhouse. Now, instead sowing dresses, she sutures wounds to assist him as he is the only doctor on the compound. In order to increase profits, the corrupt factory bosses bring in foreign workers as cheap labor, which stirs up deeply rooted race prejudices. In addition, the factory is apparently haunted by a ghost who can grant wishes to those it deems worthy. After a particular incident in the dining hall, angry and skeptical Wen demands the ghost prove its existence. A wish that brings dramatic consequences.
Sounds good, right? Not the most original premise but certainly capable of delivering a good story. Except, I HAD SO MANY PROBLEMS.
So let’s count:
Problem #1: Special snowflake syndrome
I really wanted to like Wen. She’s a doctor, stitches people up and can take all the disgusting sights she is confronted with in the clinic. Who doesn’t love a competent main character? But she was also extremely bland and dull. She’s a good girl, gentle and caring, extremely naive (for no apparent reason) and quite stupid (at least her deductive skills are seriously questionable). But this wouldn’t even have bothered me really, hadn’t it been for her total special snowflake syndrome. Basically, Wen was presented as the One Good Non-Racist person, the Only One Who Can See The Truth and in that was painted as being completely exceptional. As is so often the case in YA fiction, the author tries to make us like and empathize with the female protagonist by depicting her as “different from all those other girls” (a book trope I absolutely hate). Every male character in the novel tells Wen repeatedly how special and different she is, when really, I couldn’t find anything even mildly remarkable about her.
Problem #2: Rape-culture and slut-shaming
Wen is constantly being harassed by various male characters in the story and at one point, almost sexually assaulted. Rape, molestation and sexual abuse are very real and horrifying problems and I really appreciated that Sarah Fine tried to discuss these themes in her novel. However, in my opinion it wasn’t well executed. I’ll try to explain what I mean by giving you a few examples:
I bite my lip. My skin is hot with shame and I can’t quite catch my breath. “Did they do that to all of you?”
She gives me a pitying look. “Only you.”
I look at them, and I look down at myself, and I know why. All of the other women are wearing simple brown dresses with straight skirts and plain sleeves. I look like a peacock in this embroidered dress of mine.
“You mourn for the boy who lifted your skirt in the cafeteria? Who exposed your skin for all to see?”
Something inside me shrivels. I hope I’m imagining the edge in his voice. “Yes, I do. He didn’t mean it.”
“You watch yourself, Wen. Mind your manners and don’t wear fancy little girl clothes like you do. You’re asking for trouble.”
So what you’re telling me is that it’s Wen’s fault that she is harassed? That the men just can’t help themselves? Wen believes that if something happens to her, it’s her own fault, that she is in the wrong. She feels obligated to wear unattractive clothes so she won’t be noticed by men (which of course doesn’t actually work because Problem #1). There is also the fact that everyone keeps calling Wen “little girl” which annoyed me so much after a while.
And then there is the issue of slut-shaming. Whenever Wen passes by the brothel outside the compound, she utters her disgust towards the women that work there.
I understand that having women being objectified was the point. That Sarah Fine wanted to make us aware of it, but it wasn’t even really addressed at all! Instead, we were told that this is just the way things are and that we have to accept it.
Problem #3: Female friendships
Wen has a few female friends in the factory but all of them turned out to be extremely disappointing. In particular one of her closest friends just completely betrayed her and treated her like crap. Not helping Wen when she needed it, never standing by her. There is clearly zero trust, zero loyalty and zero solidarity between them. So what exactly makes you think you’re friends, Wen?
It seemed to me that the only reason Sarah Fine even put other female characters into the story was to show us how special and pure the protagonist is. Apparently, it’s impossible for a girl to be amazing and the star in her own story without putting down other female characters.
Problem #4: World building
Wen’s culture has a Chinese influence but I couldn’t help but wish we would have gotten more of that Asian feel. Honestly, if it weren’t for the cover, I don’t even think that would have been obvious. I appreciate the diversity but I think it should have been done more elaborately.
I also would have liked to have a little more insight into what it was like outside of the slaughterhouse compound. We know close to nothing of the outside world, and while this might serve as a way to create a sense of confinement, I think more information would have benefitted the story.
Problem #5: Romance
I don’t even know what to say, it was just hopelessly bland. Maybe it was just because I didn’t care what happened to either of them, but I didn’t feel any chemistry between Wen and Melik. I didn’t root for them, there seemed to be no depth of feeling. They constantly repeated the same words to each other; Melik’s standard phrase “Wen always has medicine” wasn’t even slightly romantic or endearing and all Wen seemed to be able to think about Melik was “this Noor boy who doesn’t know his place”.
Also, there was love triangle (more on that below).
Problem #6: Pacing
Compared to other fantasy novels this one was relatively short. But somehow, I still felt like the story was dragged out. The best way I can describe it is by saying that I felt like the author dragged the novel in length instead of depth. Instead of filling pages by developing characters and themes, Sarah Fine strung one event after the other without it ever really going anywhere. I was bored throughout the first two thirds and the last third felt rushed.
Problem #7: Writing
I had trouble connecting with Sarah Fine’s writing. It was very repetitive and some of the metaphors and similes used were very clumsy. I also had an issue with how gory this novel was. Let me explain: I have never before criticized a book for having too much gore. Quite the opposite, I like it when authors don’t shy away from violence, blood and the disgusting things in life. Except that in this case, there was entirely too much gore and entirely too little of everything else. Completely overdone. As much as I enjoy grisly descriptions, you can’t just use them to replace the story.
Problem #8: Complete lack of character development
This one speaks for itself. I was especially disappointed with what the author did (or didn’t do, I guess) with Bo’s character. He had the potential to be EPIC. He could have saved the entire story! Instead, she decided to make him kind of pathetic and didn’t develop him at all.
Now that my long rant has come to an end I will give you a few things I enjoyed:
– The love triangle: As mentioned above, there is a love triangle, BUT it didn’t really annoy me. It is clear from the beginning where Wen’s true affection lies and there is no back and forth between the two guys.
– Wen’s relationship with her father: I liked their relationship a lot because it was complex and realistic. Wen loved her father but she also saw that he had many flaws and her father was trying to do the best he could to keep Wen safe.
– The themes: The novel tackled themes such as race and class in a good manner.
Honestly, no one is more surprised than me that I didn’t like this book. I’m usually a sucker for these kinds of historical fantasy stories. But this one just rubbed me the wrong way. If you are interested in reading a YA fantasy that deals with the topics of racism and prejudice I would steer you towards The Winner’s Curse or The Girl of Fire and Thorns which both deal with the issues better and are much more enjoyable in my opinion. If you’re looking for something Asian inspired I suggest Eon: Dragoneye Reborn or Stormdancer, which both really utilize the different cultures to create their own unique world. I won’t be picking up the second book in the Of Metal and Wishes duology.