A review by Evie Kendal
Stung follows the tale of Fiona Tarsis as she awakes in the ruins of her family home, several years older than she remembers being. She has a tattoo on her right hand that she doesn’t remember getting but she feels instinctively that she should cover it up. It appears her family have long ago abandoned the dwelling, until Fiona’s twin brother suddenly comes in and attacks her, growling like an animal.
Fiona escapes only to find the streets almost deserted and the neighbourhood completely decimated. She comes across former classmates who are now much older and are guarding the streets with guns, one of which tells her she had better start dressing like a boy for “protection.” After checking she doesn’t have “the mark of the beast” on her hand, Fiona is allowed to continue through the streets where she is rescued and taken underground into the sewers by a street urchin named Arrin.
Fiona is confused and frightened in this world that is so different from the one she remembers. Arrin asks her whether she is from the “other side of the wall,” however Fiona doesn’t understand what this means. She also can’t figure out why people with tattoos on their hands appear to be hunted by the remaining people in the town, with bounties being paid in ounces of honey.
She remembers her sister telling her that honey would become more precious than gold if the endangered bees actually became extinct and the flow-on effect of this species loss would lead to worldwide famine. Arrin is shocked by how clean Fiona is, and the fact she still has long hair and looks like a girl. She claims the raiders pursuing Fiona in the streets never let girls escape; Fiona now owes Arrin a debt for saving her life.
Arrin decides Fiona will repay her for sheltering her by helping rescue Arrin’s brother from militia custody. While Fiona doesn’t know who the militia are or why they are hunting the tattooed “Fec” as they call them, she is starving and willing to steal food as a distraction so Arrin can smuggle her brother out.
The soldiers soon capture Fiona and kill Arrin’s fleeing brother, claiming he was a “level three about to turn.” Arrin’s own tattoo indicates she is also a level three, while Fiona’s tattoo labels her a level ten, the most feared of all the marked. When the soldiers discover her level there is widespread panic; Fiona is sure she will be murdered. A level ten is a person who was exposed to ten months of the bee flu vaccine that was later discovered to turn people into insane, ravaging beasts with superhuman strength relative to dosage.
It is expected that someone in Fiona’s condition will behave like a wild animal, even to the extent of feeding on humans. Nevertheless, Fiona feels perfectly normal. After she is captured, a guardian by the name of Bowen will determine her fate, having five days to decide whether to take 8 ounces of honey for turning her in to the lab, or eighty ounces for selling her on the black market to fight to the death in the gladiatorial Pit “wall-dwellers” set up for entertainment. This element of the plot explains why Stung is often compared to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (although the rip-off cover art definitely takes it too far!).
Bowen looks strangely familiar to Fiona; she eventually realises he is the grown-up version of her former neighbour. Realising now how many years of her life are somehow missing, Fiona starts asking questions about this foreign dystopia they are now living in. Bowen discovers that she is a girl and warns her that with men outnumbering women seven-to-one she is in danger if the gangs get hold of her. Rape is an ever-present threat for the women in this novel, with men painted as sex-starved lunatics, unable to restrain themselves. While this is no doubt intended to make the male love interest seem better by comparison, it seems to be setting your standards rather too low to fall head over heels in love with the first man who doesn’t try to rape you or sell you for blood sports, for no other reason than that the alternative options are somewhat less appealing.
Despite his obvious reluctance, Bowen takes it upon himself to protect Fiona from both the gangs and the militia as she searches for answers on where she has been and how things came to be the way they are. He explains the rules of “the wall,” including that only the best and brightest members of the population are allowed to live there and that they are terminated as soon as they reach 55 years of age. He also explains how anyone with a disability is not allowed in. Due to the gender imbalance young men like him are drafted into the militia until they either prove their worth, make their fortune, or find a breeding partner to help in the re-population effort. With the chemistry building between Fiona and Bowen the reader certainly begins hoping for option 3!
Stung is face-paced and gritty. It is definitely not the book to read while eating, as the description of filth is so thorough it turns the stomach. A relatively short novel, it is mostly suited to a young adult audience, preferably one that is rather forgiving of plot holes and ridiculously unlikely events (like industrial-strength concealer that stays on the skin even after spending hours swimming through sewerage).
Having not read Collins’ novel I can’t comment on the validity of Stung’s endorsement as The Hunger Games with a wicked sting. However, I can say the overall storyline lacks plausibility. The science behind the bee flu virus and the eco-system collapse is as unsound as the romance between Bowen and Fiona is cheesy and unconvincing (it is also disturbing that at 17 they are significantly older than most of the breeding couples inside the wall).
The next book in the Stung series will be Cured, with an expected release date of March, 2014. This book will focus on Fiona and her twin brother, Jonah, and the special role they were intended to play in saving humanity from the deadly bee flu virus.