Read: 4th September 2020 – 8th September 2020
Spoilers in review: Yes, but this book isn’t worth reading in the first place
CW: violence, murder, child murder, child abuse, sexual assualt, rape, mention of pedophillia, ableism, fatphobia, homophobia, pushing of Christianity as moral, victim blaming
This is the worst book I’ve read so far in 2020. It’s up there among the worst books I’ve read ever. I only read the whole thing because I don’t think that it’s fair to give a book that I DNF’d 1 star and a full negative review, and at least one of the criticisms I have for this book required me to have read the whole thing to ensure that it was valid. This book isn’t just bad, it’s harmful. This will be a rant review, there will be spoilers, and I will not be polite.
The worldbuilding was awful, and at times what little of it there was contradicted itself a few pages later. The world is a fairly generic dystopia, nothing about it stood out to me, and it wasn’t particularly imaginative. The villain is named Villinkish, for crying out loud. A lot of people live in deep poverty and struggle to feed themselves on a day to day basis. Oh! Except for this old woman who sells fresh produce, sandwiches, and ice cold cans of lemonade across the whole city that she gets from ~somewhere~ and everyone’s able to buy things from her every day. The Regime (that’s what the government is officially called in this book, by the way) decides that all the children have to be surrendered and raised by the state. Oh! Except for a lot of people apparently, with no rhyme or reason as to who gets to stay with their family and who gets taken away. I would put actual money on this just being an excuse to get Niko away from his parents, and Gschwandtner completely forgot about it afterwards. Religion has been completely outlawed, and all the priests were hunted down and executed years ago. Oh! Except for a convent that was allowed to keep running for some reason, and this one priest who somehow survived and is able to keep being very public about being a priest and everybody knows him and he doesn’t get executed because………. I have no idea.
In addition, this book was straight up badly written. There were often sentences that made no sense, which made it obvious to me that this badly needed at least one more round of edits, though I doubt that would’ve managed to save this mess. When sentences did make sense, the writing style was overly simplistic. It read like a children’s book, and a bad children’s book at that. Which makes no sense considering the amount of times that rape and sexual assault were used throughout the story.
The story was mostly told out of chronological order. This wouldn’t be a problem if the flashbacks had been clearly defined as such, or if they’d been woven seamlessly into the story. But they were not. Every single POV and time switch was done with nothing but a new line, with no indication of what was going on, and with no logic to them at all. This had the end result of the majority of a section titled ‘The Aftermath’ mostly showing events from before the incident that its supposed to be about the aftermath of, and there being at least one scene that I legitimately cannot place anywhere in the storyline as the flashback shown immediately after it overtook and contradicted the original scene. It gave me the impression that Gschwandtner had heard the writing advice to write scenes in whichever order you want to, which is usually good advice, but then she forgot to move them into their correct places afterwards.
Circling back to the use of rape and sexual assault, it was all just there for shock value, and to emphasise just how evil some of the people in this world are. To me it just communicates a lack of creativity on Gschwandtner’s part. Also, a major incident in the book is when Niko nearly rapes El, only changing his mind at the last second. El cuts his face during the struggle. First of all, I don’t know how Gschwandtner expected me to be able to sympathise with this character for the rest of the book, because I was certainly unable to. Second, El cutting her would-be rapist’s face and Niko nearly raping someone are treated as equal crimes by absolutely everybody in the book, without exception. This victim blaming isn’t condemned by a single person, not even El, which results in a narrative that pushes the idea that if you defend yourself when you’re getting raped then you’re just as bad as your rapist. This is appalling and disgusting. Third, the almost rape isn’t actually shown to the reader through the ordinary narration, but through both El and Niko telling side characters their side of the story after the fact in excruciating detail. This was a defining moment in the book, and a major incident for both these characters. And it wasn’t shown, it was told. Either have the guts to show (not tell) what you want to include in your character’s storylines, find a better way of telling (The detail wasn’t necessary! It all boils down to a single sentence and that was truly all that needed to be said!), or just don’t include it at all.
Near the end of the book, El suddenly had major wilderness survival powers, despite having been raised in a convent for most of her life and never having had any reason why she should possibly know how to make cups out of leaves. Because of course she does.
If the only reference to queer people in your book is in the context of someone maybe being a pedophile, then you have written a bad book. It’s that fucking simple. Gschwandtner has written a bad book.
The narration contained multiple incidences of ableism and fatphobia, and unsurprisingly these went unchallenged and uncondemned.
If I had known that this book was going to push Christianity as being the last bastion of goodness in an otherwise awful world, that would have been enough for me to not pick this book up. This isn’t something that I’m interested in reading about at all, and nothing about this book’s marketing mentioned that this was the approach that it would be taking. There are also several references to the crusades, specifically framing them as a good as positive thing for the church to have done. There’s also no mention of how other religions were treated during and after society’s collapse. All that anyone cares about is Christianity.
I’m a firm believer that, when writing, you should google the names you’re planning on using in your book at least once, even if that name is for a minor character who isn’t going to be on more than one page. Do me a favour and google the name ‘Osana’. What’s the main association with that name? Is it something that a sensible author should want their book to remind the reader of, even for a moment? I could give Gschwandtner the benefit of the doubt and assume that she got the name off of a baby name website and just didn’t check it, or I can assume that it’s a deliberate reference to yet another fictional mess. Come to think of it, it would be fitting if the link was intentional. This character is only mentioned once, and doesn’t appear on page, but seeing the name ‘Osana’ on the page gave me such a visceral reaction that I had to step away from the book for a bit.
When I saw that Gschwandtner had included questions for book clubs at the end of the book, and on her website, I couldn’t help but laugh. No self respecting book club would discuss this book using those questions. If they discussed it at all, it would be about how terrible it is. A Place Called Zamora is a masterclass on how to get absolutely everything wrong. If I’d written anything that was even a fraction as bad or harmful as this book, quite frankly I’d be embarrassed, and it would never see the light of day.
I requested this because I share my name with one of the protagonists. More fool me I guess. Obviously, I don’t recommend this to anyone.
I received an e-arc through Netgalley in return for an honest review. Any quotes may differ in the published version.