The Book’s Basics
Title: A Touch of Death
Author: Rebecca Crunden
Series: Yes, this is the first book of The Outlands Pentalogy
Genre: Science Fiction
Length: 304 pages
Initial Reaction: Overall, there are aspects of this book that I enjoy, but it feels a bit clunky at times and I strongly dislike one of the main characters.
Please note that there are spoilers in this review. These are mostly to discuss potential trigger warnings (abuse and fatphobia/indirect disordered eating).
This story is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, where the rich are very rich, and the poor are starving. There is a monarchy, and whoever speaks badly about the king or tries to rebel is at risk of execution or a jail term that will likely kill them.
Catherine is a wealthy woman who is Complemented (engaged) to Thom Anteros. His brother is Nate Anteros, and he has served a prison sentence due to speaking out against the king.
After Catherine and Nate wander through an old building, strange things start to happen to them and they become ill, particularly Nate. When Nate and Catherine have to escape the capitol and run for their lives, they encounter a lot of hardships.
While they are on the run, they begin to wonder if there is a way to heal themselves from the infection and how they were able to get it in the first place.
Who would I recommend this book to?
This is a difficult one, because the storytelling is good. The pace was also pretty good, and I was never bored while reading it, but I also wasn’t desperate to jump back in to carry on with the story after I put the book down.
It feels like it needed more editing. There are times when the point of view of the narrator feels confused. It feels like third person limited for most of the book, but occasionally the narrative dips into another character’s perspective or thoughts for part of a sentence, and it’s jarring. There are also instances where sentiments – and occasionally partial lines – are repeated in the same paragraph.
There are other inconsistencies that crop up sometimes or things that are unbelievable. For example, at one point the protagonist, Catherine, swims in some warm water in winter. When she gets out, she mentions that her hair is wet but that her coat is warm enough that it doesn’t make her cold. As someone who grew up in Canada, I know this to be demonstrably incorrect. If your hair is wet and exposed to the cold air, it’s going to freeze (yes, ice will form) or stay cold and that will make the rest of you cold. A coat won’t really help much with that.
I was enjoying the book until maybe the last third of it, as there were some things that I found problematic that properly showed themselves as patterns later on in the book.
Catherine, or Kitty, feels a little bit flat. She doesn’t have a lot of depth, and the small amount that she does have seems to revolve around her relationships with men. She doesn’t really have hobbies or desires. Close to the end of the story, there are instances where this character has fat phobic views.
However, I do have sympathy for her because of the situation that she is forced into – her Complement (fiance) being, potentially, killed, everything she has worked for professionally and socially being taken from her, and with how Nate treats her.
I hate Nate. He has had a really difficult life. He suffered child abuse and horrific abuses in prison, as well being quite ill for most of the book, but he is awful and abusive to Catherine. His past traumas don’t excuse him of his treatment of her. The tone of it feels like it is because he loves her. To clarify, Nate is Thom’s brother and Thom is Catherine’s Complement. Even with that, Nate is determined to make Catherine choose to be with him, even though she believes that Thom is dead, but he believes that he is alive. The main story really only takes place between four to five months, so he doesn’t even give her time to grieve. It’s not like he hates his brother; he loves his brother. Several times, Nate makes his move on Catherine, she rejects him, and then he becomes angry and gaslights her so that she feels bad. He also becomes violent.
An argument between Nate and Catherine when she rejects his advances:
‘But no, darling, that’s not why I want to kiss you. I’m in love with you. Don’t play the fool.’
‘I can’t do this, Nate.’
‘Because you hate me?’
‘Because I love him!’
Nate’s hand shot out and connected with a clay jug on the table, sending it to the floor with a horrible shattering sound. After a beat, he stormed into the bathroom, slamming the door so hard behind him that the glass cracked and the metal screeched.
Catherine clenched her jaw, trying not to feel guilty.
-Rebecca Crunden. A Touch of Death. Location 2303
In the above quote, Nate should accept that she is saying no. Instead, he is violent. He doesn’t hit her, but even if he is hitting things because she refused his advances, that is innappropriate behaviour. And then he leaves, causing her distress and leaving her alone. And then she feels guilty when she has done absolutely nothing wrong. This is not a healthy relationship.
I would be hesitant to recommend this to anyone who has lived through having an emotionally or physically abusive partner, or had someone pursuing them even though their advances had been rebuked. Or even anybody who has been around an abusive person at all, if reading about that kind of relationship is stressful.
If it only happened once in the book then I don’t think it would have been as bad. Maybe Nate would have learned his lesson after the first time, but it happens several times. Even other characters comment on how Catherine is being unkind to Nate after he has been disrespectful to her and she, understandably, snaps. I think how Nate treats Catherine is the biggest deterrent for me. She doesn’t really seem to think that he is being cruel to her, which honestly makes it worse. He’s not awful to her all of the time, but when he is, he is.
There are also times when a fat body is described as being disgusting. The only character described as fat is an awful person. Even though there are people who are not fat who are also awful, and one who has bad personal hygiene, the character who is fat has their fatness and cleanliness spoken about in ways that are stereotypical and harmful to fat people.
It isn’t that there is a fat person who is bad, it’s that there is only a fat person who is bad and there is a focus on his poor hygiene and fatness as part of enhancing his moral failures. As a fat person myself, I am aware that this is not a new stereotype, but to have it perpetuated in any form of media can do real harm, especially to people with eating disorders.
“Lord Gabriel stood, stooped and fat, in front of the officiator. Kitty had never been so repelled by anyone before. He had burst veins in his cheeks and nose from too many years of drinking and there was hair sticking out of his ears and nose. A bad smell, like mould, emanated from him, almost choking her. She wondered if he was able to bathe beneath so many layers of fat, and almost vomited at the thought.”Rebecca Crunden. A Touch of Death. Location 4567
This is not pervasive throughout the book, only close to the end, but I would not recommend this book to anyone with an eating disorder, especially as the morally deficient fat character is contrasted with the main character losing a lot of weight and that enhances her knowledge and womanhood. Catherine discusses becoming thinner over the course of her travels, and she sees this as good, even though she is also described as looking sickly. When she loses weight to become sickly thin, she sees that as a positive, a sign of maturity. This is contrasted with her regularly eating loads of food and getting enthusiastically drunk on multiple occasions.
“When at last she was clean, she stepped out, wrapping a thick robe around her small frame. For the longest time she had missed her old body, her soft stomach and larger breasts and full thighs. Now she was all angles and points’ sunken, gaunt and hard. As she stared at her reflection, the woman in the mirror staring back at her, she felt glad of the change. The old soft Catherine had been ignorant, gullible, an Anaitian with no understanding of truth.”Rebecca Crunden. A Touch of Death. Location 4281
Fatness shouldn’t be used as a prop to make someone seem more evil or unintelligent or immature.
So, who would I recommend this book to? It is dystopian and it is a believable world, with an interesting post-apocalyptic dystopian monarchy. The story is a bit clunky and jarring in places, which could deter some readers, but the story is still clear and interesting enough that it isn’t too much of an issue overall. It almost feels a bit like a Fallout game sometimes, as people had gone underground due to radiation, and then formed a society when they came back to the surface. There is radiation, mutants, and interesting pieces of technology. I would definitely only recommend this book to adult readers, though, due to how Nate treats Catherine and her views on fat bodies.
This review is a bit uncomfortable for me to write. The author contacted me and gave me an electronic copy of this book to write an honest review on. I’m very grateful to her for reaching out and giving me the book, she was very kind, but I’m a bit sad that I couldn’t give the book a raving review.
This is the first time that I have ever been asked to review a book, and the first time that I have publicly reviewed a book not by a popular/mainstream author.
Because this is the first book in a series, I’m not sure if the issues that I had with Catherine and, especially, Nate are there to give them room to develop in future books. Because of how toxic their relationship is in this book, I don’t think I’ll be continuing on with the series, though.
I am going to be reviewing ARCs for indie authors in the near future, so I am hoping that if I have to talk about issues that I had with a book it will get easier over time. Writing books is difficult, and putting your work up for review takes a lot of guts. I love books and I love boosting authors, but I also always want to give honest reviews.
Writer Craft Notes
I am an unpublished writer, but I would like to be published some day, so when I read a book I am trying to be more aware of the author’s craft and what I can learn from them.
With this book, I feel like I did learn a lot. There were some issues where I think the story could use more editing and the characters could do with more development, but I’ve spoken about that already. There are another four books, and I think there is a lot of room for more character development and a lot of the other issues I had with it would be fairly easy to remedy in future books. These books have already been published, but I would expect for them to be more polished as the series goes on. The more one practices, the better one becomes and I think that the other books in the series have promise.
Crunden is excellent at creating tension and keeping that tension throughout the story, which is important in keeping the story interesting. There are always stakes, always things to be lost. Are they going to be caught? Betrayed? Succumb to their illness? What is going on with their relationship – to each other and Thom? Is Thom actually dead?
I will try to keep this in mind as I do edits on my own work, because keeping track of all of those strings of tension is really difficult, but it made this story engaging.
I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.