Prototype is the second part of Archetype, which I reviewed here:
Because I can't talk about it without talking about things from the first book, I will not hold back spoilers. Although spoiler is perhaps the wrong word. There are very few things that could make this book worse.
When I reviewed Archetype, I was having trouble deciding what I should think of it because I wasn't sure if I was unfairly comparing it to The Handmaid's Tale. Now, I'm even more concerned that I'm hating this book unfairly because it's the book it is and not the book I wanted to read. I am a librarian, and I believe in every book to its reader. But I'm not sure there's such a thing as a case in which a book can take place in a future in which women are property while completely avoiding the seriousness of that issue to focus solely on the romance and in which that book is OK.
I couldn't figure out if Archetype was aiming for The Handmaid's Tale or The Stepford Wives. Now I know. It's neither. It's a romance that uses the oppression of women as a plot device. Slavery was only a red herring. Or a MacGuffin, maybe, but I'd rather be thinking about Clue than thinking about this book. In these books, men own women as a justification for how Emma wound up in Declan's control at the beginning of Archetype. That having been accomplished, Waters completely fails to consider the possible impact on society. There's the occasional reference to corporal punishment in the Wife Training Centers, but she doesn't seem to have put any thought into how a woman's life is different after being bought. For example, there's this statement, of one of Declan's assets:
"'Who's name is it under? Travista's?'
'Mine,' I say. 'I never gave it any thought, but Declan once had me sign a bunch of paperwork. Financial in nature. He said he wanted to protect me if anything happened to him. He was making sure I was set up and would not have to remarry or work.'" [Emphasis mine.]
Think about that last bit there. Women are property in these books. Fertile women, at least. The legal status of infertile women is explored even less, aside from the fact that they aren't allowed to marry and have to work in specific women's-work type jobs. Having her own money or not isn't supposed to have any impact on whether or not Emma would have to remarry if Declan died. So long as she's fertile she's supposed to be forced to marry and reproduce, and not be allowed to work. Granted, Declan lied some in the first book. In retrospect, the more I think about it, the more he lied about really stupid things. He lied about how he met Emma and that she was bought for him. Not that it doesn't make sense that he might not want her to know that, except that that's how their society works, and since he doesn't plan to keep her isolated forever eventually she'll find out that's how their society works. Obviously he put this asset in her name to hide it, and maybe he's lying about the fact that there's a possibility she could have the option to avoid remarrying, or have the choice to work if she wanted to, in the event of his death. Apparently the property is legally in her name, which makes no sense because if women are an asset that can be bought and sold, how are they allowed to own things?
There's generally a really strange sense in spite of the fact that girls are forced into Wife Training Centers and then forced to marry and reproduce, or to not marry if they're infertile, that women still have just as much agency as they do now in every matter except whom/if they marry and reproduce. The fact that Dr. Travista is making women fertile through a process that involves cloning them has apparently gone public in between the books. This is being handled really strangely, too. It sounds like women are voluntarily signing up to be cloned. If this world has such a shortage of fertile women and if women are nothing more than a commodity, then why are the women the ones deciding to be cloned? Why isn't the government or whoever forces the young girls into the Wife Training Centers rounding up all the infertile women and forcing the procedure on them? (Apparently girls in some of the WTCs are being cloned, and this is apparently the only scandalous thing, but you'd think that a system based on forcing all fertile women into slavery because of a shortage of fertile women would go gather up ALL of the women given this opportunity.) There's also a reference to how a woman gave her daughter to a WTC and "stayed home to raise her son" in language that sounds like she had a choice in the matter. As if fertile women are allowed to do anything besides stay home and raise children in the world of this book.
And on multiple occasions, during love scenes, Emma tells Noah that she is "his." We're following characters in the resistance, and she calls herself "his" in the same way that people might in our contemporary U.S., in which legally two people enter into a partnership of equals. Calling herself "his" would mean something entirely different in a setting in which a man could buy a wife. By contrast I'm thinking of The Handmaid's Tale, how when the first laws keeping women from having their own bank accounts came into effect and the woman we know as Offred knows that her husband doesn't understand that it doesn't matter that he will take care of her, what matters is that she's not allowed to take care of herself. Meanwhile Emma lives in a world in which she literally belongs to her husband, not in an "I am my beloved's and he is mine" kind of way, but in a men can literally buy her kind of way, and yet she seems to be perfectly happy to belong to a man as long as it's the right man.
There are all other kinds of things that don't seem to be thought out. The plot thread about Emma wanting to find her parents seems underdeveloped, just an excuse to get her away from the resistance at the beginning of the book long enough for Noah and Sonya to start a relationship. It's mentioned in passing that Noah's father has been married five times because he sells each wife after he impregnates her a time or two. With such a shortage of fertile women, why would a man sell a wife who'd proven herself? Wouldn't he be afraid he couldn't purchase another one, or that the new one would turn out to be infertile after all? Does he wait until he knows he'll be able to buy a new wife before he sells the old one? Does he actually make a profit because the women he's had children with have been proven to be fertile? Is this encouraged for reasons of diversifying the gene pool, since there aren't enough women to go around for all the men, or is it just an old fashioned case of a rich guy who wants variety? And is he really rich and powerful that he can apparently always buy a new wife in spite of them being a rare commodity?
And at the end, the wife training centers are sold but still intact, as if that's supposed to make us happy. Because it's fine that women are being sold as long as they aren't cloning them and then killing the originals any more.
Look, I know that dystopias aren't really supposed to have happy endings. More often than not, they don't. The happiest ending of one of the classics I can think of off the top of my head is Fahrenheit 451, in which case it's clear that people are preserving lost literature waiting for the current regime to fall to its own wars. If this were a "He loved big brother" ending, that would be one thing. But this is supposed to be a living happily ever after ending.
This is obviously supposed to be a romance novel more than it's supposed to be social SF. I don't dislike it because it's a romance novel. I like romance novels but, like every other book, I expect them to commit to their characters and their setting, whether we're talking about historical, SF or fantasy, or a slightly quirkier version of the real contemporary world. If you don't want your romance hero and heroine to have to deal realistically with horrific dystopian things, then don't write a book with a horrific dystopian premise.
Prototype will be available July 24