Also by this author: A Gentle Tyranny
Published by Wander on August 17, 2021
Genres: Fiction, Christian, Speculative, Young Adult
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Protect the weak. Safety for all. Power without virtue is tyranny.
Nedé has a new Apprentice, and now Reina Pierce must come to grips with what she sacrificed to secure Matriarch Teera’s favor. As secrets unfold and danger mounts, Reina will test the bounds of trust and be forced to answer the question that has haunted her since her first night in the jungle: Which is better―Gentle or Brute? And how far will she go to ensure tyranny is eradicated from Nedé?
In this fast-paced conclusion to the Nedé Rising series, A Brutal Justice weaves action, romance, and provocative questions into a finale that readers won’t be able to put down.
I put some big shoes on A Brutal Justice when I effusively praised its predecessor, A Gentle Tyranny. The two books comprise the Nede Rising duology and tells the story of Raina Pierce, granddaughter of the Matriarch, who discovers that their utopia is not everything it seems to be. But to the story: For generations now, the matriarchy of Nedé has ruled. Men have been safely “gentled” in a worldwide movement of liberation. In A Gentle Tyranny, Jess Corban fashioned a prototypical YA dystopian novel that explored some important themes about inequality—rural and urban, poor and rich, commoner and elite—and how the elite, Raina’s grandmother in particular, is no less cruel than the male leaders of the past that proved the need for male “gentling.”
At the end of A Gentle Tyranny, we see Raina discover that a contingent of men have escaped “ungentled” and live as Brutes in the wilderness. A contingent of these Brutes are intent on overthrowing the Matriarchy and freeing the Gentles from their oppression. I wrote in my initial review that my major fear was that the book would self-correct toward male headship, but that fortunately that didn’t happen. Corban’s view was closer to a blessed alliance where men and women share leadership and exist as equals.
My initial assumption was that this would be a three-book series. That’s pretty common in YA dystopian fiction and seemed to fit the setup. When I learned that it would only be two books, I was concerned that Corban would struggle to fit everything in and resolve everything properly. The setup had been a masterpiece. Corban created the drama well. But now, how would she resolve it?
A Brutal Justice is that resolution…and it’s devastatingly underwhelming. More than half the book is a journey into the Brute encampment in the jungles. The pacing is slow. What action there is does not contribute toward furthering the plot or creating character depth. The intention seems to be to really get Raina to experience the world of the Brutes and develop a backstory of how they came to be. It’s this backstory, involving Raina’s mother, that proves of be the only interesting part of this section.
The question that’s being explored is how men and women should work together. Up to this point, the Brutes have lived alone, adding to their clan only when a baby boy can be secreted away to them. They have had little interaction with the outside world and no interactions with women. Raina has had no interactions with Brute men. The way in which the group of men learn to interact with Raina and her company of followers is what’s going to prove to the group that collaboration and equality is attainable. For story purposes, Raina and the Brutes must become archetypal of a new society.
And instead we get a saccharine-sweet, sloppily-written, Tarzan-meet-Jane romance. (You’d think I was a perfect sunset for the way he looks at me, I can feel our hearts fusing together, like we were made to love each other.) Look, I can get behind a sappy romance. The problem is that this romance is what becomes the archetypal expression for male-female relationships. While A Gentle Tyranny pointed toward the need for men and women to work together as equals united in their humanity, A Brutal Justice diminishes that relationship to a stereotypical, teenage romance.
Further, the way in which Raina and the Brutes revolutionize their culture is through the brutal violence by men that led to men to be gentled in the first place. After an interminable journey to the Brute colony, the company then quickly finds themselves ambushed and in the middle of a war. They decide to attack the capital city and destroy the serum that results in the gentling of men. This is something they do very quickly and very easily. There’s little in the way of drama or tension.
This lack of tension follows into the final battle, which ends (of course) in victory, but a pyrrhic victory of sorts. Raina and her friends are imprisoned and held on trial, all of the purposes one final expositional soliloquy. This final speech is good, at least in terms of its thematic value, but it doesn’t fit what we’ve seen in the story. Instead, it comes across as Corban mashing the message right into the end to make sure her readers get it. Raina testifies in the Arena: Without virtue, whoever holds the power—Brutes or women—will eventually default to tyranny…But what if we combined our strengths to fight injustice—called each other to a higher virtue? It’s a compelling enough speech that all the rulers of Nede change their mind, and their entire style of governance, and allow men to be born naturally once again. It’s a sweeping, sudden conclusion that Corban cannot write with nuance because of the constriction of a two-book series.
In A Gentle Tyranny, Corban developed a stunning world unlike any other YA dystopia that we’ve seen, particularly within Christian fiction. She asked some great questions and developed thought-provoking thematic imagery amid a story that hit upon all the typical twists of the genre while still making them unique. With A Brutal Justice, Corban faced the dilemma of how to bring her beautifully-stated problem to a satisfactory conclusion. Unfortunately, speaking as someone who loved the first book, she fails in her endeavor.
The problems are both in the storytelling and in how the message is told through the story. Corban simply isn’t able thematically to develop a relationship between a man and woman that exemplifies the equal relationship she’s promoting. And, in terms of story, the movement to resolution is so singular and simplistic that there’s no real depth to either the characters or the storytelling. It’s altogether too easy of an ending, one that might make sense as an allegory but not as a story.
This is one of the hardest reviews I’ve had to write in a long time. If anything, take this review as proof that I’m always fairly and brutally honest, even to stories and authors I’ve previously enjoyed. It’s frustrating because I see simple ways in which I feel the story could be made stronger—remove the romance, speed up the first half pacing, add a third book to enable time for the nuance necessary to pull it all together structurally. (Okay, that last one isn’t so simple.) But my critique isn’t for the author in the planning stages. This thing is in print. It’s done. And I just have to be okay with that.
Ultimately, even with my love of A Gentle Tyranny, would I suggest that someone read this duology knowing how the story ends? Honestly…probably not. Maybe I hyped it too much, but A Brutal Justice was almost crushingly disappointing.