Human is Human: A Review of ‘Tarnished’ by Kate Jarvik Birch

Here is a confession of my boundless stupidity; I started reading Tarnished (Enchanted Publishing, out December 1st) by  by Kate Jarvik Birch without realising it was the second in a series. This was obviously very foolish, particularly as it was made quite clear on the NetGalley page from which I requested it. Anyway, once committed to Tarnished, I made the potentially dangerous decision to carry on reading without going back to the previous book, Perfected. With my crippling series fatigue and all, I decided this was a brilliant plan and a useful literary experiment; how much would I understand without the benefit of the first book’s action?

The answer is, pretty much all of it (I assume. Unless there were killer robots or song and dance numbers in the first one, of course).  Tarnished picks up the story of Ella, a human pet, who presumably escaped captivity at the end of the first book.  There’s a love interest, obviously, and his name is Penn, which is appealingly hipster. Ella encounters a series of bad people who want to hurt or exploit her and she is a completarnishedte badass in every one of these situations. There is a shadowy organisation called NuPet at the root of all this, along with dubious politicians and creepy ‘kennels,’
where the pets are bred.

You need to stop trying to protect me and let me protect myself.  I’m stronger than anyone gives me credit for and if that’s the one and only advantage I have to fight them with, fine. I’ll take it.

I will admit to not having any particular expectations of Tarnished; the story sounded interesting and I liked the cover, which were my deep and intellectual reasons for choosing it. However, it basically blew my mind, and there is one particular reason for this; early on, I came to the astonishing realisation that Tarnished is essentially The Handmaid’s Tale for teenagers who aren’t quite ready to read The Handmaid’s Tale. Please stop for a moment to contemplate what I am saying here; I am comparing this book to, in my opinion and that of at least one other sensible person who I know, one of the greatest novels OF ALL TIME. Do not underestimate how much I love The Handmaid’s Tale. People have done that before and they are still locked in a room being forced to read my A-level essays on it. What Atwood does so successfully in The Handmaid’s Tale is expose the wrongs that have been committed against women throughout history and across the globe; reading the book at the age of 17 completely changed my outlook on life and opened my eyes to what it means to be a woman if you aren’t born in the right place at the right time. Tarnished accomplishes a similar feat because a lot of what Birch describes doesn’t actually sound that outlandish. It is a well-worn track to point out depictions of women in the media, or the ways in which society still sees a woman as a man’s property; in Tarnished, this is literally true.

We’d spent so many years learning how to glide when we walked, learning how to hold our bodies so that they looked fragile and elegant like a flower balanced on its stem.

Once I’d thought of this Atwood parallel I got really excited and kept finding more ways in which the two compare (the kennels are like the Rachel and Leah Centre! Missy is like Moira!  It was all very enthralling). But aside from this, there is a huge amount to get excited about in Tarnished. Ella is a brilliant heroine; she has never even been taught to read but is fearless and selfless and tremendously smart. The relationship between Ella and Missy is Bechdel-testingly fascinating, with the two providing a perfect foil for each other. There’s a very astute moment when Ella acknowledges that “I’d been taught my whole life to distance myself from the other girls at the kennel. Pets weren’t meant to be friends,” which, I think, echoes a lot of the pitting women against each other which we see in the media. The least interesting person in Tarnished is probably Penn, but he might be really fascinating in Perfected and I am just ill-informed; I am absolutely going to read that book when my TBR pile no longer rivals the Empire State Building so I might change my mind about him.

Tarnished is hugely exciting; I wasn’t even annoyed by the setting-up-the-next-book ending, which is a big deal for someone with Chronic Series Fatigue like me.  It fits into the YA dystopia category but offers something different; something which, I would hope, will create in its teen audience the same feelings which a certain previously mentioned dystopian novel did for me as a teenager. If I am making it sound preachy or dry, I am describing it badly; Tarnished hits the ground running and doesn’t turn around to stop; it just assumes you are still there because why wouldn’t you be?

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