“Are you a coward or are you a librarian?” This might be the best tagline I’ve ever seen for a book and it made me immediately excited to pick up Sarah Gailey’s ‘Upright Women Wanted’.
In a dystopian future where communities are small and far apart, the Librarians travel from place to place delivering approved reading materials from the government. Following the horrific death of her lover, Esther stows away in the back of the Librarians’ wagon and hopes to become one of their number. Yet Esther discovers that the Librarians aren’t all they seem. As she journeys with this unusual group of women, her courage will be tested, her loyalties will be divided and her heart may just find a way to heal. After all, you can run away from home, but you can’t run away from yourself.
‘Upright Women Wanted’ is a slim volume with only 173 pages and it feels like part of something bigger. Gailey drops us into an interesting world with little introduction and leaves many questions unanswered. I enjoyed the Wild West feel visiting the tiny communities, but now really want to see what life is like in the big cities on this world. They’re mentioned a couple of times but never really explored. I think this is billed as a standalone volume, but it would be a shame if we didn’t get to revisit the world because there’s a lot left to see.
This book is very much a story about people. It’s about figuring out who you are and how to be true to yourself even when society isn’t supportive. I think it’s a very relevant message in this day and age but I think that at times the message got in the way of the story. Esther was a bit of an inconsistent character for me, fluctuating between utter devastation at the death of her lover to being coy and flirtatious with Cye, an apprentice Librarian, going from timid and terrified to bold and reckless in a heartbeat.
I just couldn’t figure her out. Maybe that’s because she hasn’t yet figured herself out but it made it difficult to fully engage with her. Bet and Leda are older women, the senior Librarians in the wagon that Esther joins, and I liked the way their relationship was shown, with its cosy familiarity and them both being completely at ease with one another. It was just altogether nice, even in a dangerous and hostile environment. However, I couldn’t tell you much more about them and this was my biggest problem with the book.
What I really enjoy in a book is the characters. Sure, I like to see great world-building and a good plot doesn’t hurt, but if the characters are right then I can forgive a lot. ‘Upright Women Wanted’ had an ok plot and an interesting new world to explore, even if it was underutilised here but, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t engage with the characters. They just didn’t have enough to make them fully realised individuals. All I feel I know about Cye, is that they like to be addressed as ‘they’ if it’s safe and ‘she’ when in the towns where someone might report it.
Introducing different gender pronouns into stories is great but if a character feels like they exist solely to serve that purpose, then it doesn’t help people relate to them, it just feels like a forced lesson. I want all my characters, non-binary or otherwise, to be real people and I just couldn’t bring myself to believe in them in ‘Upright Women Wanted’. It’s a shame because there was so much potential in this story and after that killer tagline I was ready to love it before I even started reading.
(pub: TOR/Forge, 2020. 173 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $ 9.99 (US). ISBN: 978-1-25021-365-5)