“Faced with the exhausting task of building mechanical trees that produce the precious oxygen they breathe, the Greenleigh orphan slaves piece together clues about the existence of a possible forbidden paradise beyond The Wall. To find the truth, shatter the illusions, and free the children, Joy must entrust the aid of an unlikely ally who harbors dangerous secrets.”
Christina Rozelle’s The Treemakers has a lot going for it: it’s a story about a group of child slaves attempting to find their way out of captivity. They’re tough and spunky. They’re even likable at times (although my favorite character was Smudge, the mysterious guide the children meet partway through the story.) The world is strange and imaginative, and the author has a knack for thorough descriptions.
Nevertheless, this is not a book I particularly enjoyed. It has its highlights, but most of all it’s dark– more so than you’d even expect from the description. I enjoy a lot of darker fiction, but this was extremely grim even by my standards.
Children are maimed, killed, or simply disappear in the night. The main character, Joy, listens to the sexual assault of her boyfriend/best friend by one of the children’s sadistic Superiors, the slave drivers of the hellish factory where the children are kept. And if you didn’t think it could get worse from there, it does. Joy and her fellow orphans’ situation goes from bad to worse so many times that the story begins to resemble less of an escape and more of a series of horribly unfortunate events.
Then there are the characters themselves. As much as I wanted to cheer for Joy and her fellow escapees, for the most part they’re not terribly relatable. For children whose lives are on the line, they waste an awful lot of time fighting among themselves and being needlessly cruel to each other.
There were also certain plot elements that made me deeply uncomfortable. The Superior who assaults Joy’s friend is not just a sadistic pedophile– he’s also either transgender or a cross-dresser. (Preferred pronouns aren’t mentioned.) Emmanuel Superior is as reviled by the children for dressing as a woman as he is for being an abusive shitstain of a human being.
His depiction adds nothing to the story. The author could have easily written him as the same caliber of monster without having him dress as a woman, and I found the portrayal cheap and rather disturbing. Why feed the ugliest stereotypes about queer folks to impressionable teen readers?
There’s also the author’s portrayal of people of color. There are only a few in the story; and if that’s how you want to write your story, that’s fine. The problem is that they crop up in some rather odd places. For example, one is a Big Bad Antagonist that’s introduced toward the end of the book. Another is an Aunt Mamie-esque character (right down to the way she speaks.)
During a Facebook Q&A session with the author, I and several others voiced our concern about these portrayals. She stated that it was just the way she pictured them. If you see members of marginalized groups as monsters and stereotypes, this is definitely a you problem. It’s also something an editor and a good set of beta readers should have pointed out. (And perhaps they did.)
It’s been over a year since I read The Treemakers, and the story still bothers me. I realize that wallowing in humanity’s ugliest tendencies is some people’s thing, and I too enjoy some horror in my science fiction, but there has to be something to balance it out.
This story exposes the reader to the ugliest depths of human depravity and then uses those events to justify perpetrating that ugliness toward others. Readers of all ages deserve better than this book.