Review: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Summary: When She Woke tells the story of a stigmatized woman struggling to navigate an America of a not-too-distant future, where the line between church and state has been eradicated and convicted felons are no longer imprisoned and rehabilitated but chromed―their skin color is genetically altered to match the class of their crimes―and then released back into the population to survive as best they can. Hannah is a Red; her crime is murder.

In seeking a path to safety in an alien and hostile world, Hannah unknowingly embarks on a path of self-discovery that forces her to question the values she once held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes faith.

Genre: science fiction, dystopia
Rating: ★★★

When She Woke was an eerily realistic dystopian story that had me hooked from the very first page; I was rooting for the protagonist to escape the harsh reality she faced; I was excited to see where this story could possibly go – until the last 100 pages where it suddenly took a nosedive that left me feeling confused and unsure of what this story was really trying to say.

Within the first few pages, I was enamored by the idea of this book. The story takes place in the somewhat-near future. No specific timeline or dates are given, but we do learn there was a second Great Depression, and the country is essentially being run by religious zealots. The laws put into place in this timeline are, unfortunately, not very far off where we currently sit, which was shocking considering this book was written in 2011. Because the prison system is so expensive, felons are temporarily held in a Big Brother-esque facility before being “chromed” and being released. In this world, abortion is illegal, and the protagonist, Hannah, is chromed for having one in the aftermath of an affair with her married preacher.

All of this has great potential for a story, but the world-building was surprisingly lackluster. There are mentions of other major events in history that lead the country to where it is, but they were so slight that it probably would have been better to just not have mentioned them at all. There are groups that hunt chromed individuals because they think they deserve a more severe punishment for their crimes, but again, there isn’t any depth to this information. This doesn’t exactly hinder the story, but I wish they had been focused on more than some other aspects of the story instead.

This wasn’t enough to completely turn me off this book, and I enjoyed the scenes of Hannah getting back into society, despite how heavy and depressing they were to read about. I found the scorn and shame Hannah received after having the abortion to be eerily accurate and realistic, and it was heartwarming to watch her make friends despite her chrome color. I even found myself understanding the religious propaganda that was laid on pretty heavily, because it fit with the story. It was interesting to see Hannah begin to think for herself and realize that the strict religion she grew up believing in was maybe not the best thing for her.

All of this sounds great, and honestly it was…until about halfway through. The first half of this book had so much potential, and then it completely veered off course into something that left me with a sour taste in my mouth.

I should have known this wouldn’t be a happy fairytale ending, considering the content and tone of the story, but I was disappointed to watch Hannah make reckless choice after reckless choice here because it delayed the uplifting future that I thought she deserved. I found myself getting frustrated with her for not just doing what seemed like the logical action because she was following her heart instead.

There was also one scene, THE scene, that ruined my feelings for this story — and I believe it’s why this book has a lower rating than it probably would have without this scene. There’s a specific part in the book where Hannah has a sexual relationship with another woman, which was completely out of character for Hannah and made absolutely no sense. The church Hannah belongs to thinks homosexuality is a sin, which is what she’s grown up believing her entire life. As I said, there are moments where Hannah questions what her church has been telling her, but there is a huge difference between realizing that homosexuality isn’t a sin and having a homosexual relationship, especially when Hannah has never doubted or questioned her sexuality before.

When Hannah realizes the woman is a lesbian, she feels horrified and uncomfortable at the thought of being alone with her, but within a few pages she seduces the woman. It’s also worth noting that Hannah touches the woman’s face, and the woman tells her to stop, but Hannah continues to do so and eventually they have sex and form a romantic relationship.

This was such a minor, unimportant part to be in the book, but it completely changed my opinion on the story, and I know it did the same for others as well. As I said, this book started off so strong and had so much potential, but unfortunately it was ruined with essentially one scene. I would have loved to read this book without that portion, because I think it would have been easier to understand Hannah and the choices she made.

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