“The First Conception” is a very hard book to read for obvious and not so obvious reasons. The obvious: right in the synopsis we know that this is a revenge story told from the perspective of the female survivor—she was raped and abused sexually and physically her whole childhood and well into her adult years. This “inspired” her to take away the ability to conceive for the whole world. Now, I love a good revenge plot where the MC is less than “good”, especially when it’s over something as heinous as abusing a child so repeatedly. Also, there are your trigger warnings for rape, graphic violence against both women and men, sexual assault against children, spousal abuse, and if topics of infertility are sensitive for you, then this may not be a good fit. Granted, some of these warnings make sense for the genre—it’s billed as a thriller, after all—and while that’s fine, I think this book got to the point of being gratuitous.
The first chapter tells you exactly what happened: no one can have children and the world will be facing an extinction event if this can’t be rectified. That’s gripping! That’s compelling! Oh goodness, tell me how we got there! So even though the chapters following were very hard to read because of the detailed abuse Katherine witnesses and is then subjected to, this was a page turner early on. I kept going through these mini-bite sized chapters (seriously, there’s over 100 chapters in a book barely over 300 pages in length) wondering when we’d get back to that first chapter, when we’d leave the past behind and get to the present. But we don’t get back to that until there’s only about 30% left in the book.
That’s right: 70% of this book shows Katherine getting abused, raped by multiple people throughout the course of her life, and then the mundane process of her going to school and getting more involved with a female run organization. I get what the author was attempting—to create sympathy with the MC so we’d be on her side when she decides to do this terrible thing to everyone. Unfortunately, the abuse became so common place, so expected that 1. I didn’t need every instance shown to me, just a few would have been more than enough and the rest maybe could have just been mentioned without the detail? And 2. It really slowed down the book, especially when it’s coupled with the rather uninteresting day-to-day of Katherine’s life. It was a slog to get through and when all you see are these over dramatized, radicalized feminist groups, it portrayed EVERYONE horribly. The women were depicted as snake-in-the-grass types, and every man was a rapist, or a would-be a rapist if they were given the chance. Having this men vs. women type trope is really dangerous given the current world wide narrative we live in regarding gender and equality. Even in a fictional thriller this is an issue when everyone is so, so drastic in their beliefs, even the dissenters were radical about their religion, and the extremes they’d go to in order to stop these women from getting more power, or stop Katherine from playing God.
There ended up being no one I wanted to side with, no one I wanted to see “win”, which had me no longer caring about anything the book wanted me to care about, unfortunately. Katherine’s whole rationale for revenge is so skewed, so backward that I struggled to see how someone who is portrayed as such a genius believed that men got off on conception and that’s why they raped women. That’s not what rape is about! Rape doesn’t stop because women can’t have babies! So why she didn’t give every man erectile dysfunction is beyond me, it would have been way easier than the lengths she does go to in order to punish both men and the women who never wronged her. There are flavors of the new movie “A Promising Young Woman” in this story, but this narrative, and Katherine’s actions, don’t actually do anything to address rape culture… Then, at the very end, there is an added complication as to Katherine’s stability, the mole that is still in the organization, and the worldwide infertility that is left as a cliffhanger to be answered in later books. But because I’m just so mad at Katherine at the end I don’t see myself continuing on with this series.
To be honest I wasn’t going to give this book a rating or a review. I don’t like writing negative reviews. I don’t like giving books less than 3 stars. But I felt this was important to share because of the triggering content, the problematic portrayals of rape survivors, and the troubling relationships between men and women—the over the top power struggle in an actual battle between the sexes. I was struggling about rating this book as a whole, because despite its problems, the first half or so was a page turner, and I did enjoy the diverse cast of characters. But I wasn’t truly aware of the content when I first agreed to review the book, and it does really bother me personally, even now. So I’m giving this 1.5 stars, and will caveat that this may just be me, as there are tons of glowing reviews for this book, and the authors other books as a whole, so just keep that in mind. Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy for an honest review!
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