A while back I told you all about a little strange dystopian novel called Love in the Time of Global Warming, by Francesca Lia Block. I felt it was a breath of fresh air in the dystopian YA world, with its magical realism, perfectly set eerie mood, and a main cast made up of queer characters. I was surprised to find out that there was a sequel, since it didn’t seem like the sort of book that would be part of a series, but I was nevertheless very excited when I finally got my hands on The Island of Excess Love. Unfortunately, my mood soon turned sour as it became apparent that even though the sequel recaptures the mood of the first book, the narrative sends some very troubling rape-apologist and transphobic messages.
Spoilers for both books, as well as discussion of sex, rape, and transphobic ideas, below.
The Island of Excess Love begins shortly after the first book’s ending. Pen, Hex, Ash, Ez, and Venice are living in Pen and Venice’s house which has been magically protected from destruction. Pen’s birth father delivers food for them. One day a strange ship appears in the ocean overlooking the house and a magical force compels them all to board it. They’re taken to a mysterious island which seems untouched by the toxicity that destroyed the rest of the world. A mysterious magician-king lives there with his harpy servants and it turns out that he brought them all there on purpose: he wants to make Pen his bride.
Up until this point the book is great. The author doesn’t ignore the traumas the main characters suffered in the first book and describes them trying to deal and live with it while also having to survive in the dystopian wasteland: they meditate and train together, they grow food and pursue their passions, such as painting and storytelling. They’re all close and care for each other in different ways. I even like their journey on the mysterious ship which is quite nightmarish because all the characters, except Venice, suffer visions and hallucinations. I love that Venice, being the youngest of the group, is able to help everyone through their hallucinations and we learn something about each of the characters.
Unfortunately, the second half of the book quickly goes off the rails. Perhaps it would make more sense if I were familiar with Virgil’s Aeneid, which The Island is loosely based on. However, knowing the source material wouldn’t erase the troubling and upsetting messages the book sends. It begins when Pen, Ash, Ez, and Venice start acting strangely and out of character, clearly being lulled and manipulated by some sort of magical force, which can only be coming from Dylan, the magician-king. Only Hex appears immune in this case, but he soon disappears. Dylan’s grip on the rest of the group, and especially Pen, grows. Even though she’s in love with Hex, Pen is unable to resist her magic-induced desire for Dylan and they have sex. The sex is described as the best Pen has ever had, but even if so, it doesn’t matter because she wasn’t agreeing to it of her own volition. The book describes that she was feeling strange, as though she were high or drunk—therefore she wouldn’t be able to give consent. Also, part of Dylan’s spell might have been to make it feel good, because he wants to keep Pen and repopulate the world with her, which basically reduces Pen to her reproductive organs in his eyes. And the worst part is that once she is free of Dylan’s influence, Pen still doesn’t see it as rape. Pen is very sorry that she cheated on Hex and he is very angry and hurt. And though they all talk about how Dylan bewitched them all, it doesn’t occur to anyone that Pen wasn’t complicit in what happened to her. Dylan is never condemned for his actions.
And as if that rape-apologist and victim-blaming mess wasn’t enough, there’s a dose of transphobia in regards to Hex, who is a trans man. As Pen is about to have sex with Dylan, she states to the reader that she has never been with a man before and I had to read that part a few times to make sure that I understood it correctly, because Hex is a man and he and Pen have sex in the beginning of the book. It appears that even though Pen never mixes up his pronouns or misgenders him, she still doesn’t see Hex as a man, and to add insult to injury, she goes on to say that “I fell in love with Hex, thinking he was born male, and loved him the same, or maybe in some ways more, when I discovered he was not.” The first book had a few problematic aspects in portraying Hex as a trans man, but this is nothing short of blatantly stating that he isn’t really a man and implying that Pen’s sexual experiences with him weren’t really sex because there was no penis involved.
The Island of Excess Love is an unfortunately disappointing book. It recaptures the prose and the mood of its predecessor, but doesn’t really succeed at much else. Instead, we get a main plot centered around rape, which is never treated as anything but consensual sex, topped off with a dose of disgusting transphobia. I can’t recommend it, unless you’re curious about a dystopian interpretation of the Aeneid, and even then, I suspect there may be something better out there.