Cruel and Unusual, by C.E. Wilson

As a fellow self-published author, I am both awestruck and envious of C.E. Wilson. Her output of work since I’ve started blogging is impressive to say the least, and I wish I could be as prolific as she is. I’m just as amazed by her imaginative plots and characters as I am by their integration with deep meaningful themes. I am thrilled for her that she has been experiencing the success she does, and I always look forward to her regular book releases.

Her latest effort, Cruel and Unusual, is her second “Somewhere-in-Between” story, though it has no connection to the first, Untitled Beauty. I know that she’s a big fan, like me, of the classic TV show The Twilight Zone, and what she’s going for here is a collection of stories in worlds slightly off from our own where she can explore important themes and ideas about the human condition. That’s what good speculative fiction is supposed to do—use the speculation to address life as we know it.

Cruel and Unusual posits an America with a new method of incarceration. Certain prisoners can be left to fend for themselves in little caged-in areas on the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Malcolm Davenport, the narrator of the story, is imprisoned there for his crime. I won’t reveal the crime, but suffice it to say that it is ultimately revealed in the story, and I appreciate the gray areas within it. He shares his island with Flynn, another prisoner. A trio of wardens—each with his/her unique temperament—arrives periodically to check on the prisoners and replenish supplies. They also provide some geopolitical background about the program, particularly whether the government approves of it and whether that or a rival government may be spying on it.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a winged creature arrives in Malcolm’s cage. Not a bird or any other animal, but a foot-tall woman with bright blue eyes, bubblegum pink hair, and metal wings protruding from her back. She eventually introduces herself as Verity Nine, part of an experimental program of which she has very spotty memories. Is she a person who has been miniaturized and fitted with wings? Is she some sort of human-mechanical hybrid—a vessel for a former human’s soul? Or is she something else? Not gonna spoil that for you, because though her origin is interesting, her ensuing relationship with Malcolm is more intriguing.

And that’s where the message behind this book really kicks in and elevates the story to one of Wilson’s best.

Being so isolated about two years into his sentence, Malcolm is extremely lonely. To make matters worse, he’s pining over his former girlfriend Mauve. The isolation and loneliness is really getting to him. Meanwhile, since Verity may very well be a one-of-a-kind entity or creation, she’s experiencing her own kind of isolation. This story explores how the two of them—and therefore how people in general—have an innate need to be around other people; to forge relationships with other people. It also explores how people view and judge other people, whether by their looks (such as the case of Verity’s small size) or by their actions (such as the case of Malcolm’s imprisonment). The only way the two of them can get through their loneliness and their judgments of each other is to stop and listen. Isn’t that true of everyone? In order to understand one another, we need to listen and be able to accept differences.

Because this is a C.E. Wilson story, there’s going to be a thought-provoking open ending. In this book, she doesn’t disappoint. There’s satisfying ambiguity at the end, particularly in wondering what the future holds for the main characters and what actually went on between them throughout. I refuse to say more, but I found it to be her most satisfying ending among all of her works.

However, the discussions between Malcolm and Verity sometimes get repetitive. This issue isn’t new to Wilson’s books, and it isn’t as distracting as in some of her other books, but it’s the only quibble I have that holds me back from giving it five stars. Is that being cruel? I don’t know, but this well-crafted and unusual book surely deserves its FOUR AND A HALF STARS.

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Cruel and Unusual is available at Amazon.

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