Since the age of 13, Yolanda “Yaya” Betancourt has known she is not sole owner of her body. Infected by a virus that not only changed her genetic makeup, but gave the virus’ creator co-ownership of her body, she’s been trained to quietly submit to any procedures, scrutiny, and indignity AlphaBeta Pharmaceuticals demands. Now at 31, Yaya has never asked questions about her body or the injections they give her during her monthly check-ins…until she tries to insert a tampon and is blocked by teeth.
When Yaya accidentally misses her monthly appointment and APB agents show up at her apartment “to inspect the continual viability of [their] registered intellectual property,” the discovery of teeth becomes the least of their concerns. With each hour bringing new changes to Yaya’s body (including another consciousness that commands Yaya’s ever-growing vaginal appendages), Yaya expects to lose any control of her body to either the APB or her vagina monster, Magenta. She doesn’t expect to find aid and compassion from the one-night stand she ghosted, Docia “Doc” Hall; she also doesn’t expect Magenta to give her the first taste of true freedom she has ever known. Unfortunately, to the ABP, Yaya is nothing more than a walking test-tube that has proven itself unique among the thousands of other IP they own. Destroying her to collect their samples is not a problem; they’ve done it before and only need a few pieces, after all. Used to surrender, new to fighting back, and up against a corporate monster, Yaya is uncertain she’s strong enough to survive…Magenta is certain she’s too stubborn to die.
In middle school, I was introduced to the concept of vagina teeth (vagina dentata) when I read several books about creation myths and folklore; in high school, I was delighted to discover the biological reality behind epidermal tissues winding up in vajay-jays. I gleefully watched the movie “Teeth” (marveling at the convoluted discourse proclaiming the movie a gimmick that used men’s fear of castration to…watch dudes be castrated??), and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t watch “Moana” in the hopes of spotting some obsidian teeth-shaped easter eggs. So when I ran across a gloriously pink and purple hued cover with eye-catching imagery called Queen of Teeth, of course I had to check out the blurb. Confirming that, yes, I had seen a vulva sporting teeth in that image, sealed the deal for Queen of Teeth being my Judge a Book by Its Cover pick.
Queen takes place in an alternate 2020 where, 32 years ago, APB released the INZ9-00 virus, which seems to only infect/affect females and those with higher levels of female “sex” hormones and causes various issues—one of which being a kind of “super-fertility” that increases the frequency of multi-zygote pregnancies. However, instead of birthing multiple babies, one zygote absorbs the other(s), creating one offspring with multiple genetic lines known as a chimera. Despite being the cause of such a catastrophic viral outbreak, APB faced no consequences and successfully argued that since the genetic differences caused by their virus created these genetically unique females, APB should own half their genetic material. Ostensibly, APB monitors the chimeras because, after puberty, they become vulnerable to a condition in which their disparate genetic materials basically go to war, leading to various growths or worse — “bodies splitting at the seams or stuffed with tumors.” In reality, APB treats these people as bodies they can do whatever they want with—and boy do they.
Additionally, in this timeline Nancy Reagan won the 1988 US presidential election and the government and corporations embraced Russia’s militarization-heavy form of civil service, indoctrinating citizens so they view corporate/police tanks, weapons, and their masked, anonymous agents as normal. Dual sovereignty seems to be held between individual states and corporations, rather than with the federal government. This area of the world building and the timeline is a bit shaky, as it mentions a few states’ inability to secede from the “union,” but later discusses them as if they are separate nations (some even having theocracies). Additionally, an oft-mentioned tragedy known as the Kentucky Incident is said to have occurred nine years before the events of the story in 1999, but this places the timeline in 2008 instead of 2020.
As an addition to the pantheon of vagina dentata-inspired tales found around the globe (some having reached urban legend status as recently as the Viet Nam War), Queen of Teeth has plenty to offer. As sci-fi/horror, it works pretty well overall. However, the horror is the best element, being very visceral body horror in the way of a Cronenberg film, particularly “Possessor,” as Yaya not only has to deal with dental, tentacular, and horned structures growing from/changing her body, but sharing her body with another consciousness. The genetic science of Hailey Piper’s premise isn’t so far advanced that it requires a dissertation’s worth of scientific backstory, nor so egregiously superficial and/or far-fetched it’ll make science-minded folk immediately bin it and write dissertation length letters to the author. It’s accurate enough (despite some loose terminology use) and straightforward enough to allow a reader to buy in relatively easily and stay with it.
Where the story doesn’t work well for me is how it incorporates its social commentary and Yaya as the nominal MC. Thematically, Queen is screaming FREEDOM so loudly even William Wallace à la “Braveheart” would ask it to take it down a notch. Personally, I like my commentary a bit subtler. While I may be attracted to bold, shouty colors in a cover, I don’t want to be shouted at, bludgeoned over the head, and steamrolled by a story’s message. Even when I tried to view Queen as more exaggerated/satirical (especially when the tank-penis, aka The Predator, popped up), there is just too much earnest truth to do so. Almost every imaginable abuse against female bodily autonomy is accounted for. Women dehumanized and treated as disposable property; uninformed, smugly self-satisfied white men making decisions for the well-being of such child-like entities; the entitlement and discourtesy of unwanted touch. Piper even gives you the man’s man who has no problem with violence and gore, but is squeamish about vaginas and can’t manage to say “menstruate” because, gross. To be fair, horror is the perfect vehicle for this kind of no-holds barred style; I can appreciate what Piper is doing and imagine lots of readers loving it.
Part of the reason, this louder style of commentary doesn’t work for me in Queen is that it compounded and/or helped create my disconnect from Yaya as an MC. This is her story, her evolution, but her love interest, Doc, has the more compelling story arc. To me, Yaya is more or less a vehicle for the message (just like she is a vehicle for Magenta) and doesn’t get much character development. She begins the story as someone who has given up on life; APB owns her so there’s no point building something meaningful when they can collect her for dissection on a whim. To avoid attachment, she only has one-night stands and, until Magenta shows up, feels like the only power she can exercise is wrecking herself, mainly via heavy drinking, a junk food diet, and partying. When she recognizes her choices are from apathy and depression, it’s because of Magenta literally changing her body, acting almost like an anti-depressant. Unfortunately, clearer Yaya doesn’t get much page time, just like her personality traits don’t. She and the text lets you know she’s a smart-ass, but her few line deliveries don’t really sell it. She never comes into her own; she’s swept away by Magenta and the story. Yaya is a torch-bearer for all females, which by necessity reduces her to archetype rather than actualized character.
Doc, on the other hand is fairly complex and has an arc rather than acting as one. After their one-night stand, she feels a genuine connection for Yaya. When they meet again, it’s under stressful circumstances that see them at odds, and Doc remains at odds with herself throughout the story. She is a firm believer in responsibility and doing her job; she chose her profession because she thought she could make a difference. In contrast, part of her steely dedication to professional responsibility is rooted in her more morally dubious desire to be free of choice. She can’t be at fault if she has “no choice” because a responsible professional follows orders. She’s hard and pragmatic, but is the one to show Magenta compassion and acceptance when Yaya could only think of Magenta as an interloping vagina monster. Doc believes in second chances and wants to find redemption from something she sees as her biggest failure, but can turn her back on the same redemption she says she’s been looking for. Doc is the emotional core of the story and for me makes Yaya’s character feel even flatter.
Even with the extra material in the text for Doc, I had to dig deep to connect with the character. Piper’s writing is similar in style to other works where I had trouble engaging with the characters. To be clear, it isn’t a style I dislike—it’s sparse, crisp, gets the point across, and can still be poetic; however, sometimes the narrative needs a bit more connective tissue to add depth or movement to a character and/or event. Without it, there’s too much “empty space,” a broad sketch but not enough for individuation. This too is a personal problem and a YMMV situation, and Queen of Teeth is enjoyable and has an interesting take on freedom, forgiveness, autonomy, and connection. I cautiously recommend it for those who don’t mind body horror and/or social commentary blaring at you in all its vulval, magenta glory.
This review is part of our 2021 Reading Challenge Month for Judge a Book By Its Cover Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win one of five $20 JMS store gift cards from JMS Books (you can see the details on the bundle in our Prize Preview post)! Commenters will also be entered to win our amazing Grand Prize sponsored by NineStar Press: a Kindle Paperwhite loaded with 50 NineStar Press books! And don’t forget if you read along with your own challenge book this week, you can earn ten contest entries for writing a mini-review on our wrap up post on Friday! You can get more information on our Challenge Month here (including all the contest rules) and more details on Judge a Book By Its Cover Week here.