K.M. Szpara’s debut novel, Docile, is a tour de force. It’s an elegant, gripping, and dark parable about consent and capitalism. This book has mature themes so please take note of the trigger warnings below.
Note: this review was originally posted March 12, 2020 on curlybookowl.com.
I generally try to write my reviews within a day or so of finishing a book. I like doing this for a number of reasons, namely that the story and characters are still fresh. I couldn’t do that with Docile, however. No—I knew that this was a story that I would have to sit with, that I would have to let sink in, before I could even attempt to articulate my feelings about this story.
Docile is one of the strongest debuts I’ve ever read. I actually triple-checked that it was in fact Szpara’s debut because I couldn’t believe it. Actually, saying it’s one of the strongest debuts I’ve ever read sells this story short—it’s one of the strongest books I’ve ever read.
Docile is unflinchingly and unapologetically dark in its premise but not necessarily in its execution; it doesn’t have the tone and feel of a dark book. Ninth House, for example, is a book that was and felt incredibly dark and this made it hard to read at times. I don’t know if I’ll be able to explain exactly what I mean, but at no point did I feel weighed down or overwhelmed by what was, objectively, a very dark story. That being said, before reading, please take note of the trigger warnings I’ve included below.
The story takes place in a futuristic universe that is terrifyingly not that far off from our reality. In it, next of kin laws have made it so that debt now passes down from generation to generation, crushing families under multiple generations of debt. To help pay off your family’s debt, you can become a docile, kept at the whim and for the uses of your patron. To help with the transition from having little-to-no agency to absolutely no agency, dociles can take Dociline—a drug developed by Bishop Labs that makes you pliable and agreeable and erases all memories of what you had to do while on it.
Elisha Wilder knows that it’s only a matter of time before his father will have to sign his younger sister, Abby, up to be a docile to help pay off the Wilders’ three million dollars of debt. Elisha’s mother, who had served for ten years as a docile in exchange for one million dollars of debt repayment, never recovered from the Dociline she took during her term despite Bishop Labs’ assurances that the drug leaves your system after taking it. Determined to keep his sister from becoming a shell like his mother, Elisha sneaks away and signs up to become a docile in her place.
Unlike most dociles, Elisha is adamant that he will never take Dociline. It is, after all, his right—one of the few rights afforded to dociles. This is complicated, however, by the fact that his patron is none other than Alexander Bishop III—the grandson of Dociline’s inventor and the head of Bishop Labs. Alex, already under pressure from Bishop Labs’s board members, is determined to prove to the board and his family that he can control his docile, with or without Dociline.
In some ways, the experience of reading Docile parallels Elisha’s experience in the story—like Elisha, I became wrapped up in the glossy sheen of wealth and opportunity. Szpara writes with such subtle grace that you don’t realize how successful Alex’s efforts have been until it’s much too late. I began to feel fond of Alex, to feel fond of his “good” treatment of Elisha. Alex endeared himself to me by showing Elisha the very baseline of common decency. I didn’t even realize it was happening until more than halfway in. In this sense, I would say that Docile is just as much a creeping, insidious horror story as it is a sci-fi one.
Docile seems long when you look at it (it’s almost 500 pages) but this is one of the most compulsively readable books I’ve ever read. I’m not even a big sci-fi reader—this book is just that special.
TWs: rape, self-harm, sexual assault, attempted suicide, physical and mental abuse, slavery, graphic sexual content.
- “Show me there’s a sliver of a human being left in there. That I haven’t fallen for my own creation.”
- “Despite how lost I feel, this situation is familiar. That someone is asking my consent as if I have a choice.”
- “How could I consent when I had no choice but to say yes?”
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This has not impacted or influenced my review or opinions.