Review of Blackwood by Gwenda Bond

Title: Blackwood
Author: Gwenda Bond
Published: 04 September 2012
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Genre: YA, science fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10 (sorry, I keep changing my mind about the rating, but I think I’ll stick with 6 now)

In a North American mystery known as ‘The Lost Colony’, over a hundred English colonists travelled to America and settled on Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina. Due to unfavourable conditions and growing hostility with the tribes whose home they’d invaded, the settlement’s governor John White was chosen to return to England to petition for help. It was three years before he was able to return, only to find that the 114 men, women and children of the colony had disappeared; a mystery that is still unsolved.

Now, ‘The Lost Colony’ is just a theatre production for tourists on Roanoke Island. Miranda Blackwood has spent the last three summers interning at the theatre in a bid to escape her life for a while. The Blackwood family is said to be cursed, and it certainly feels that way for Miranda. Her father became a drunk after her mom’s death, and now Miranda takes care of all household duties. Thanks to the Blackwood’s reputation, she’s an outcast at school where people call her snake and do things like write “Freak” on the side of her car. According to the curse, the Blackwoods are doomed to stay on the island forever, so Miranda harbours no hope that she could ever leave.

Then Miranda’s father disappears, along with a bunch of other island residents. Exactly 114 of them, just like in the Lost Colony story. Miranda finds herself entangled in the mystery, not least of all because her family and the curse she bears is a part of it. She finds a surprise ally in Phillips Rawlings, another misfit, who was sent away to boarding school four years ago for all the trouble he was causing. When he’s on the island, Phillips hears the voices of the dead in his head, and his father, the police chief, hopes that he can use this ability to help the islanders.

Phillips and Miranda quickly become companions and then close friends as they try to solve the mystery of the two Roanoke disappearances. Unfortunately, their bad reputations soon begin to count against them, and family histories return to haunt them until they’re forced to run from everyone but each other.

Blackwood is partly a supernatural mystery, but mostly it’s a novel about the blossoming romance between two troubled 17-year olds who find themselves trapped by family legacies. The way it begins is a tad unlikely. At the start of the novel, Phillips already has a soft spot for Miranda, while she only remembers him as an asshole. Years before, dazed by the voices in his head, he humiliated her at school, and the incident has haunted her ever since. He didn’t mean to hurt her though; if anything he finds her alluring and he’s always felt guilty about what he did. When he sees her on TV, snapping at a reporter who questions her about the latest mass disappearance, it sort of sparks an obsession, so when Phillips returns to Roanoke he goes straight to Miranda’s house.

Miranda, of course, is shocked and suspicious to find him at her door. Frankly, I find the way he gravitates to her rather odd as well. They haven’t seen each other for four years, and they were never friends. She expects that this is some kind of prank intended to humiliate her again, but Phillips consistently proves that he’s a really nice guy who cares about her and wants to help her. She really needs a friend too, especially once she learns that her father didn’t disappear – he was murdered. After years of bottling her emotions in the face of insults and pranks, Miranda seems to take the news a little too calmly, but Phillips knows she’s just holding her emotions back, at least until she loses control.

Phillips needs her too, when the voices in his head begin to overwhelm him. They were once so bad that he intentionally caused so much trouble his parents were forced to send him to a boarding school away from the island. Now, it’s even worse. The pair help each other as best they can and try to investigate the disappearances, but they’re dragged down by their reputations and the baggage of family history. This is particularly bad for Miranda. After her father’s death, the snake-shaped birthmark on his face suddenly appears on hers, something she finds more shocking than anything else that’s happened to her so far. Also, the curse of not being able to leave the island is true – when she tries to cross the bridge to the mainland, she feels intense sickness and pain. It’s a teenager’s nightmare – being unable to escape your family history and being stuck in the same place for the rest of your life.

She finds unexpected solace in her relationship with Phillips, and I generally liked the way it plays out. A lot of their interactions are awkward and uncertain, as suits their age and experiences. At the same time they’re also very considerate of each other, understanding that people sometimes act in a certain way because they’re scared or hurt and that that behaviour doesn’t necessarily define them or show their true feelings. At one point, Phillips knows that

[s]he wasn’t crazy. She was just acting crazy. He understood the things in your own mind that could make you push the world away, flailing.

It’s a nice change from those horrible misunderstandings that are usually farmed for melodrama in romance.

On the downside, I felt that the relationship developed too quickly. On day one, they haven’t seen each other for four years, and she’s resentful and suspicious of him. The next day they’re holding hands. Phillips might be a little awkward at times, but he’s also quick to stroke Miranda’s cheek and brush her hair back. It takes them a lot longer to actually kiss, but I was surprised at how quickly they progressed to these little physical intimacies. However, I can accept that this is a consequence of recent events and of the plot. A lot happens in a short time, pushing the two characters closer. The entire plot takes place over a few days, so Gwenda Bond also has to work fast. The smooth course of their rapidly growing affections does get a bit [fantastical] after a while, but it’s also quite sweet.

I like how Bond weaves a lot of pop culture references into the narrative to define the characters, both of whom are geeks. Miranda likes to say “frak” instead of ‘fuck’ because she’s a Battlestar Galactica fan. Phillips finds this very cute, and when she accidentally says ‘fuck’, he knows it’s because she’s really shaken. He also teases her for watching The Vampire Diaries (although she’s quick to point out that he’s obviously seen it too) and he compares the small town of the show to their own. Miranda named her dog ‘Sidekick’, because sidekicks are her favourite characters. Phillips knows some odd things, leading Miranda to give him the nickname “Random Fact Boy” based on the idea that his general knowledge is a superpower, with the implication that he’s her hero.

Unfortunately the other aspects of the book aren’t quite as compelling as Miranda and Phillips’ relationship. I don’t really understand Phillips’ ability to hear the voices of the dead. Why are they talking to him? Why does he only hear them on the island? Why did his father think that he could use this ability to help the island? It’s not a ‘power’; it’s more like a disability. He has to make a constant effort to ignore the voices, and when they become too noisy he’s too weak to leave his bed. Why though, has he never tried to talk to them, to ask why they’re there and what they want? Doesn’t he wonder if they could be used to some purpose?

Bond’s take on the Lost Colony mystery is ok, but I wasn’t really all that interested in it. It felt more like a backdrop to the main characters’ relationship. I thought it had a couple of plot holes, but to avoid spoilers I won’t discuss them. They aren’t too bad anyway; the main problem is just that it’s all a bit lacklustre. I think part of the problem (for me at least) is that the reveals don’t have enough shock and drama, which is what you want when learning the truth of an old mystery like this, especially if the truth is supernatural. There is also a lack of clarity about certain issues, and I tend to lose interest when I don’t have enough details (or enough intriguing details).

Despite my feelings about the Lost Colony mystery though, I have to admit that it puts the characters in some very tense situations. It all adds danger and adventure to what is already a strong relationship-driven narrative, balancing out the less exciting aspects.  Overall it’s a quick, pleasing read that I I think will appeal to many YA fans, and a good novel for new YA publisher Strange Chemistry to kick off with.

Buy a copy of Blackwood from The Book Depository

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Up for Review: Strange Chemistry’s Debut

Strange Chemistry is the brand new YA imprint of Angry Robot Books, describing themselves as “a global imprint dedicated to the best in modern young adult science fiction, fantasy and everything in between.” They launch in September 2012 “with physical books across a wide variety of formats, e-books as standard, and with selected titles made available as audiobooks.”

Before I knew it, I’d managed to get myself review copies for each of their first five publications. It seems that Strange Chemistry will be in charge of almost all my YA reading for the next few months. Take a look at their two September publications, both of which I received via NetGalley:

Shift by Kim Curran

Blurb from Strange Chemistry:

When your average, 16-year old loser, Scott Tyler, meets the beautiful and mysterious Aubrey Jones, he learns he’s not so average after all. He’s a ‘Shifter’. And that means he has the power to undo any decision he’s ever made.

At first, he thinks the power to shift is pretty cool. But as his world quickly starts to unravel around him he realises that each time he uses his power, it has consequences; terrible unforeseen consequences. Shifting is going to get him killed.

In a world where everything can change with a thought, Scott has to decide where he stands.

Add Shift on Goodreads
Read an extract
(Pre)Order Shift at The Book Depository
Kim Curran’s website

 

Blackwood by Gwenda Bond

Ok yes, it’s got one of those uninspired YA-girl covers, but I’ve been trying to look past the lazy cliches at least long enough to read the blurb, and this looks interesting. I love creepy legends.

Blurb from Strange Chemistry:

On Roanoke Island, the legend of the 114 people who mysteriously vanished from the Lost Colony hundreds of years ago is just an outdoor drama for the tourists, a story people tell. But when the island faces the sudden disappearance of 114 people now, an unlikely pair of 17-year-olds may be the only hope of bringing them back.

Miranda, a misfit girl from the island’s most infamous family, and Phillips, an exiled teen criminal who hears the voices of the dead, must dodge everyone from federal agents to long-dead alchemists as they work to uncover the secrets of the new Lost Colony. The one thing they can’t dodge is each other.

Add Blackwood on Goodreads
Read an extract
(Pre)Order Blackwood at The Book Depository
Gwenda Bond’s website

Both Shift and Blackwood will be released in the USA and Canada and in eBook format on 4 September 2012. The UK prints will be published on 6 September 2012, which is when I assume it will be made available to the rest of the world too.

If you’d like to see the Strange Chemistry’s current publishing schedule from September 2012 to May 2013, you can check it out here.