Series: Unearthly #1
Author: Cynthia Hand
Published: 4 January 2011; my edition published 1 May 2011
Publisher: Egmont UK
Genre: paranormal romance, YA, fantasy
Source: review copy from Penguin South Africa
I didn’t expect to get a copy of this from Penguin Books SA, and I wasn’t even going to read it, since paranormal romance is not my thing and I hate these lame pretty-girl YA covers. However, I’ve been away on a holiday of sorts, and found that I was too distracted to focus on more demanding reads, so I told myself to stop being a snob about this and just give Unearthly a shot. At the very least, I would learn a little more about the current trend of YA romances featuring mythical beings.
In Unearthly, the beings are angels and angel-bloods (human/angel hybrids). Sixteen-year old Clara Gardener is a Quartarius, a ‘quarter-angel’. Her mom Maggie is a Dimidius – a half-angel. When the novel opens, Clara is shown her ‘purpose’ – a vision of her reason for existing, her destiny. The vision shows a raging forest fire and a mysterious, beautiful boy she has to save. Using clues from her vision, Clara and her mother figure out where it’s supposed to take place and, along with Clara’s younger brother Jeffrey, they pack up their things and move to Jackson Hole, a small town in the forests of Wyoming.
At Jackson Hole High School, Clara learns that the boy she’s supposed to save is Christian. Christian Prescott. Christian is so hot that Clara’s friend Wendy refers to him as a god. Maggie pushes her to get closer to Christian in order to fulfil her destiny, but he’s dating one of the hottest, most popular girls in the school and Clara is in the lower half of the social hierarchy. She might be gorgeous and athletic thanks to her angel blood, but she starts school with her hair dyed orange (I’ll explain later), leading to some unflattering nicknames. She struggles to find her place at a school where everyone has known each other since nursery school and it’s a long time before she has a real conversation with Christian. She must also overcome the physical challenge of learning to fly and becoming strong enough to carry Christian away from the forest fire. However, everything becomes more complicated when Christian leaves town for the summer, and Clara falls for another boy, whose affection and rugged good looks distract her from her purpose.
I’ve read a few other paranormal romances just to give the genre a shot – Twilight and the first two Sookie Stackhouse books. I found them to be dreadful, boring novels, so I was pleased to find that this wasn’t too bad. The romance dominates the story, which I don’t normally like, but I actually found some of it quite sweet, at least when it wasn’t overly clichéd or being taken way too seriously. I imagine that fans of YA paranormal romance will be enraptured, particularly when the second romance begins to blossom later in the novel. Personally, I have to admit that the book gave me what I wanted, which was a quick, simple read. I finished it in about a day (even at 433 pages) and thought it was a decent way of passing the time.
But, me being me, I couldn’t help but notice the flaws.
Clara, firstly, is too perfect and privileged. She’s smarter, faster, stronger and more beautiful than humans. She heals quickly, she can speak any language, and command animals. Her mom is inexplicably wealthy, so it’s no problem to pack up and move across the country, and their house in Jackson is stunning. Maggie later buys Clara a prom dress just because it’s beautiful (at that point, Clara has no intention of going to the prom) and pays for skiing lessons and an expensive all-season pass for the slopes so that Clara and Christian can share a hobby and spend more time together. Clara and Jeffrey go to a swanky school, and although some of the students are “poor” they only seem that way because everyone else is stinking rich.
Everything is so easy for Clara, that learning to fly is only a challenge because it requires some actual effort and practice. When Clara tries other things, like skiing and horse-riding, she does it perfectly on her first try. As far as her personal life in concerned, she only has a minor difficulties common to pretty much every teenager on earth – hating her hair, suffering a few embarrassments, feeling confusion about her romantic interests, fighting with her mom. Even her purpose is something that she’s mostly just waiting for, and it seems way easier than the usual problem of trying to decide what to do with your life.
The novel gives too little attention to the concept of purpose and the rest of the angel mythology, so a lot of it is very vague, contrived or just silly. The mythology is almost strictly biblical, but the novel is silent on many relevant theological questions, like the nature of God or the role of religion. On the positive side this means the novel avoids being religious and it’s easy to see the angels as just another mythology (although you can take the religious view if you’re so inclined). On the downside it’s very flat and simplistic.
But of course, this is a fluffy teen romance, so I guess I shouldn’t expect much in terms of moral-complexity or world-building, and I think a lot of information is being held back for the rest of the trilogy. I often felt it would be easy to exchange mythologies, and make Clara a vampire or fairy, or switch genres and make her a cyborg or give her genetic engineering. She just needs to be a superhuman with secrets to keep and the romance could still play out in much the same way. However, there are some important plot points that are actually based on the shaky angle mythology, leaving us with some gaping plot holes.
Clara’s hair is one of these. It’s naturally golden (*sigh*), and can shine with a bright, “unearthly” light if she’s feeling emotional. To prevent this from happening, her mother dyes her hair, but I don’t understand why this solves the problem. Also, Clara’s hair turns out orange instead of auburn, which is quite embarrassing and is presumably meant to be the reason why this hot, smart, athletic girl doesn’t become one of the popular rich kids. Instead she’s notably ‘different’ and socially cut off from Christian, which better suits the plot. However, there’s really no reason why Clara can’t dye her hair a different colour. And why choose a light colour when a dark one would be safer? The whole orange-hair problem seems completely avoidable.
Then there’s her goal of getting close to Christian. As far as her purpose is concerned, I don’t think there’s any need for this. From what I can tell, she doesn’t have to do anything except fly him away from the forest fire. She figures out when and where it will happen, and she learns what jacket she’ll be wearing at the time. This means that it can’t take her by surprise, so it’s not like she has to follow Christian around. She just has to be in the right location, during fire season, on a day when she wears her purple jacket. She could ignore Christian most of the time, so really the idea that she needs to be his close friend or his girlfriend is a poor excuse for romance and a love triangle. Why not give her a better reason for wanting to get close to him, like learning more about the guy who is part of her purpose in life? What makes him special? The book doesn’t offer any explanation because Clara doesn’t try to figure it out. Apparently blind faith is enough for her. No surprise there, I guess.
It was also no surprise to find that the romance takes the old damsel-in-distress, my-life-revolves-around-a-man route. When Clara first sees Christian, she faints and he carries her to the nurse. I was suddenly very worried that I’d be reading Twilight all over again. It’s the first of several instances of Clara literally falling into a boy’s arms, and one of many romance and YA clichés. She also activates some of her angelic powers by thinking about a boy, and of course her whole reason for existing is to save the life of a hot guy. Christian is essentially the most important thing in her life because God said so. It’s some of that good old divinely inspired misogyny.
In terms of plot though, everything revolves around Clara. The other characters exist only to serve her story, and as a result they’re terribly flat. Two of them actually accuse Clara of assuming that everything is about her, but as a reader you’ll find nothing to contradict that assumption. About halfway through the novel most of the characters are casually sent out of town so that Clara’s second romance can develop unhindered.
Reading over this review, I can’t believe I sort of enjoyed this book. It obviously helped a lot that I wanted an easy read. I think the novel is also ‘saved’ by the fact that it’s mediocre. It’s not as stupid and misogynistic as something like Twilight; it’s benign enough for me to get some enjoyment from the story while brushing aside the flaws. It could be a bit slow at times, because its focus is on the romance rather than the paranormal stuff, but I think fans of the genre will be very happy with this. The ending also adds a few intriguing elements to the story, setting a nice stage for the sequel.