Review of Unearthly by Cynthia Hand

Title: Unearthly
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
Rating: 5/10

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.

Buy a copy of Unearthly at The Book Depository

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Review of Cape of Slaves by Sam Roth

Title: Cape of Slaves
Series: Time Twisters #1
Author: Sam Roth (pseudonym of Dorothy Dyer and Rosamund Haden)
Published: March 2012
Publisher: Puffin South Africa
Genre: science fantasy, historical children’s fiction, YA
Source: review copy from Penguin South Africa
Rating: 5/10

In the year 2099, a glowing, green, time-travelling dust escapes into an air vent and travels “through time and space, searching for human skin with which it could connect”.

In present day Johannesburg, the glowing dust finds 12-year-old Sarah, and some of it seeps into her skin. At school the next day, Sarah is inexplicably drawn towards a book entitled Europe in the Middle Ages. When she examines one of the pictures she is pulled into the scene, travelling to the time in which it occurred. Sarah returns moments later, and decides that she needs to find others who have been touched by the dust.

She places a cryptic ad in the personal columns of a local teen newspaper, and that’s how she meets Toby, a street-smart boy from a dodgy neighbourhood, and Bonisile ‘Bones’ Tau (rhymes with ‘cow’), a super-nerdy genius. Toby shows them a newspaper clipping about a girl named Miriam who disappeared from the Cape of Slaves exhibition at a local art gallery. Toby is convinced that Miriam travelled through a portal in one of the paintings and could not get back. Bones and Sarah agree to join Toby on a rescue mission to save Miriam, but when they go through the painting to land in Cape Town, 1825, they do so without an inkling of what kind of society awaits them.

 

Before I go any further, I should put in a disclaimer. The protagonists are 12 and 13 years old, and according to Puffin’s press release for this Cape of Slaves, the target audience is 8-years old and up. I know nothing about the intellectual capabilities or reading preferences of this age group, so I’m reviewing this primarily for older teenagers and adults who read YA. Younger readers are no doubt less demanding and wouldn’t be bothered by the many shortcomings in this novel, but I thought the authors could have been more rigorous, regardless of the fact that they were writing for children. YA and children’s fiction shouldn’t be sub-standard fiction.

The bit of plot I described above already raises a lot of questions and issues for me. I think it’s unlikely that a personal ad in a local youth newspaper would catch the attention of the very few people who were touched by the dust. Who reads those newspapers anyway? Then Toby assumes that Miriam has time-travelled, based on nothing but a newspaper article claiming she “disappeared without a trace” (24). Sarah and Bones accept his assumption without question and agree to join him on a rescue mission, even though these three met each other less than an hour before. They all act as if time travelling is old hat for them, even though they’ve only had one experience with it so far and don’t really know how it works.

When they go to the museum to find the right painting and travel through it, none of them thinks to dress the part, so they all travel 187 years into the past looking like modern kids. What’s worse is that none of them give a single thought to the fact that they’re going to a time of slavery, and the issue of skin colour only comes up once they’ve gone through.

I could, reluctantly, suspend my disbelief to accept that Sarah is capable of this. She lives a life of privilege, where her daily problems involve her stepdad driving her to school in a huge, embarrassing Hummer, walking her to class, and searching her room for sweets and chocolates because he’s a health freak. Because she’s white, discrimination has probably never been an issue for her and 1825 will be far less dangerous for her than for Toby or Bones, so maybe – just maybe – she hasn’t considered the slavery issue.

Toby on the other hand, is coloured and comes from an impoverished background that has made him acutely aware of the racism and discrimination in present-day South Africa. In 1825, he knows full well that his skin colour puts him in danger, so why didn’t he mention it before? Bones, being a genius who attends one of the poshest schools in the country, has actually memorised a historical timeline from 1652 to 1902, so he definitely knows all about slavery. Nevertheless, he arrives at the gallery an hour early and goes through alone, all because he wants “to be the boy who came back from the past, told the world, and won prizes for it”. Of course, he ends up being the boy who is assumed to be a slave because of his skin colour.

Childish optimism aside, are 12-year olds really this dof? Or so ignorant of their history? Did schools stop teaching kids about slavery? Even if that’s the case, or if these three haven’t had those classes yet, then an art exhibition named “Cape of Slaves” and a room full of pictures depicting slavery should have been a giant, screaming clue. Certainly more noticeable than a cryptic ad in the personals column of a youth newspaper.

Perhaps the protagonists’ ignorance is meant to set the stage for an educational experience, since education is presumably one of the purposes of this novel, at least for those who don’t know about slavery or the fact that it was practised in South Africa. Since I already knew the basics, Cape of Slaves wasn’t informative or immersive. The depiction of slavery felt thin, like an impression gleaned from novels and movies on the subject. The authors (or publishers/editors) appear to have favoured ease of reading over historical accuracy in many instances. Sometimes this is understandable. For example, the violence in the novel is mild, to better suit the young audience, and we mostly see the cruelty of slavery in the way black people are treated like domestic animals.  But too often it felt like the novel just glossed over difficulties in a way that felt unnecessarily childish and unrealistic.

Almost all the characters speak perfect English, so the protagonists have no difficulty communicating. There’s only a smattering of Dutch or Afrikaans, and I don’t recall any African languages being used. No one makes a big deal about the kids’ modern clothing, speech or mannerisms. Many people marvel at how well educated Bones is, as if he were a monkey who’d learned to speak, but none of the slave owners find this threatening or even suspicious, and no one asks how or why he was educated. At one point, a slave boy named Elijah runs away from his farm in an attempt to help Bones, and they both end up getting sold at a slave market in the nearby town. Surprisingly, Elijah’s owners don’t ever come looking for him – quite convenient in terms of plot, but I can’t imagine that runaway slaves were treated so casually.

The characters are just as thin and uninteresting as the historical setting. Sarah is a garden variety shy, insecure girl, who gets jealous easily and finds it difficult to think of Toby without some kind of romantic overtone. Bones is a hollow nerd cliché – he’s physically weak, troubled by allergies, dresses like Steve Urkel, and likes to read about “rocket science and global warming” (46). What vague tastes. Poor Elijah, the only slave with a major role, is little more than a plot device put in place to help the readers and characters find their way. Toby, at least, is a little more appealing, probably because he’s the boldest, most socially conscious, and most adaptable of the three time travellers. He’s the streetwise “cool dude” with a sensitive side, but sadly this comes off as a bit of a cliché too. There’s an odd lack of slang in the characters’ speech, and they don’t really sound like kids most of the time, even if they act as such. There’s no real variation in the way they speak either, and this can be confusing, because the narrative switches between first-person narrators every two or three chapters, and it’s only the context that enables you to identify who is speaking.

On the whole, Cape of Slaves has the quality of a made-for-TV kids’ movie, like the ones that M-Net used to play for the two-hour Disney family time on Sunday afternoons. I remember liking those movies, but even then I knew that their stories were kept smooth and simple – sometimes ridiculously so – in order to keep kids happy. Similarly, this could be a good read for pre-teens and younger teens – it’s short and fairly easy to read, has a bit of adventure, and some educational value. For the many adults who read YA though, I would not recommend this.

Buy a copy of Cape of Slaves

 

Win a copy of I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore

As luck would have it I have an extra copy of I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore, and I thought it was about time I started giving away some free books on this blog.

From the Goodreads page for the novel:

In the beginning they were a group of nine. Nine aliens who left their home planet of Lorien when it fell under attack by the evil Mogadorian. Nine aliens who scattered on Earth. Nine aliens who look like ordinary teenagers living ordinary lives, but who have extraordinary, paranormal skills. Nine aliens who might be sitting next to you now.
The Nine had to separate and go into hiding. The Mogadorian caught Number One in Malaysia, Number Two in England, and Number Three in Kenya. All of them were killed. John Smith, of Paradise, Ohio, is Number Four. He knows that he is next.

A film adaptation of the novel was released last month, and according to Wikipedia the story will continue in The Power of Six, which will focus on Number Seven and is due for release on August 23, 2011.

If, like most bookworms, you like to read the book and watch the movie, or you just want to try out a hot new series, here’s how you can win a copy:

  1. Subscribe to Violin in a Void, either via email (link in sidebar) or using a WordPress subscription (if you’re already subscribed you can, of course, skip this step). Please confirm your subscription using the confirmation email WordPress will send you so that your name appears in my subscription list. Note that subscriptions for RSS and other feeds do not count. Email or WordPress only.
  2. Leave a comment on this post.

This giveaway is international. Entries close on 16 March. Once I’ve chosen a winner, I will contact you for your address. Good luck!