Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Review: Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan

Let me start by saying that Sarah Rees Brennan has been my favourite author ever since I finished reading The Demon's Covenant and promptly bawled my eyes out. 

I first heard of The Demon's Lexicon on a writing forum I frequent, and when it popped up on my Grade 9 summer reading list, I thought "why not?" I later discovered the answer to that: your emotions will never recover. 

Wouldn't trade it for the world, though.

I bought Unspoken the day it was released, after months and months of breathless anticipation. Everything Ms. Rees Brennan had ever said about it made me squeal with excitement (lady reporter team? not-so-imaginary friends? a gothic heroine who is an angsty teen boy? yes, please!), and every review and excerpt I read just contributed to my excitement. 

It totally lived up to the hype.

I should have written this review months ago, when the book was fresh in my mind, but... well, clearly I didn't. So, here goes!

The Story:

Kami Glass loves someone she’s never met . . . a boy she’s talked to in her head ever since she was born. She wasn’t silent about her imaginary friend during her childhood, and is thus a bit of an outsider in her sleepy English town of Sorry-in-the-Vale. Still, Kami hasn’t suffered too much from not fitting in. She has a best friend, runs the school newspaper, and is only occasionally caught talking to herself. Her life is in order, just the way she likes it, despite the voice in her head.

But all that changes when the Lynburns return.

The Lynburn family has owned the spectacular and sinister manor that overlooks Sorry-in-the-Vale for centuries. The mysterious twin sisters who abandoned their ancestral home a generation ago are back, along with their teenage sons, Jared and Ash, one of whom is eerily familiar to Kami. Kami is not one to shy away from the unknown—in fact, she’s determined to find answers for all the questions Sorry-in-the-Vale is suddenly posing. Who is responsible for the bloody deeds in the depths of the woods? What is her own mother hiding? And now that her imaginary friend has become a real boy, does she still love him? Does she hate him? Can she trust him?

Oh, my god. This plot, you guys. This story. This mystery. I'm not sure I'm going to be coherent.

I'm going to be very honest with you guys: I have not read many gothic novels. Like, at all. I've been meaning to for years, but between my class reading and my love of YA, I've never really had the chance. (Also, I have over 500 books in my room alone, not counting my mother's collection or my sister's collection or my dad's... selections, and I sort of should probably get through those first.) So I've heard a lot of big gothic fans freak out over this book, but I want to assure everyone that you can fall in love with Unspoken even if you've never read a gothic novel in your life.

Sarah Rees Brennan is one of those authors who instinctively understands how to capture a reader. I already knew this from The Demon's Lexicon (which remains my favourite completed series of all time, even above Harry Potter, because oh my goodness those characters are just so real and beautiful and complex and damaged and strong and vulnerable and my heart just can't deal), but Unspoken brought this to a whole other level. While The Demon's Lexicon was written at a heart-racing pace, Unspoken stops to smell the roses; and in this case, the roses are deep, rich characters in a deep, rich world, with mysteries and secrets around every corner, and something brilliant hidden in every nook and cranny.

Not to say that Unspoken is paced slowly. Things are constantly happening, information is always coming to light, and there's not a single sentence that doesn't enrapture you. But the pace of Unspoken is juuuust slow enough that you hear every creak and see every shadow, like you're Kami, walking through an old gothic manor, never knowing if you're about to be buried alive.

(In Ms. Rees Brennan's own words, "Someone's always getting buried alive."

The Characters

But despite all the AMAZEBALLS plotting and pacing and concept of Unspoken, it is the characters that make this novel soar.

In particular, the Lady Reporter Team I mentioned earlier.

Lady friendships in YA are uncommon enough as it is, but lady friendships that take center stage are near impossible to find without stumbling under the label "Chick Lit" (which is something I could vent about to hours, because as much as I love chick lit, why can't lady friendships just be, without being categorized into a constantly dismissed genre?) In Unspoken, despite all the romantic turmoil going on in Kami's life, her friendships never fall to the side. They're always treated as equally important and relevant to her life as any boy.

And better yet, the three main ladies represent three totally different ways of being a girl, and the narrative never ever suggests any one way is superior or inferior to others.

Let's break it down.

Kami Glass: Kami is our leading lady, and she does NOT disappoint. She is hilarious, perceptive, has a strong sense of justice, and is on a mission to uncover all the secrets in her small town of Sorry-In-The-Vale. She also has a couple of romantic interests through the novel, but never does a boy stop her from being completely and utterly Kami. 

Kami's still a teenage girl, though. She's insecure about her looks, and the fact that she's part-Japanese (which, yay! diversity in YA- and can I also take a pause from this review to gush about how much I love Sarah Rees Brennan's ladies? Because they are the greatest. Tall, short, thin, full-figured, confident, insecure, all different ethnicities and from different lives, all equally complex, well-written, and important- I could just sing this woman's praises for hours, but I'll get back to the point now). Despite Kami’s insecurities, though, she never thinks of herself as worthless or unimportant, something that I see all too often in YA heroines.

Angela Montgomery- Angela is Kami’s tall, gorgeous, angry best friend- and good lord, I love this girl, because all she wants to do in her life is nap, and that is an ambition I can relate to. Angela hates everybody (or at least, says so). Angela threatens to murder people and hide their bodies in piles of boxes.

And Angela is hugely protective of the people she loves. Angela will stop at nothing to keep Kami safe (and later, as she lets more people into her heart, she is as loyal to them as well.) Angela is, more than any other character in the novel, fierce—she loves fiercely, hates fiercely, and hurts fiercely.

But anything more would be a spoiler.

Holly Prescott—Hands down my favourite character in the novel, Holly is blonde, popular with boys, and “the second-best looking girl in the school.” And not once does the novel demonize her for this.

There is an idea in our society that the best criteria by which to judge the value of a female character is how different she is than ‘other girls’.  There are so many things wrong with this idea that I don’t know where to start. Are we saying that girls, by our very nature, are weak? Are we saying that the best way to be a girl is to try… not to be one?

The most critically acclaimed ‘strong female characters’ in YA tend to be characters like Katsa from Graceling or Katniss from The Hunger Games, characters whose strength comes from the fact that they are not traditionally feminine—which is totally, perfectly valid. Both characters are fantastic, and deserve all the recognition they get. But characters who are traditionally feminine, who are ‘like other girls’, are constantly dismissed and insulted as ‘weak’, ‘silly’, and, without fail, given the label “bitch”.

And in most media geared toward teenagers, if a character is popular, blonde, and has a boyfriend or is liked by guys, you can guarantee she’s going to be a villain. Recently, in fact, I was at a panel, where an author straight-up announced that she had no sympathy for popular blondes with hot boyfriends. I was so horrified I left the panel.

But Holly Prescott is blonde, popular, well-liked by guys… and smart, sensitive, kind and caring, determined, perceptive, and 100% meant to be liked. She’s a fully developed character, with flaws and insecurities, who is constantly assumed to be dumb and vapid and by the end, proves beyond any doubt that she is anything but.

The rest of the characters are equally amazing—Jared and Ash, our gothic heroine and the cousin he doesn’t get along with, are loveable and real and heartbreaking, and they and their mothers make me wish the novel had indeed been titled ‘Hot Blond Death’. Kami’s family is wonderfully present and developed, and I may have a sliiiiiight crush on Angela’s brother Rusty.

The Ending:

Usually, I wouldn’t have a section titled ‘The Ending’ in a spoiler-free review, but there’s nothing usual about Unspoken. If you’ve heard anything about this novel, you’re probably under the impression that the end will rip your heart out, gobble it up, puke it back out, and throw it under a truck.

You’d be correct.

But I promise you, it’s totally, completely worth it. Once you’re done crying, you’ll realize it couldn’t have ended any other way.

And you will develop a desperate need for the sequel, Untold, to be released and in your hands like RIGHT NOW.

Perfect story. Perfect characters. Perfect ending.

What are you waiting for? Go read it.

Rating: 5/5 with a cherry on top

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