Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review: Unpoken by Sarah Rees Brennan

Kami Glass loves someone she's never met—a boy she's talked to in her head since she was born. This has made her an outsider in the sleepy English town of Sorry-in-the-Vale, but she has learned ways to turn that to her advantage. Her life seems to be in order, until disturbing events begin to occur. There has been screaming in the woods and the manor overlooking the town has lit up for the first time in 10 years. . . . The Lynburn family, who ruled the town a generation ago and who all left without warning, have returned. Now Kami can see that the town she has known and loved all her life is hiding a multitude of secrets—and a murderer. The key to it all just might be the boy in her head. The boy she thought was imaginary is real, and definitely and deliciously dangerous.
Sarah Rees Brennan’s Unspoken has become my latest in a long list of reasons to lodge a complaint against whomever decrees where books ought to be shelved at Barnes and Noble.  The powers that be decided Unspoken belongs in the so-called “paranormal romance” section where my extreme aversion to romance would have prevented me from ever stumbling upon it had I not read reviews on the internet.  And that would have been my loss.

Unspoken, a contemporary novel written in the great gothic tradition I normally pass by, follows the exploits of one Kami Glass, student and aspiring reporter whose urge to investigate might make her better suited for detective work than journalism were it not for her penchant for trouble and attracting unwanted attention (dragging her friends along for the ride).  If the “back of the book” description and new cover are anything to go by, the publishers would have you believe that this book is first and foremost a romance, but Kami’s personality and Brennan’s careful plotting make Unspoken read more as a mystery and a study of friendship and introspection than anything else.  It is a book of dark doings that is so immensely entertaining, its heroines (and very reluctant hero) so likable, that despite repeated attempts at breaking its readers’ hearts, it still inspires them to laughter until the final climax.  

I’ve read a handful of reviews that criticized Brennan’s “Gilmore Girls-esque” dialogue for being unrealistic and overly pithy, arguing that no teenagers talk like Kami and her friends and that a disproportionate number of characters share this talent for preternaturally intelligent wit.  Since this is precisely the kind of dialogue I seek in novels and television I was not bothered.  I’m sure that the dialogue will seem belabored and unbelievable to some readers, but even if that were the case, this is a fantasy novel. How many books and TV series do we admire because we wish we could talk the way the characters do?  If no one thought the way Kami and her friends talk, Brennan and other authors would not be able to imagine the dialogue in the first place.  Brennan’s writing is not without flaws, but her characters’ penchant for wit is not one of them.

Brennan’s characters and their interactions are perhaps the book’s greatest strength.  Kami and her friends are all interesting, nuanced characters who are (almost) all likable but with definite failings.  Better still, the “villainous” Lynburns are not without depth.  None are who they initially seem to be: Many who appeared wronged were in the wrong and vice-versa.  That said, no Lynburn is unambiguously “good” or “evil”—not even the character who ultimately emerges the antagonist.

I would be remiss if I did not address the novel’s “romance”, not because the book is marketed as one but because the complexity of Kami’s relationships with her friends—relationships that are not limited to romance—is the reason Unspoken stands out from the pack.  Unlike countless novelists whose work is shelved beside hers, Brennan does not shun female homosocial bonding in favor of the central romance.  The friendship between Kami, Angela and Holly was, for me, even more compelling than Kami’s relationship with Jared.  I especially appreciated when they were allowed to interact away from the boys, and that Kami expresses concern about whether or not she’s abandoning her friends for a boy.  Her concerns are justified, but she deserves credit for not wanting to be that girl and for taking steps to rectify the problem despite being beset by the rather unusual circumstances (mind-reading, imaginary friend come to life, murderous sorcerer out to kill her) that made it difficult for her to connect with her friends in the first place.  

I also enjoyed Kami’s realization that she had been blind to Holly’s frankly obvious attempts at initiating a friendship. That she, like so many other girls, was oblivious to Holly’s loneliness. While their classmates seem to avoid Holly because they find her threatening, Kami gives the impression that while Holly’s beauty is discomfiting on some level, it ultimately never occurred to her that someone who was as beautiful and vivacious as Holly could be lonely or want to be friends because Kami felt so ordinary by comparison. Of all the characters, Holly felt most real and grew to be one of my favorites. I love that she wanted to be friends with both Kami and Angela, that she was terrified that by accidentally hurting Angela’s feelings she’d lost Kami’s friendship too—that neither of the girls had meant that friendship in the first place.  The three girls’ dramatically differing views of boys were similarly fascinating and much appreciated.  I sincerely hope that their relationship continues to evolve and that their friendship withstands and grows from their experiences in the first book. 

Kami and Jared’s relationship is also delightfully complex: There is no “love at first sight” in Unspoken, the novel’s premise makes certain of that.  Kami and Jared have shared a mental/emotional link their entire lives, getting to know each other on a level of intimacy that is unattainable outside their unique predicament.  Add to this their fears that their “imaginary friend” was in fact imaginary and their difficulty coping with encountering each other in the flesh and you have the recipe for a relationship that is far from typical and could resolve in any number of ways that bypass what people usually think of as romance.  The nature of their relationship is ambiguous: It is not clear even to them what they feel for each other. The idea that they knew and understood each other on a fundamental level by virtue of their mental connection but were terrified by each other’s physical reality was a little brilliant. That Kami was willing to overcome this, that she was troubled by Jared “only wanting her for her mind” was an interesting twist, though I must admit that the idea of a purely intellectual/emotional relationship strongly appeals to me, so I might be on Jared’s side there. That Kami worried whether what she and Jared felt was real or the result of their connection, that she was willing to risk losing what has essentially been a part of her her entire life and functioned almost as a safety blanket to find out who she was as an individual, if their feelings were real, made her rise considerably in my estimation. I am curious to see how Kami’s relationships will evolve in forthcoming novels.

Unspoken ends with a cliffhanger, a device I ordinarily loathe.  This one ought to have driven me to distraction, but I’m finding it curiously palatable.  The novel left me intrigued, full of questions about how the characters and story will proceed, and eager to read the next volume, but I am not out of my mind the way I’ve been after other novels that have used the same trick.  I do not know whether this is criticism or praise.  I am inclined to believe it is neither, an observation rather than a judgment.

While Unspoken is not without its share of faults, it would be impossible to discuss them without going into too much detail about the plot.  It will not go down in the annals as one of those rare novels that takes hold of you and transforms your imagination or the way you see the world, but it is an immensely enjoyable read and intriguing opening salvo in a new series that will be difficult to put down once you start.

Type: YA Fantasy, Contemporary, Gothic, first in a series
Acquisition: Personal purchase from Barnes & Noble
Discovery: Via fan-renderings of the characters on an artist’s blog and online reviews
Current Rank: Book I liked/enjoyed
Number of Reads: 1 (so far)

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