The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty

The Ashbury-Brookfield pen pal program is designed to bring together the two rival schools in a spirit of harmony and “the Joy of the Envelope.” But when Cassie, Lydia, and Emily send their first letters to Matthew, Charlie, and Sebastian, things don’t go quite as planned. What starts out as a simple letter exchange soon leads to secret missions, false alarms, lock picking, mistaken identities, and an all-out war between the schools–not to mention some really excellent kissing.

While reading this book, I developed a closer attachment than I originally thought I would. I might have said this before, but I’m not much of a contemporary YA reader-person – I have a tendency to be easily bored by reading about what I see as the normalness of every-day life and experiences. I already live in the world I’m reading about. Why should I read about someone living in the same exact world as I am, especially if the protagonist and I happen to live in similar circumstances – student, American, white, etc. (Although in this case, replace American for Australian, what with the story taking place in Australia.)

Even with this book there were things that made me roll my eyes more than a little. Emily, Cassie, and Lydia are three incredibly privileged girls who come from wealthy, lawyer families and attend an upper-crust private school, whereas their penpals are boys attending a public school with a reputation for crime and deviancy, and at least two of those penpals are decidedly less well-off than the girls are. Considering the connections forged between the two sides in the letters, I am a little surprised that class or school differences weren’t bigger issues they had to work through.

There were also the bits that made the story look just too convenient – like the fact that the three girls all happened to end up with three boys and that by the end, two of the pairs are in romantic relationships. And then there’s the fact that with one major exception, the letter-writing goes well and there’s actual communication and rapport that develops between Emily, Charlie, Lydia, and Seb. Maybe I’m just cynical about my high school days and what people were like back then (me among them), but it felt a bit forced that simply by luck and happenstance that four high school strangers would grow to be that into communicating in depth to each other, through letters no less. That’s just me, though.

With all that out of the way, I can start with how I really liked Emily, Lydia, and Cassie’s unique writing styles, ways of describing the world they live in, and communication skills. Emily started out as the more annoying, bubbly one who’s incredibly full of herself, but when it comes to her two best friends, she’s the sweetest person on earth and becomes like a mother hen when one of them is hurt. I preferred Lydia more than the other two from the get-go – once I read her snarky responses to her Notebook™ that’s supposed to help her become a better writer, I knew she was speaking my language. She’s the more negative and closed-off of the three and likes playing games more than being open and honest. She does care about people and if Emily’s the mother hen when someone she loves gets hurt, Lydia’s the mama bear, ready to rip the culprit to shreds. Cassie’s been dealing with her father’s death and she’s not sure of the person she seems to have become in the process, and so uses the penpal project and telling all about herself to a complete stranger as a means of therapy and exploration. Unfortunately for her, this backfires on her spectacularly. Cassie plays less of an active role over the course of the book, but overall it’s about her and how her friends care about and look after her well-being. The final showdown of the story, while not directly about Cassie, brings about closure for her and what gives her the courage to begin to grow as a person.

Charlie and Seb, Emily and Lydia’s penpals were interesting enough people, but I never felt like we got as much insight into them as the girls, largely because we only have their letters and we get other forms of documents for the girls in addition to their letters. Also, like I said earlier, I was irritated that both of them fell so spectacularly in love with their penpals so easily and then spent a lot of time flirting with Emily and Lydia, especially Seb. The girls do fall in love with them as well, but I was still annoyed at how much romance had play a part in these guys’ relationship with them.

The book was written in epistolary fashion and it worked very well. The story largely takes place in the penpal letters each of the characters send each other, as well as a couple of school notices, Lydia’s Notebook™, and Cassie’s diary. The pacing of the three pairs of letters helped maintain an overall narrative and tension as to what individual outcomes would be over the course of the book. Also, the book itself is divided into a few different sections, the results of which nicely mirror across communication streams.

I took a gamble on this book and I am definitely glad it paid off. Although I definitely had some issues, I truly enjoyed getting inside the heads of Lydia, Cassie, and Emily and I was glad that each of them ended up in a good place at the book’s conclusion. After doing some research online, it looks as though Jaclyn Moriarty has written a couple of other stand-alone books set in the same two schools, also written as epistolary novels. It may take a while, but it’s likely I’ll get around to reading the rest of them at some point.

Disclosure – library

Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden

This groundbreaking book is the story of two teenage girls whose friendship blossoms into love and who, despite pressures from family and school that threaten their relationship, promise to be true to each other and their feelings. This book is so truthful and honest, it has been banned from many school libraries and even publicly burned in Kansas City.
 
Of the author and the book, the Margaret A. Edwards Award committee said, “Nancy Garden has the distinction of being the first author for young adults to create a lesbian love story with a positive ending. Using a fluid, readable style, Garden opens a window through which readers can find courage to be true to themselves.”

SPOILERS

First published in 1982, this book has the distinction of being the first YA book published in the U.S. to feature a gay couple that has a happy ending. It’s probably more appropriate to say the ending is bittersweet, considering not everyone walks away unscathed from what occurs, but everyone’s still alive, no one “got cured” or “went back” to being straight, and the ending is still really hopeful and very much appreciated.

To start off, Liza and Annie’s relationship is one of the sweetest, most romantic ones I’ve ever read. These two are pretty much the classic example of “love at first sight” – both meet one day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, bond over impromptu reenactments of knights performing chivalrous acts, and exchange phone numbers and addresses at the end of the day. Suddenly, both of them are spending the majority of their time together, exploring New York and its environs and finding beauty in everything around them until events come to a turn and Liza, the protagonist of the story, comes to the realization that she is in love with Annie. Me being extremely picky about textual romances, I would have preferred a bit less “love at first sight” and a bit more getting to know each other before romantic attraction sets in, but I’m honestly not going to complain all that much. The joy Liza and Annie experience together and in each other is so palpable and beautiful to read; it’s teenage love without feeling hackneyed at all. And that’s a damn impressive accomplishment.

Also, I was pleasantly surprised, but also pleased that the book addressed not only Liza and Annie’s romantic attraction for each other, but also their sexual attraction, and how Liza deals with the two forms differs drastically. The former’s easier – with a little effort, it’s not too strange to accept the premise that love is love, no matter who it’s felt by or directed towards. The latter on the other hand is harder for Liza in particular to come to grips with that this is something she truly wants, and that she wants it *a lot*. And she and Annie do end up having (non-descriptive) sex, which made me happy. In addition, I really liked how Liza struggled with calling herself gay and how it was just easier to think about the fact that she loved Annie rather than what it possibly might mean. For her, “gay” is too limiting and doesn’t really describe for her what she feels. It isn’t that she likes girls in general, it’s that she likes Annie. She objectively recognizes that “gay” might be the best description and she could theoretically fall in love with other girls later on, but the term still carries too much historical and cultural baggage for her to feel truly comfortable aligning herself with it.

And of course, it couldn’t be all happiness and rainbows because we have the strict, image-conscious, authoritarian principle of Liza’s private school Mrs. Poindexter and her lackey, the fluttery, extremely religious Mrs. Baxter who have gotten on Liza’s case before and get on her case in the end when Mrs. Baxter catches them in a somewhat compromising situation. It was actually really hard to read the first half of the book because it is really beautiful and touching and you know they’re going to get caught and there’s going to be hell to pay. And even the fact that this is set in the eighties doesn’t help with the ensuing rage and pain I felt while reading it because neither homophobia nor heterosexism are dead in the slightest, especially in schools. And the aftermath that follows them getting found out drives an almost impenetrable wedge between Annie, especially because the specifics of what they did cost two of Liza’s teachers their jobs and Liza can’t help but connect her and Annie’s love to that result.

I’m not sure if I conveyed this well or not, but what I’m essentially trying to say is that Annie On My Mind made me feel all of the emotions, and for that, I loved it. It’s such a wonderful love story and a really important one to boot. If you’re looking for a good YA book centered on a F/F couple, as wellas one that’s historically important in the canon of queer YA literature, this book is it.

Disclosure – library

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

A moving and haunting novel for readers of The Book Thief

Fifteen-year-old Lina is a Lithuanian girl living an ordinary life—until Soviet officers invade her home and tear her family apart. Separated from her father and forced onto a crowded train, Lina, her mother, and her young brother make their way to a Siberian work camp, where they are forced to fight for their lives. Lina finds solace in her art, documenting these events by drawing. Risking everything, she imbeds clues in her drawings of their location and secretly passes them along, hoping her drawings will make their way to her father’s prison camp. But will strength, love, and hope be enough for Lina and her family to survive?

This powerful tale of heartbreak and hope is sure to haunt readers long after they finish the last page.

While reading this book, I frequently felt conflicted over the author’s writing and the format she used to tell the story. Athough it felt dissatisfying, I also understood why she made the choices she did. An example – for the majority of the book, I couldn’t understand why the author included multiple flashbacks to Lina’s life before deportation rather than simply start the book in that time and then show the political situation getting progressively worse until her father is arrested and she and her mother and brother are deported. Then right near the book’s ending, the inclusion of the flashbacks started to make more sense and the revelation does ultimately connect back to the very beginning of the story. So I essentially spent a majority of my time disliking the flashbacks when they actually did serve a purpose… Another thing I didn’t like was the shortness of the chapters; there are 85 chapters and an epilogue in a 338-page book. At the same time, I absolutely sped right through this book in a way I haven’t for a long time this year, so I guess they weren’t as bothersome as I kept thinking they were. I don’t know. The short length gave the events contained in each chapter an episodic feeling, which might have been a very intentional choice to highlight what happens to Lina in that manner. In which case I respect the choice, but would have personally preferred longer chapters and a greater confluence of events. Also, I’m not sure how I feel about the epilogue – does this mean that the entire story was supposed to have been written by Lina after her imprisonment? Because there’s no way I would have read it like that without the epilogue implying that’s what it is, which means I’m not happy with how that was handled.

In terms the story itself, it was fascinating from a historical perspective. The author focuses on something I have not seen written about in either in fiction or nonfiction –  the deportation, imprisonment, and murder of millions of Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, Finns, and other Eastern European peoples. (Maybe in some cases it was combined with the mass deportation of Russians to become a general phenomenon?) Even so, the focus wasn’t so much on the historical, political situation that resulted in this atrocity, but on the human stories and experiences of living through, surviving, and dying in this new world. Almost all of the characters were painted in a sympathetic light, even the cranky bald man who won’t stop talking about how they’re all about to die. Even though the main character is Lina, I’d say that the most impressive character of them all is her mother for keeping the family together as long as possible and doing whatever it takes to make sure Lina and Jonas survive. It’s an emotionally charged story, and in that respect it is beautifully told.

However, given that Lina and all these other people are deported and imprisoned for political reasons, the context in which her story takes place is strangely apolitical. She knows that it’s mostly the wealthy, educated, and those who have international connections that are being targeted, the flashbacks show Lina’s parents discussing and worrying about Stalin’s invasion, and sometimes people talk about Germany and World War Two if they hear any news about it. And yet, none if it is really grounded. Like, if I hadn’t known anything about Stalinist Russian and his perpetration of communism, him invading Lithuania and the other Baltic countries wouldn’t have made sense, nor would the deportations. The way the author wrote this story, it’s as though there’s this lack of awareness of why any of this is happening. Or at least that’s how I read it. Maybe this is because I like seeing how big, national actions are interconnected to the individuals who are the ones who suffer as a result of those actions.

Meh. I feel like I’m being overly picky here because I did enjoy reading this book and it was almost impossible for me to put down because I kept going through chapter after chapter, just to make sure that everyone was still surviving. Lina and everone else’s lack of knowledge was used beautifully – it heightened the tension because no one knew what to expect, where they’re being taken to now, or what new horrors were about to happen. And in terms of the subject matter, it’s an important book about  little-known or publicized brutal historical times. There were parts I was definitely drawn to, but the overall work didn’t click with me.

Disclosure – library

Shine by Lauren Myracle

When her best guy friend falls victim to a vicious hate crime, sixteen-year-old Cat sets out to discover who in her small town did it. Richly atmospheric, this daring mystery mines the secrets of a tightly knit Southern community and examines the strength of will it takes to go against everyone you know in the name of justice. 

Against a backdrop of poverty, clannishness, drugs, and intolerance, Myracle has crafted a harrowing coming-of-age tale couched in a deeply intelligent mystery. Smart, fearless, and compassionate, this is an unforgettable work from a beloved author.

So I decided to read this book way back when the National Book Award debacle occurred where Shine was originally one of the nominees, but was later substituted for Chime due to an error in communication, apparently. Regardless of the fishy circumstances surrounding the whole thing, the fact that people were fighting so hard for Shine to be re-included convinced me that there had to be something to the book in question, so onto my virtual TBR it went.

This book is very good and in many ways, not what I was suspecting at all. Given the book’s synopsis and the nature of a lot of the anger over the books’ removal from the list, I had assumed the story would center around the issue of homophobia and hate crimes. And while both of those things are integral parts of the story, it isn’t “about” homophobia. Rather, homophobia is part and parcel of living in the small, poor North Carolina town of Black Creek. It’s strange to explain this, as my natural reaction to homophobia (and homophobes) is to go “NO. BAD. WRONG.” Which it is, and they are wrong in their views. However, the people of Black Creek aren’t defined solely by their homophobia, but by other things as well both good and bad. In a town where everyone knows everyone and all are experiencing hard times to varying degrees, there’s a strong sense of community. Characters are in turn kind, selfish, scared, helpful, and abusive, but there’s still this sense of empathy for each one that they’re not solely good or evil. That’s not to say hateful or violent actions are condoned; what Tommy did to Cat is, in no uncertain terms, shown as wrong and horrific. There’s a dark side to Black Creek, what with widespread poverty and meth addiction. But it’s still a complex community with no easy or right way to look at it and the people that make it up.

I really liked Cat.  She had a clear, direct way of describing situations that I appreciated. I also was into the direct attitude she took in solving the mystery behind the attack of her best friend. For the past couple of years. she’s disconnected herself away from everyone, including Patrick. It takes the attack and the realization that she does not know what’s changed in the town that this would happen that forces her to reconnect with all these people she’s previously shut out, including those she wants nothing to do with at all. She has her own brand of strength that manifests itself in her conviction to finding out the truth behind the attack on Patrick, and also in opening herself up and growing into a person that she herself can respect – someone who confronts people, asks questions, and is determined to get what she wants out of them and presenting herself as someone to be listened to.

I don’t think I would have picked this book up had it not been for the controversy, and while it is a shame the whole thing happened, I’m glad that it resulted in me doing so. Written by another person, this book could have been completely different. It could have been hackneyed and clichéd and it could have overemphasized the poverty of Black Creek to the point of becoming ruin porn (it’s about Detroit, but I think the concept is applicable to other places). All of the complexity that makes this book what it is simply would not have been there at all. As it is, this book is about people, some of them horrible people, but people nonetheless living as best they can. It reminds me a lot of The Knife and the Butterfly – the circumstances suck, but these are their lives, and all they can do is live them as they know how to or want to. In Cat’s case, she’s able to reach a place where she can imagine her life being what she wants it to be, both inside and outside of Black Creek. So yeah. It’s complex, nuanced, well-written book and Lauren Myracle tells its story beautifully.

Disclosure – library

Blood Red Road by Moira Young (Dust Lands #1)

Saba has spent her whole life in Silverlake, a dried-up wasteland ravaged by constant sandstorms. The Wrecker civilization has long been destroyed, leaving only landfills for Saba and her family to scavenge from. That’s fine by her, as long as her beloved twin brother Lugh is around. But when a monster sandstorm arrives, along with four cloaked horsemen, Saba’s world is shattered. Lugh is captured, and Saba embarks on an epic quest to get him back.

Suddenly thrown into the lawless, ugly reality of the world outside of desolate Silverlake, Saba is lost without Lugh to guide her. So perhaps the most surprising thing of all is what Saba learns about herself: she’s a fierce fighter, an unbeatable survivor, and a cunning opponent. And she has the power to take down a corrupt society from the inside. Teamed up with a handsome daredevil named Jack and a gang of girl revolutionaries called the Free Hawks, Saba stages a showdown that will change the course of her own civilization.

Blood Red Road has a searing pace, a poetically minimal writing style, violent action, and an epic love story. Moira Young is one of the most promising and startling new voices in teen fiction.

SPOILERS

From the start, my willingness to enjoy the book was marred by Saba’s voice. She tells the story in a sparse, blunt manner, a style that tends to be indicative of isolation and functional illiteracy. This wouldn’t be a problem if I hadn’t been in the middle of the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness. Unfortunately, Saba sounds pretty similar to Todd, and Todd’s voice is a whole lot more compelling in terms of the story he’s telling and the stakes involved. It’s not that Saba’s voice wasn’t done well or that her story wasn’t worthwhile in its own right. It’s more that these two authors use similar language to do very different things, and Patrick Ness’ usage works a lot better. The way Todd speaks and narrates his story is directly connected to the existence of Noise and how it’s used as a weapon of control. With this book, the language is less tied to the actual  plot and is more of an offshoot of the fact that this world is a post-apocalyptic, lawless version of Earth with most people living in isolation from each other. In short, Blood Red Road is primarily an adventure story. It’s not fair to expect this book to be the same thing as the Chaos Walking trilogy, but that didn’t stop me being sad about the lack of depth and nuance that the trilogy possesses.

On its own though, the stylistic choices with regards to the language work well and helped to root Saba into the world she’s a part of. For the most part, I liked her a good deal. She’s a tough, strong person who does what needs to be done and won’t let anything distract from her mission of saving her twin brother Lugh. Also I enjoyed her and Emmi’s budding relationship and charting how Saba’s world shifts from seeing Emmi solely as a nuisance and distraction from finding Lugh, the person she actually cares about, to fearing just as much for Emmi’s safety as his and realizing just how much Emmi cares for Saba because she’s her sister. This was the kind of story where I could easily see it being told through Emmi’s POV, that’s how much of a presence she had. She’s a scrappy girl.

However, while the writing worked well for Saba as a character, it didn’t do great things for the world-building. I get that since it’s post-apocalyptic to the point that no one knows what the world was like previously.  However, the world as it is now was barely fleshed out. How did the King even manage to become the king in the first place? What benefit does he get out of having complete control over a town of thugs and criminals? What purpose does it serve to keep everyone drugged up on chaal? I didn’t see the point of why the king existed, nor did it make sense why he believed that every six years he needed to make a human sacrifice every six years on Midsummer. Everyone thinks he’s crazy, so why the hell are the Tonton even supporting him? Even at the end of the book when they rescue Lugh and kill the king, nothing seems altered after his death. Apparently there’s going to be a sequel, so maybe we’ll learn why the king was important and a threat in the first place? I could have done with this information now.

And the romance was flat-out horrible. That heartstone. God, how I hated it. I kept waiting for it to be some piece of technology (or magic) that would help to explain why it supposedly became hot whenever you drew closer to your heart’s desire. But no. It had to be used to get Saba a love interest, and it had to be the type where she sees Jack once and immediately feels all weird and tingly and oh my god, why does he make me feel this way!? And of course, Saba immediately acts hostile towards him and tells him to go away, but Jack’s so compelled by her that he can’t help but follow her because he’s convinced there’s something between them. WTF? It’s poorly written and reads so much like the stereotypical romances currently being written in YA paranormal romance. I was not pleased AT ALL.

Taken on its own merits, it’s a fun adventure story. The writing is quick and fun to read, Saba’s a cool heroine in her own right, and the rest of the characters aren’t so bad either. However, the practically nonexistent world building and the love story killed a lot of appreciation I might have had for the book. Which is a shame, as Saba is the kind of female protagonist I wish more YA authors would write, particularly given the dystopia fad going on. I don’t think I’ll be continuing with the sequel – I could have dealt with the world building, but bad romance just pisses me off.

Disclosure – library

The Knife and the Butterfly by Ashley Hope Pérez

After a marijuana-addled brawl with a rival gang, 16-year-old Azael wakes up to find himself surrounded by a familiar set of concrete walls and a locked door. Juvie again, he thinks. But he can’t really remember what happened or how he got picked up. He knows his MS13 boys faced off with some punks from Crazy Crew. There were bats, bricks, chains. A knife. But he can’t remember anything between that moment and when he woke behind bars. 

Azael knows prison, and something isn’t right about this lockup. No phone call. No lawyer. No news about his brother or his homies. The only thing they make him do is watch some white girl in some cell. Watch her and try to remember. 

Lexi Allen would love to forget the brawl, would love for it to disappear back into the Xanax fog it came from. And her mother and her lawyer hope she chooses not to remember too much about the brawl—at least when it’s time to testify. 

Lexi knows there’s more at stake in her trial than her life alone, though. She’s connected to him, and he needs the truth. The knife cut, but somehow it also connected

SPOILERS

So first thing’s first – I received a copy of this book in a giveaway hosted by The Booksmugglers, which makes me very happy as I barely ever win those sorts of things. I really enjoyed Ashley Hope Pérez’s post about being inspired by the students she had taught and specifically writing her books for them that they would enjoy reading. Having now read the book in question, her inspiration rings through loud and clear.

Azael was one of those characters whose voice is engaging and who I felt empathy for, but in the meantime, I wanted to hit him for some of the things he says, primarily the misogynistic comments. Still, there’s this really good balance between all these different aspects that make up who he is – being part of the MS13 and the violence and crime that goes along with it, his tough-guy attitude, his love for his girlfriend Becca and his little sister.He’s also someone I admired in a way because he makes no apology for who he is. The point isn’t for the reader to judge him for his story, but to sit back and take it as it comes. I really liked Azael’s passion for graffiti and how he uses it as a way to make his mark on the world, even if it isn’t permanent. He pretty much is the story, and so the world of this book is literally the one he describes in vivid detail.

Lexi was actually the harder of the two characters to like, simply because we see right through Azael’s posturing to what he’s thinking, whereas we see only see Lexi through Azael, whose opinion of her isn’t complimentary, to say the least. Also, she doesn’t really become fleshed out until Azael gets her journal. Afterwards, she ends up looking somewhat similar to Azael because, like him, she makes no apologies or excuses for things she or other have done.She’s a bitch and she embraces that. In the end, Ashley Hope Pérez did a terrific job with both characters; each of them are a blend of several good and bad parts, and neither of them are defined by one side more than the other.

Also, the writing was excellent. Granted, the book itself is pretty short, but I still zipped right through it in a matter of hours. It grips you and doesn’t let go, but it’s also really clear and has some beautiful phrases. Going back to Azael’s voice, there are some great metaphors and comparisons that fit so well with it such that I can’t imagine anyone one else saying them. I actually tend not to stop and notice individual passages and sentences because I’m too busy focusing on the story rather than the words themselves, but as soon as I started reading, I ended up paying them more mind than I usually do.

There was one thing I ended up not liking. I really enjoyed reading the story, I didn’t care for the overall structure with which the story was told. We learn in the end that Azael has died and is suspended in a limbo state where he struggles to remember how and why he died and how it all relates back to Lexi. As has been previously established with regards to time travel, I am not a fan of speculative or speculative-like elements being integral parts of the plot without any context or explanation. I know structures like this been used many times before in books, but more often then not, they distract me from the actual content of the story by making me ask why it’s needed. Obviously for the story to work on Lexi’s side, Azael needs to be dead, but I didn’t see how this benefited Azael’s side.

All in all though, I definitely enjoyed reading this book. Ashley Hope Pérez created some excellent characters in Azael and Lexi and I love her writing. I was less OK with the actual execution of the frame with which the story was told, but since the story is primarily character-based, this isn’t a huge issue. Essentially this is a perfect example of a book where the main character and the story intertwine such that one can’t exist without the other. It’s good stuff.

Disclosure – won

The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness (Chaos Walking Trilogy #2)

Part two of the literary sci-fi thriller follows a boy and a girl who are caught in a warring town where thoughts can be heard — and secrets are never safe.

Reaching the end of their flight in THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO, Todd and Viola did not find healing and hope in Haven. They found instead their worst enemy, Mayor Prentiss, waiting to welcome them to New Prentisstown. There they are forced into separate lives: Todd to prison, and Viola to a house of healing where her wounds are treated. Soon Viola is swept into the ruthless activities of the Answer, while Todd faces impossible choices when forced to join the mayor’s oppressive new regime. In alternating narratives the two struggle to reconcile their own dubious actions with their deepest beliefs. Torn by confusion and compromise, suspicion and betrayal, can their trust in each other possibly survive?

SPOILERS FOR FIRST BOOK AND THIS BOOK

This book somehow managed to be even more awesome than the first book, which I didn’t even know was possible, but it was. This post is more rambling than usual, but if you’ve read the book it should make sense.

Mayor Prentiss is more front and center as the villain this time, and he’s a really creepy villain. Outwardly, he’s a really ordinary guy who’s a sociable people-type person. But he knows how to manipulate people, how to use honey rather than vinegar to make people believe what he wants them to believe. And his side of the story. But what is his side of the story!? What really happened with the spackle? This book and this series are full of grays; there are no black and whites and it is so unclear what the right thing is, which side to support, who’s the greater threat and the greater villain.

And Davy! He actually became a human being! Gah, Patrick Ness is SO GOOD with characters because the changes are so slow and gradual that if you blink you’ll miss them, but even if he doesn’t fully change sides, he realizes things are wrong. That his father isn’t a good man. And that he’s sorry for what he’s done. And then the dies! Just as he was getting to be a good person! I mean yeah, it made sense story-wise, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t yelling at the book in despair.

I was so happy that Viola was given her own POV because we got to see how awesome she is first-hand.  She’s immediately separated from Todd, just after she knifed a man to death and was shot by Davy and has to figure out her way in this strange new world where Mayor Prentiss is in control. Now the women of the town have congregated to re-form their previous terrorist group, the Answer, to bomb portions of town to force Mayor Prentiss to capitulate and surrender. Except Mistress Coyle is about as ruthless as Mayor Prentiss and willing to sacrifice anyone, no matter who they are, in order to achieve her goals. Viola is caught in the middle, willing to help the women after the horrific things Mayor Prentiss and his soldiers have done, but aware that Mistress Coyle is going too far and desperate to find and save Todd above everything else. Viola is just as confused as Todd as to what the hell is going on, but no matter what she’ll call out anyone, including Mistress Coyle, for being the violence they’ve chosen to inflict. Not only that, but she pushes herself to the breaking point when it comes to doing what needs to be done, and that’s why she’s such an amazing character.

Todd, oh my god Todd. I’m not even sure if I can love him anymore because he does such horrible things. Initially ordered to guard and keep the re-enslaved spackle in line, eventually coming to hate them and treating them as animals, and then shutting off all his feelings so he can learn how to torture people and perform the equivalent of branding on hundreds of people – it’s obscene what he does. But it’s Todd! And he’s hurting so much! The only way he can escape all the pain he’s feeling from knowing he failed at every single attempt he made to resist and escape, battling with doubt over whether Viola has fully joined the Answer and abandoned him completely… it’s difficult stuff. There’s still that gray area because Todd knows exactly how horrible his actions are, continues to do them, but there’s still the reality that he will be punishing himself for the rest of his life for what he’s done, just as when he killed that spackle all the way back in the first book. And that is why Patrick Ness is amazing. Because he had Todd transformed into this world’s version of an SS soldier, but I still cared so fucking much about him and wanted him to find himself again and fight back.

Also why I love Patrick Ness is, of course, Todd and Viola together. I do not have the words to say how amazing their relationship is and all the feelings I have about it. By this point, they have become each other’s conscience and each other’s soul. They continue to look for and find and save each other over and over again. Even when Todd confesses all the atrocious crimes he’s committed, Viola reminds him of what he’d told her after she’d killed Aaron – we all fall down. What matters is if and how we choose to pick ourselves back up again. If one of them dies at the end of the third book, I will be FURIOUS. I WILL OPEN THE GATES OF HELL AND FIRE WILL RAIN UPON THE LAND FROM THE FORCE OF MY WRATH. And holy shit, the war is going to be fearsome and bloody and oh so very conflicting as Todd and Viola figure out what’s the right thing to be fighting for.

Just like the previous book, this one also ends with a humongous cliff-hanger and the belief that there is no hope whatsoever and everyone is going to die. Whether that’ll be the case remains to be seen, but oh my god, this world is going to explode. What the aftermath will look like remains to be seen.

Disclosure – library