There's a lot I don't understand about YA novels in general and this novel in particular. I don't understand why so many YA authors write in a bland,There's a lot I don't understand about YA novels in general and this novel in particular. I don't understand why so many YA authors write in a bland, clumsy, overwritten first person. (" 'Are you serious?' I said. Jarrod pulled back and looked like I'd accused him of lying, which I guess was true in that I doubted what he was saying.") I don't understand how an editor could let such wordy stuff go: the answer to being invited to a party is, "I said yes without hesitating. 'Yes,' I said, nodding once..." so I think he actually said no but we just can't be sure.
And I don't understand how a book with such interesting themes going for it - an ancient curse, magical mind-wiping, gay romance - could be so incredibly boring. A lot of this is the fault of that lousy first-person, but not all. The similes and metaphors used make me think this book is meant for middle schoolers - a groaner of a line about "[putting] Humpty Dumpty back together again - but everyone knows the end of that story. It doesn't really work out," comes to mind.
But mostly the problem is with the main character, Aidan. He spends the first chunk of the book drifting in his own life, isolated and with his childhood memories mysteriously vague...fine. All good. But even after the love interest pops back into his life and the memories begin trickling back, Aiden never actually gets out of his grey cloud. He reacts to his childhood friend expressing romantic interest - several times and in increasingly obvious ways - by not reacting, by putting it out of his mind entirely (until for plot purposes he suddenly remembers he ought to think about that a bit). Similarly, when he learns of a family member's deep betrayal - a betrayal that cuts to the core of him, that's honestly as invasive as being physically assaulted - Aiden sulks and slams some doors and generally acts like a grounded teenager, not a teenager rocked by world-altering revelations. It's one thing to get into a fight with your parents. It's another to realize you have the magical ability to jump time and change peoples' memories, and somebody's been rummaging around in yours. You'd think there'd be slightly more surprise.
(There's plenty of "surprise," as in, Aiden keeps telling us how surprised he is, or upset, or scared: "I struggled with how close we were, with how I was almost pressed up against the window with only an inch or two between us. But I managed to overcome my fears and tell him what I had to." Because this is YA first person in which every thought is spelled out for the reader. But there's very little...reaction? Excitement? Aiden's family is targeted by an otherworldly death-blizzard with tragic results and he continues to sound like a kid getting his car keys taken away?)
There is so much more that could have been done with this plot; I can think of multiple YA-geared fantasy novels with worlds as deep and clever as anything on the adult lit shelves. But this one settles for a G*psy I'm sorry I mean Slavic curse cum Romeo-and-Juliet thing that's never really explained. We know that the mystics' village is made up largely of fakes, because fortune-telling in the real world is fake, only now some of it's not fake, and Aiden just happens to be part of the not-fake, which is fine, but then how much of it is not-fake? The novel throws some magic into the real world but doesn't bother to explain how the world is affected; are there secret, world-wide magical societies a la Harry Potter, besides this one village in upstate New York, or are Slavic people just born ~magickal~?
The dialogue suffers from typical YA no-one-actually-talks-like-this syndrome, mixed with way too much small talk. There's too much detail during the parts where nothing happens, and then the end is rushed, with basically all the explanations hitting us in paragraphs upon paragraphs of exposition on a convenient tree stump. Epiphanies come at the exact right times, of course, usually in dream form, and that's good because Aiden would never get anything figured out if it wasn't literally explained to him in small words inside his dreams. None of the players are really fleshed out; even setting Aiden aside, his mother's entire character is Has Secret Powers, Uses Them Badly, and his older brother should've been cut out. Love Interest Jarrod is probably the most interesting (manipulating his father's homophobia so that he benefits, knowing Aiden's secret before Aiden does - I kept wanting him to turn out to be evil, actually). I'd read more about Jarrod, and he doesn't even have any magickal Slav powers.
And, finally, the ending is so ~perfectly timed~. Why do so many YA writers fear unhappy or even bittersweet endings?
Well, it's good. The writing is frequently quite beautiful, very lush, very drifting. Has some interesting things to say on individuality and connectiWell, it's good. The writing is frequently quite beautiful, very lush, very drifting. Has some interesting things to say on individuality and connection in a city that's so crowded you can't help but be a little lonely. Most of the characters had a place and a purpose. I liked William and Mercer a lot and respected the route taken with Sam even if I didn't *like* it per se. The metafictional aspects didn't feel gimmicky - the time-jumps could have been really confusing but weren't, to the novel's credit.
But it's not $2-million-advance good. Although the overwrought language didn't bother me as much as some reviewers, and for the most part each character had an individual voice, no preteen should be using words like "perfervid." Characters like Amory weren't nearly developed enough considering the space Hallberg had to work with - he's set up as this mysterious, malevolent Other, but in the course of the novel does exactly one bad thing (granted, it is a really bad thing), plus is implied to be in cahoots on another bad thing but we don't spend much time focusing on why and just how bad that thing is, and the biggest bad thing he is connected with never really pans out at all. His very last scene was too unclear to be creepy. There were too many novels going on inside this one novel, and so the sudden turn into mystery-crime-suspense-thriller (that ended with little payoff and couldn't maintain the suspense) didn't really work. (Don't set up a literally explosive conspiracy and then leave it neglected and half-forgotten in the backwoods of New Jersey!) And whatever that ending was with Sewer Girl didn't make a bit of sense.
The epilogue email was the author hurriedly pointing out connections for fear that we'd missed them - it wasn't at all believable and ended up just reminding us we were wrapping up a very long book with many characters, in case we'd forgotten.
But it's an interesting book, rarely drags. The sense I get of Hallberg is that he's very talented and loves playing with the language and has a good sense for characters and setting. But maybe the sheer size and scope and moving parts got away from him. Which is fine, an ambitious but messy novel is a wonderful outcome when all is said and done.
There are a lot of ambitious but messy novels out there, though, and most of them aren't getting $2 mill advances. Ah well....more