Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Review: Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood
Tags: YA, historical fantasy, witches
Every day Cate Cahill worries that today’s the day she and her younger sisters Maura and Tess will be exposed as the witches they are. The Brotherhood, which controls almost every aspect of life in New England, nearly wiped out the Daughters of Persephone several decades ago, and Cate fears for their lives every day.
When a warning note from a stranger and her mother’s diary reveal to Cate a dreadful prophecy that affects them all, Cate finds herself ever more mired in the events and relationships of Chatham: trying to decide what the new friendships of several popular girls in town means, dealing with a suspicious new governess, fending off the advances of her childhood friend, falling for someone completely inappropriate for her, and delving more into her mother’s history and the details of the prophecy. The more Cate explores, the more she realizes that few people are who they seem…and they all seem to want something from her. But what about what she wants for herself?
There’s no good way for me to start this review except to just come straight out and say that this book disappointed me. With a pretty cover and interesting premise but lacking in world-building, solid pacing, and full characterization, BORN WICKED seems to exemplify all that is characteristic of recently published YA that are big hits but technically weak. So what follows is probably going to be more of a what-not-to-do essay for YA writers, and I hope to God that future writers and publishers will take these points into consideration before publishing their books.
So let’s begin by going down that list, I guess. BORN WICKED claims to take place in an alternate history of the world, but unless your copy of the book came with the Editor’s Note saying so, it’s extremely difficult to figure out the “rules” of said world. BORN WICKED is set in an alternate world where New England is religiously oppressed and women dream of someday going to “Dubai” and engaging in freedom of expression. All of these similarities-but-differences beg the question: so where in the course of Earth’s history did things change? Only that is never explained in the book. There is no explanation of any “turning points” that led to this alternate course of history. Instead we simply have proper nouns like Dubai and New London and Mexico and the Indo-China War with no anchors in our own history. We have details like dress shapes and vague descriptions of architecture but the details seem to be a jumbled mix of Victorian, American Colonial, and Asian history.
Look. If you want to write a fantasy, then just make up different names and say that your inspiration came from the Salem Witch Trials. Dune is often said to be an allegory of the Middle East oil crisis, but it’s not set in the Middle East of our world, is it? If you want to write a story that has its roots in our world, then you damn well better explain in the story how your fictional setting came about. People seem to be confused about how to world-build different genres. For the record, science fiction, dystopian, and alternate-history settings require MORE world-building than fantasy, because they are a what-if regarding a possible different future or past track that we could take. Science fiction, dystopian, and alternate-history settings must, if anything, read like contemporary fiction: the world in the story must be completely natural for readers.
I think I’ve said enough about that one subject. Moving on.
Some people think it’s a good thing that the last several chapters of a 300-plus-page book are dramatic and full of startling revelations and villains going BOOM and protagonists agonizing over difficult decisions that they must make in a pinch of a moment. This is not a good thing. It means that the pacing is uneven and that the rest of the book up until the last few dramatic chapters either drag painfully or could have been condensed into a few chapters without losing anything. You don’t sell a 300-plus-page book by saying, oh my goodness, but just wait until you get to page 300. Page 300?! No. The first 300 pages need to be tight. They need to be informative. They need to ensnare the reader. The last few chapters CANNOT justify the first several hundred pages. I don’t find the last few dramatic chapters of a book to ever justify the amount of time I spent dragging myself through the first several hundred pages.
And finally, characterization. Writers, minor characters deserve almost the same amount of thought and development you give to major characters. Consider that, if they were real (which is kind of the point of writing fiction: to make everything feel as real and believable as possible, no matter your intention for doing so), minor characters could and should have the potential to be protagonists of their own stories somewhere out there. All of the characters in BORN WICKED are kind of jumbled together in my mind. No one stands out. The Biggest and Baddest Villains are Completely Opaque-Black Badddd, but nearly everyone else’s natures and backstories seem to be able to be summarized in just two sentences each. If you want your characters—and thus, essentially, your story—to be memorable for readers, this is not the way to go.
BORN WICKED is probably not better or worse than most of the other hyped YA out there, but, coming at the end of a looooong line of other hyped YA that display the same problems, it has, unfortunately, been forced to bear the brunt of my frustration with recent YA. BORN WICKED really isn’t bad, depending on what standards you have. If you’ve found yourself enjoying most of the YA bestsellers of the past year or so, then BORN WICKED will be your cup of tea. If you are looking for standout YA that elevate the genre, though, it may be best not to have too high expectations for this book. I’m going to get off the computer and go hit some walls now.
M. J. Putney
Cover discussion: This cover is so sexy. I love the eye-popping color detail, the camera focus, and the varying textures of the fonts vs. the picture.
Putnam Juvenile / Feb. 7, 2012 / Hardcover / 272pp. / $17.99
ARC sent by publisher for review.