"A children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story. The good ones last." --C.S. Lewis
You can find more of my reviews (plus discussions and giveaways) at Christina Reads YA.
This book has received a lot of hype, including a six-figure deal for only three books out of a projected seven book series, a seven-figure movie option deal, and an editorial letter at the front of the e-galley (which also emphasizes the aforementioned items). Samantha Shannon has also been called the next J.K. Rowling.
Hype makes me wary, and quite honestly, I think calling anyone the next J.K. Rowling is setting the bars too high. I went into this novel already knowing of these claims--which turns on my critical side--and though I think some of hype is a bit much, this was a highly-detailed and cinematic novel written by an author with promising talent.
1. (+) Paige, the protagonist - Paige is the kind of strong, smart, confident, sassy & sarcastic heroine that you want to root for as she learns more about herself and her power. She defends the weak, which is an interesting contrast to her being from a syndicate and being highly mistrustful and cynical. It's always interesting to see who she will pair with, choose to trust, and who she cast off (she's highly judgmental of people's intentions). She's fire, fierce and bitter, but also achingly vulnerable, with the usual desire to be seen as a sum of all her parts. Her government tells her that she's unnatural, she hides what she is from her father, her mime-lord (syndicate leader) prizes her for her ability, and now she's been subjugated to another race--who will see Paige for who she truly is?
2. (+/-) The beginning - The weakest part of this novel, I would say, is the beginning. I really loved the voice, but with the info-dumps and the somewhat clunky writing, I honestly considered putting down the book at several points. I'm glad I didn't obviously--and it's not hugely bad. It's on/off, engrossing at turns, then back to info-dumping. I felt this way for maybe the first 80 or so pages.
3. (+) World-building - Although I loved the world, there are a lot of English slang words and terms which are not always properly explained as they're introduced, such as the link between the aether and the dreamscape. Of course there is an extensive glossary at the back and a map at the front to refer to, but whenever I read e-galleys, I find it hard to switch back and forth between the text--obviously, this is not going to be an issue when you have the physical copy of the book, and the world-building pays off in the end. This is a highly detailed and developed world. There are many different classes of powers across a spiritualist world that are differentiated by their relationship to the aether. This is reminiscent of the nineteenth century when there were followers of the occult who believed that the aether was a fluid-like substance that flowed through everyone, except that the aether in this world is a way of sensing others and messing with other people's lives, dreams, and minds (also reminiscent of Inception in a way). People who have powers based in the aether are called (clair)voyants; those who don't: amaurotics, and their government is Scion. The politics of this world is intriguing, as Scion clashes with the way the syndicates operate and the way Oxford and the Rephaites work. It's also quite a treat to see how those powers work as the voyants are trained for the Rephaite army, and as you learn more of the Rephaite world and how they managed to twist the voyants into submission. Another thing that was particularly fun to explore was Paige's power, and her ability to access dreamscapes, the place in the mind where memories are stored and people feel safest. Basically, even though I'm not sure I have a handle on all the different terms, this world was just plain wonderful and easy to slip into the further you read.
4. (+) Romance - Wow, this relationship may be one of my all-time-favorites. It is slow-burning, and may be one of the better developed hate-turned-something else relationships (I know the summary says he's her captor, but he never acts like her master, so I never saw him that way, though Paige does treat him hostilely). It takes a long time for both Paige and Warden to learn to trust (and be open with) each other, and to overcome their racial prejudices of the other. All the while they are completely and wholly themselves. They have separate lives (somewhat--since Paige lives with him), separate motives, separate attitudes, but you root for them together as you see that they fit well as a team. The tension is perfectly executed, their relationship complex and satisfying.
5. (+) Themes - This book is ultimately about empowerment. It asks: how much is your freedom worth to you? What do you think you're worth? If everything were taken away from you and you were branded a number, treated like filth, what parts of you would be left? What is the price of your survival? Your humanity? How many trials can your relationships go through before they dissolve?
6. (+) The Plot - There aren't a whole lot of major twists, but those that are there are wonderfully developed and surprising, and the rest of twists shine in the action-filled plot, battle and training scenes alike. The story is always moving forward, whether the characters are being developed (Paige's memories), the world is being developed (daily life at Oxford), or the actual story is being developed (one girl fighting for her freedom and belonging). Since the world is insulated with so many details and there is a large character cast, the plot is quite exciting, tension-filled, and unpredictable.
7. (+/-) The Characters - The main difference I see from the Harry Potter comparison is that J.K. Rowling had a way with getting at the heart of a character, all the characters, no matter how pivotal a role they played. While there is some hint at what motivates some of these characters, I wasn't very attached to a lot of the side cast. They're not as developed as I would have hoped (such as her Oxford friends, Julian, and even some of the syndicate). I think my main objection would be that too many characters were introduced in this first book--at least, that some of them could have been taken out in favor of developing the others more fully. BUT note: this wasn't badly done. I just thought, in light of the highly detailed world and other complex relationships, that the character cast as a whole could have used a bit more work.
8. (+) The Writing - There were definitely parts that needed more polishing. Sometimes it was a bit repetitive. But the further I read, the more engrossed I became in the world, because the writing became much, much smoother and had huge cinematic potential. Samantha Shannon is talented, and I'm looking forward to reading the sequel.
9. (+) Pacing - It's really hard to ensure that a 480-page book remains well-paced and engaging, but Shannon does her job well. The pace never relents, the action always continuing and building to a stunning conclusion.
10. (+/-) The Cover - While the cover is highly symbolic and representative of the book, I can't help but think that I would pass right by this book in a store, especially if I had heard nothing about it.
While I do think that there were a few areas that could have been polished more, the beginning in particular with the various info-dumps, this novel was extraordinary, compelling, utterly absorbing. It's like Inception meets Divergent meets Days of Blood and Starlight meets a futuristic, nineteenth century London (aka if you're a fan of any of those: read this!). Mental and spiritual battles (and training) abound in a dystopian setting with a highly detailed fantasy hierarchy that challenges you to think about the price of freedom. Definitely recommended.