Intermittent reviews & commentary. Preferred genres: YA; contemporary lit; sci-fi/fantasy; comic books
When my buddy space coyote suggested I take a look at this regrettable creation, I remembered that I actually had an ARC of it lying around in my car. Now, as I'm sure all you savvy folks know, an ARC is an Advanced Reader Copy, i.e., an often uncorrected proof that is nonetheless bound and looks pretty much like how the book will appear in stores (except, I've noticed, the back of an ARC tends to include details about the company's promotion plans for the book. This one apparently had quite a blitz when it was released last May, including a book trailer that I need to track down because those are always hilariously awful). I'm telling you this because it's possible that some of what I discuss here has improved in the final copy.
But I really doubt it.
Swoon starts off with a scene between the protagonist, Candice--called Dice--and her cousin, Penelope--called Pen--messing around near a tree where a hot, dangerous guy just happened to have been executed a couple hundred years earlier. Yes, everybody in this book has ridiculous nicknames. Even the town itself, for which the book is titled, goes by a nickname; Swoon is short for Swonowa, which only a keen-eyed falcon or someone who sadly read it multiple times (like me) would catch, since almost no one calls it that except, like, the local news station. I have a feeling that Malkin only imposed the snappy nickname rule onto this town and its people because it lets her get away with calling the love interest/murderous asshole 'Sin' instead of 'Sinclair', which then allows for many wink-wink nudge-nudge references about what the protagonist and everyone else ever would like to do to him (sadly, beating the shit out of him and leaving him for dead is not on the list). Malkin characterizes the town as a tightly-laced, whitebread, upper-crust Protestant community, squarely at odds with hip, edgy, Jewish New York transplant Candice. I don't have a problem with the fish-out-of-water angle here, though, and in fact the story of why Candice ever even came to this town is one of the only semi-interesting parts of the story, mostly because it's only hinted at until the very last chapters.
Until then, the reader only knows that Candice's parents left her in a well-appointed house and mostly to her own devices in the 'burbs because Some Bad Shit went down back in NY and they want her to 'recover'. Of course (of course), Candice's mother works for a high-powered magazine and her dad is an actor, so they're largely absentee, except for a disturbing scene in which Candice's mother and her friends try to go all cougar on Sin while bubbly-ing it up.
That doesn't happen 'til Sin gets a body of his own, though, and for the first half of the book he's contained within the body of Dice's cousin, Pen. Pen's possession by Sin is the climax of the very first scene, and it's something that semi-psychic Candice suspects, but doesn't immediately confirm. I can forgive this. I can absolutely forgive not knowing what the fuck is going on and having no idea how to handle it. Dice's vision offers her a glimpse of what happened at that tree so long ago, but she doesn't yet have enough information to reasonably assume that this dead guy's spirit has leaped into her cousin's body.
Thing is, when the truth of the matter becomes abundantly clear, Candice hems and haws and pretty much takes for fucking ever to do something to actually help Pen. In fact, her choices work against Pen, because Candice's vague psychic skills allow her to bring out Sin's personality simply by touching her cousin. In other words, she consciously and continually enables Sin's possession of Pen for a significant part of the book, simply because she's attracted to the way Pen behaves when Sin's in control: lusty, carefree, elegant and cruel.
Let me just restate that very plainly so we all know what's happening here. Getting her rocks off by way of mysterious colonial boy is more important to Candice than the fact that said mysterious boy is literally mind-raping her cousin, controlling her cousin's body, and having her cousin engage in acts that the narrative tells us she would never otherwise do. For instance, an early scene depicts a group of characters hanging out in a lake. Pen is flirting chastely with her crush, when all of a sudden Sin's personality takes over and she takes it to the next level, diving under the waves for some watery oral. But, you see, Sin's special power is that his charisma affects everyone in his immediate vicinity, so pretty soon the whole lake is a writhing teen orgy. Writhing orgies are a theme in this book. They are, in fact, the main theme.
Candice feels the pull of Sin's power, too, and so here you might say--well, Dice is under the influence. That's why she's making the totally dickish and slightly sociopathic choice to aid and abet this creepy motherfucker instead of kicking him to the spiritual curb right away. Because Sin's not merely inciting harmless, sexy fun--Possessed-Pen comes up for air and keeps the boy's head down, between her legs, and she almost fucking drowns him.
You see, folks, Sin is out for revenge. He hates this whole town and everyone in it (it's conveniently still entirely populated by the families that settled the area back in the day) because they wrongly convicted him for murdering his fiancee. His brilliant revenge scheme, as the aforementioned scene suggests, is to whip up everyone into a Bacchanalian death-frenzy at any opportunity. And here's the kicker: even after Sin works his death-sex magic during a dance at the old folks' home that results in a terrible fire which injures many and kills two, Dice is still in love with him.
The narrative spares very little sympathy for Pen. Dice makes a few noises about how she feels badly for what's going on and she does eventually realize that maybe she should probably exorcise Sin's spirit from Pen's body, but she doesn't get to stepping on that until we're almost 200 pages into this mess. The whole character and situation of Pen depresses me more than anything, honestly; she hardly gets a chance to be whoever she's supposed to be, as she's possessed by page 10 and then continues to be Sin's victim even after Candice does a ritual that makes him into a golem. Sin sleeps with Pen right away, taking her virginity and then ignoring all her calls.
What was his purpose in this? Why, to make her into a nymphomaniac by giving her the greatest orgasms of her life, ensuring that she would constantly chase even the DREAM of a Sin-given orgasm, thus making her an agent of both her own and the town's destruction. I wish I were writing with hyperbole here, but I'm not; there's a passage where Pen explicitly states to Candice that her reckless sexual behavior is directly correlated to her experience, never to be repeated, with Sin. How does Candice feel about the way Sin victimizes Pen, a girl who is described by the (first-person, mind you) narrative as ordinarily sweet, easy-going, demure and gentle?
Eh, she feels a little bad. But not bad enough that she puts a rush on the whole spirit banishing thing. Late in the story, matters are grave enough that Sin's lust-and-craze-ifying powers indirectly induce Lainie, Pen's mother, to literally go off the rails--she drives her car off of a bridge, on the way, we're told, to the man with whom she's having an affair. The news prompts this from Dice:
"Lainie was a human being, someone I loved; she was tight-roping between life and death because of the boy who was my blunder. This was Sin's fault, and by extension mine, yet desperate as I was to put things right, it didn't seem as though I was up to the challenge." (294)
Nice words, bro (okay, actually, the words are extremely grating, but we'll get to that in a minute), but where's the action? The truth is that Candice never makes a choice that isn't completely self-interested. She waited to exorcise Sin because his presence and personality, even as a MIND-RAPING, BODY-THIEVING SPIRIT, thrilled her. She made him a golem's body rather than banishing him outright because she wanted to keep him around, even though he is a MIND-RAPING, BODY-THIEVING SPIRIT.
She lets him use Pen as a plaything and she never honestly takes action against Sin until the time is personally right for her and her feelings. Because it's so hard. Because she's ~*so in love with him*~, for no legitimate reasons that I can discern. He's described as attractive, but other than that, there's nothing going for this kid. Malkin imbues his dialogue with formalized, old-fashioned charm (he refers to Dice as his 'drowsy thrush'), but it's clear from the reader's perspective that this charm is sociopathic. He turns it on to butter people up before tearing them down, and to keep Dice in particular in his thrall.
And you know what? Honestly, if Dice were depicted as a girl of weak will, as a person who through events in her life or just genetics happened to be susceptible to insane-yet-attractive ghost men, I ... okay, I'd still be pissed off that she lets him get away with essentially torturing and raping her cousin for the entire book, but at least it would make a shred of sense. But she's not. Malkin attempts to portray Dice as savvy, wise, even, and certainly far more aware of her surroundings than anyone else in Swoon.
Dice is not a fool. She's Seen Things, man.
But she is; she is completely a fool. She lets Sin wreak havoc on the town, lets him pursue justice for a crime committed in literally another time period, and the narrative justifies this because apparently all of these characters are exactly like their ancestors. The real culprit, for instance, is the ancestor of one of the fathers in the town, the white-trash, sleazy guy who bullies his wife into leaving him and treats his grown daughter (one of Dice and Pen's friends, called Marsh) like a slave. There are implications of worse abuse, as well, which is not surprising, given that Sin's fiancee was raped and then murdered. But that's something else contradictory about this book: the real antagonist here is this father, both his past and present versions, but he's a complete outsider to this town! Marsh's family is the poorest of the cast; her home is broken, her life is not cushy and soft. She's the real oddity, because even though Dice is all sassy New York up in your fussy New England ways, she's still filthy fucking rich.
And yet, despite being just as spoiled and entitled as anyone in Swoon, Dice (and the text itself) drips with condescension for them. After Lainie's accident, Pen loses it, as one might expect. She rails against her mother for betraying their family and then she rails against Sin, rightly blaming him for the current state of affairs. She says that she loved him, and that she thought he loved her. Sin coldly responds that she's nothing more than a tool, that she is 'insignificant'.
Pen slaps him, which is just about the SOLE REDEEMING MOMENT IN THE BOOK, except not really, because Dice should be up there wailing on him for talking like that to someone who is supposed to be her best goddamn friend! In the lines that follow, Dice expresses yet more weak remorse over the state of things, saying that she 'tried to do right by [Pen], keep her from harm' (300). Really? REALLY. And what part of letting Sin occupy Pen's body at all once you knew what was happening falls into the category of 'keeping her from harm'? In what fucking universe is that okay? Oh, right, NONE OF THEM, except the fucked-up YA lit universe in which ALL THINGS ARE PERMISSIBLE IN PURSUIT OF A HOT BOY.
Ugh, just. Fuck this book, seriously. As if all the horrible themes and messages weren't enough, Malkin's writing ranks up there on the list of Most Annoying on the Goddamn Planet. She tries to create an authentic 'voice' for Dice with lines about denuding sumptuous rides of genetic material (i.e., 'getting out of the car') and thudding prose that's obsessed with alliteration to the point that reading the book for too long actually gave me a headache. I do appreciate the effort to write lively prose--certainly there's a lot of tactile description and a focus on the sensuality of a given scene (kind of necessary when half the book is about people boning each other), but the style is so fucking grating that it ultimately feels disingenuous and artificial.
So finally, finally, Candice decides she's had enough. She gives Sin a big speech about she's let him 'go over on this town because on a certain level [she's] enjoyed it' (378), how nice. How nice that you think you're so much better than the people who are currently looking after you, i.e. Pen's family. Look, I'm all about sticking it to The Man and Suburban America and everything, but I don't think inducing death-orgies and ruining a perfectly nice girl's life for revenge/entertainment is exactly the way to go.
Sin calls Dice out on her privilege in a counterpoint that feels hollow when it should be cutting, because his main argument is that she can't win against him because she hasn't ever lost anything. But, ah, dear reader, this is not true, and so we are finally told why Dice was forced to come to this comfortable, safe and infuriatingly edge-free community--she and her best friend cooked up an ill-advised love potion full of rose petals, perfume and prescription drugs and at the end of the night only one of them woke up alive (hint: it wasn't the best friend).
So, you see, Dice DOES have what it takes to banish Sin, despite the fact that she is, in fact, every bit as coddled and cared for as the average Swoon resident. And she does, finally, banish him, though between Sin's cutting take-down and the last ten pages, it's revealed that he also loves her and that through his association with her he's re-grown his soul or something. Despite doing nothing but manipulating her and destroying the lives of everyone around her, I mean.
Dice sends him away and the ending is supposed to be melancholy and bittersweet, but, readers, all I felt was supreme relief that this offensively gooey pile of words masquerading as a legitimate novel was over.
One final thing: this book is really graphic. There's a scene of Sin spanking Dice into orgasm (in a corn maze, of all romantic places) and many other descriptions of gettin' it on and doin' drugs like cool kids do. I'm not trying to pearl-clutch here, but I wouldn't recommend it for younger teens. Well, I wouldn't recommend it for ANYONE, ever, but you know what I mean.
I'm sure we've all noticed this, but it seems like every YA supernatural/fantasy book that's been published within the past couple years or so shares a packaging design style with the Twilight series: single bright images (flowers or half a full-lipped face, or, in this instance, petals in water) surrounded by dark backgrounds.
The effect of this style is dramatic and attractive, but it's gotten so rampant as to be cliche--I've even noticed that several publishers are rifling through their YA archives and repackaging old works in this style (c.f. the recently re-released works of L.J. Smith, who will probably show up here at some point). But, while these books share design elements with Twifail, not many of them have the dubious honor of a blurb from that series' author front and center on the cover.
I knew when I saw S. Meyer's glowing praise on this book that I was in for a treat. Which is to say, I knew I was going to hate it until I died.
Wings is about an orphan named Laurel (HAHA GET IT IT'S A FLOWERING PLANT ... okay, I can't rag on Pike for this too much; achingly appropriate names are a common fantasy trope and I'm certainly guilty of this offense), a young girl whose story begins after about a hundred pages of stilted, bland exposition and oblique references to the 'reveal' of the story (LOL SHE DRINKS SPRITE BECAUSE SHE'S A FAERY GUIZ).
For about the first third of the book, nothing out of the ordinary happens; Laurel moves to a new town with her mother and father and starts attending public school after having been home-schooled for most of her life. However, there are clear cues throughout that Laurel is 'different' from her mundane peers: she doesn't eat meat, she has flawless skin, she never washes her hair (yet it remains perfectly clean and buoyant); she's essentially the living embodiment of a magazine ad, and the text even makes reference to the supermodel-level of her physical beauty.
If you're sitting there and thinking, gee, this story places an awful lot of weight on appearance, then you're starting to understand the seedlings (trying to keep with the plant theme here) of my rage.
Laurel meets and makes friends with a boy named David, who is, commendably, an actually nice guy, though--like every other character--a bit bland. He's faultlessly supportive, attractive, and intelligent, but I guess that's better than the OTHER stereotype of YA fantasy fiction, Mr. Stalking Is Love.
Oh wait. He's here, too, in the form of Tamani, a mysterious boy that Laurel meets when she returns to her family's old property for some alone time. You see, just when Laurel feels like she's starting to fit in, a giant flower sprouts out of her back and puts a real damper on her social life, especially because she at first thinks it's a cancerous tumor.
Not that she would ever see a doctor about a possible tumor or anything; Pike has neatly avoided having to deal with the situation in a reasonable fashion by making Laurel's adoptive parents into doctor-hating holistic healing hippies. Tamani reveals what everyone with even a fraction of a working brain cell has already sussed out by now: Laurel, like him, is a fairy. Her childhood home is on a plot of land that houses a gate to Avalon, the fairy realm, and that's why she had to grow up among humans--so that she could protect it, and become its legal inheritor upon her adoptive parents' death.
Except then they fucked it all up and moved, which has caused the fairies to flip out trying to befuddle everyone who comes to see the land in order to keep it from being sold. Tamani adds that he's been watching Laurel for basically her entire life AND that, though she doesn't remember it, they were best bros before she was given over to live a human's life. Here's my problem with Mr. Stalking is Love and his comrades: it's not that I hate the character trait in and of itself.
I have no problem with the inclusion of creepy dudes in a story. I love creepy dudes. What I don't love is how the narrator never acknowledges, either implicitly or explicitly, that the stalking behaviors are problematic.
Tamani's comments about watching her since she was taken in by her adoptive parents are coupled with narrative description that emphasizes his desire for Laurel, which to me is just a sparkling cocktail of creepy.
Laurel is thrilled and flattered, of course, and also seems pretty unfazed when she questions him about the glittery smears he left on her arm the next time she sees him and he responds that they are fairy jism. I'm not making this up.
The story couches it as innocuous because Pike conceives of fairies as plants: female fairies 'bloom' (hence the back-flower) periodically, and when male fairies are in the presence of a blooming female, they produce pollen. Which is to say they become aroused and ejaculate on her. You can put it any way you want, Pike, and it is still going to be skeevy, because that's what's going on. And, again, it's not these events in and of themselves that disturb me. It's that they go unexamined by the text.
Laurel is just kind of like 'Oh, okay' when Tamani explains his embarrassing glitter-jizz and the narration treats it as just a funny ha-ha, refusing to explore the weird and threatening sexual dimension that this male/female mechanic implies. I'd like to tell you that Tamani is the story's biggest problem, but he's not. Like Twilight, almost nothing of real import happens until the last forty-odd pages, which are crammed with incident and what passes for 'action' in Pike's deathless, blunt-edged prose.
You see, the fairies have failed to befuddle the latest prospective buyer for Laurel's old house, and the deal is almost set to go through. This turns out to be a greater problem than anyone imagined: David and Laurel discover via some reckless investigating that the buyer is actually a troll, a.k.a. Public Enemy #1 to the fairy race. The trolls are described as misshapen and ugly; reading their descriptions kind of reminded me of how warp-spasms are described in Irish epic poetry--eyeballs bulging, wrongly jointed limbs, etc.
One of the trolls is so grossly proportioned and so mentally frail that she's referred to as little more than a dog, an image reinforced when Tamani shoots her dead later in the narrative. Not that you're meant to feel any pity for these guys or anything. They're uniformly evil, and their vile natures are directly related to their hideous exteriors.
The specific argument that Tamani puts forth is that trolls are evil because they're asymmetrical. Conversely, fairies are uniformly good because they're symmetrical, and humans can go either way because we are sometimes symmetrical and sometimes not. Yes, indeed, this world's entire theory of moral character is based on whether or not you were born to look like a supermodel. If that doesn't inspire your gag reflex, then you and I are probably not going to get along.
This book's underlying messages are even MORE insidious than Twilight's. The book DIRECTLY equates beauty with morality and ugliness with vice. Trolls behave badly out of self-loathing for their deformed bodies and they cannot be reformed, no matter how hard the poor beautiful fairies try. There is no gray area. There are no characters who question or complicate this dictum.
Mix this absolutely reprehensible message with the already problematic situation of Tamani's stalk-lust and you have a veritable cauldron of disquieting and downright offensive suggestions for teen girls.
Love the beautiful, for they are surely wholesome and kind.
Hate the ugly, for they surely mean you harm.
Submit to your boyfriend, because he only wants to protect you.