This was fine. But “fine,” after reading this author’s wonderful debut, Cemetery Boys, is not enough. I feel like there were so many flaws baked in to this book before the author even started writing it, and they didn’t do enough to overcome them. The worldbuilding choices made in this book baffled me, and it read like a middle grade novel with f-bombs thrown in. (Not good when you’re aiming for upper YA.) Gonna bullet point this one to sort out my thoughts.
*This was pitched as “Percy Jackson meets The Hunger Games” and that couldn’t be more obvious. This will probably play a lot better to an audience that grew up reading Percy Jackson, like the author did, but that was not me, and I expect more from my fantasy books. It felt like the author just took his enthusiasm for Percy Jackson and wiped a metaphorical coat of paint on it, transplanted it to a new world, and went from there.
*The choice to make this a secondary fantasy world, but one where seemingly all of earth’s pop culture, technology, social media, slang, etc. are the same was ill-advised, in my opinion. These characters could easily pop in to our world and be totally fine. If you’re going to write second world fantasy, write second world fantasy! But personally, for the tone and type of story he was going for, I think it would have been much, much better to set this in our world like Percy Jackson is. It was so jarring and annoying to hear the characters say things like “Does this make me a furry?” and talk about TúTube (the fake Latinx version of YouTube), and have this violent magical ceremony in the same space as someone watching baking videos on their phone.
Not to mention, all that slang and language and technology and progress . . . all of that comes from very specific origins in our world’s history, so to have them in this world out of context makes zero sense. Good second world fantasy has their own slang, technology, history, and cultural mores. This book did not show much evidence of that kind of worldbuilding. It felt really shallow.
*The Hunger Games aspect was off and flawed from the start. Nothing about this sat right. The tone of this book throughout was light and playful, even as Teo (the main character) was always talking about how much dread he was feeling. There just didn’t seem to be much gravitas about SPOILERS the person who gets last place having to be killed in a very public ceremony END SPOILERS. Everyone is focused on who will win instead, and celebrating all the time. The fact that they compete and the losers are chosen this way is fucked up, and that doesn’t work in this story, because this isn’t a dystopian world where powerful people keep the downtrodden oppressed by encouraging them to glamorize violence and spectacle. It’s meant to be a (relatively) just society.
*The attempt to make Jades seem underprivileged, frankly, just did not work. Okay, you’re gods but you don’t get people licking your boots all the time? All right, I’m so sad for you . . . nope, they’re still gods and demigods. This is not a good dynamic for the story to explore, and it was one of the weakest aspects of the story. It also feels like Thomas was trying to recreate the dynamic in Red Rising, but again, that’s a DYSTOPIA. Not going to work in the context of this story!
*The characters were . . . there.
*The trials aspect was the most fun part of the story. I also liked the Latinx mythology and culture that made up the world of the novel. That could have been kept even if it was set in our world, though. I just really think the good parts of this would have been so much better if the parts that didn’t work would have been whipped into shape. So much of this book could have been so much better, but it was flawed from the start, and nobody seems to have pointed that out to the author. Or maybe I’m the only one who cares and this is a nonissue, and it’s not important that this book didn’t work for me. I know that I wouldn’t have cared about any of the stuff that I’m talking about here when I was younger.
So those are my thoughts for now. I will probably read the second book, just because it’s a duology and not a huge commitment, but Thomas isn’t going to be an autobuy author for me anymore. I really hope his debut wasn’t just a one-off, and that he can go back to being more thoughtful and deliberate in his plotting and characters than he was here.
[2.5 stars, rounded up]
Read Harder Challenge 2023: Read a novel about a trans character written by a trans author.