I made it a goal to read 35 debut novels this year, and as of the time I'm writing this post, I've already finished 23. Rather than settle on reading my favorite genre, though, I've been pushing myself to read outside my comfort zone with debut novels. Here are three of the recent debuts I've read and I think you'll see what I'm talking about. All three of these novels also share an element of government conspiracy to them.
Mac's best friend Amy died, and it's believed her death is related to the outbreak of the werewolf disease hitting the town of Hemlock. The town's under surveillance, and even though Amy wasn't the first to die, the circumstances relating to her death are suspicious enough that the government wants to get to the bottom of the disease. They want to protect their citizens and put an end to the fear once and for all.
Kyle and Jason are Mac's other two friends -- Kyle had always been her closest friend, the one everyone thought she should get together with romantically and Jason is the guy who had been dating Amy before she died. There is a love triangle developing, but the way Peacock handles this is fantastic. Never once is Mac the girl figuring out which guy she should be with. Instead, this is a story where the male leads are the vulnerable ones, where their feelings are the ones we have to sort out. Mac has great agency and a brain in her head; this allows her to pursue things as she wants to pursue them. All three of these characters are flawed, and when the mystery surrounding Amy's death amps up, with Mac at the helm, these flaws become more apparent.
Maybe what I appreciated most about this, aside from the mystery woven through the werewolf lore, was that these characters have no super powers. These are your average teenagers, and because of that, they're so limited in how they can behave and act. They aren't going to solve the mystery easily and part of that is because the truth is there is a political conspiracy afoot.
The biggest weakness to Hemlock for me was that the secondary characters were challenging to keep apart and when one of them ended up playing a pretty significant role in the story, I kinda had forgotten who he was. Hand this one off to readers who like paranormal stories but are looking for something fresh, as well as those readers who are looking for a different kind of mystery. Obviously, this one will also go over well with your werewolf fans. I give Peacock some major props for sliding a great reference to Ginger Snaps into the book too. Hemlock is available now.
SD Crockett's After the Snow hooked me with the dialog, which reminded me a lot of Moira Young's Blood Red Road (which I really liked) but ultimately, this post-apocalyptic/dystopian novel left me somewhat unsatisfied.
Willo, a half-wild, nature-driven teen, comes home after a day of trapping to discover his father and his father's wife have disappeared. They've resided deep in the wilderness, far away from the city where the government has strapped down control and power over the citizens. The entire world is very, very cold (figuratively and literally). Willo wants to find his family so bad, and so he takes off on a journey away from his home, in hopes of tracking them down. Along the way, he stops at another home, where he finds Mary, and together, they are going to survive and find their families.
Of course it's not that easy, and they end up being transported right into the city where the government has taken control. They're lucky to make it inside, since they don't have papers to identify them. Once there, though, Willo ditches Mary in hopes of being able to seek out his father (he's gotta look out for number one). People here are not nice, and they all want to steal the coat off his back because it's a luxury none of them have seen in a long time. But he's taken in by an older man and woman who put his creation skills to the test, and they're able to sell apparel with his talent. The woman who has been buying his creations, though, knows where his father is and when she begins to tell him how he can get to safety, all hell breaks loose.
The problems with this story were two-fold: Willo as a character was very hard to follow. His dialect isn't problematic because it gives us a great sense of his education, his class, and his wildness. He's very much nature-driven and very much about the survivalist method employed by wild animals. Except his heart is driven in finding his father and that's where it becomes challenging to connect with him or understand what he's doing. We don't get a sense of what's going on in Willo's mind, and when he makes choices, they aren't logical to us as readers. This in and of itself wouldn't be a challenge, except it is made that way because readers are not given a sense of what is at stake in the city. It's never clear what the government is doing that's so bad. We're never clear why Willo or anyone should be fearful. We don't know what it is they need to escape from. Part of this has to do with Willo's lack of knowledge, since the story's from his perspective, except since we don't know much about Willo, the tactic falls flat. It leaves the reader confused and unable to emotionally connect with him.
The ending was also unsatisfying. It was too obvious from the beginning and made the journey -- the long and frustration journey -- even more a question of why? Why did we follow it?
That said, After the Snow has earned three starred reviews from readers who figured out the world much more than I did, but browsing non-professional journals, it appears many others had the same challenges I did. Hand this over to readers who are ready for a challenging read that's more about style than about world-building. It's at heart a survival story. After the Snow is available now.
All of these kids are trapped in what is probably the best place to be stuck during a catastrophe. They've got everything they could possibly need all in front of them. They have things they can sleep on. They have food they can eat. They have electricity (which they have to conserve). I guess it stunk they didn't have water, but they did have it in bottles, and they figured out how to handle the bathroom situation (in far too much detail, I think). They can't communicate with the outside world because the Network is down.
Apparently, there is some sort of government conspiracy going on in this story, too, but it is never explained. There are snatches of it -- the knowledge that something being released into the system causes people to exhibit certain physical problems, based on their blood type -- but it is so minimal. The story focuses much more on the minutia of life inside this store. That's to say there's no apparent external threat in this story. For a moment, there's a crazy guy outside who wants to get in, and when the kids choose to allow two men come in from the outside, there are small moments of wondering what could go wrong. But otherwise, Monument 14 suffers from being boring because there's not really anything worth worrying about. Likewise, this is also a future world, but never once did it feel like that was the case because that plot line was never explored.
More than that, though, what Laybourne's story doesn't offer us is any good character development. There are 14 characters, and most of them get little to no page time. The teen characters get a little more time, as they should, but they offer us no reason to worry about them. Two of the main female characters are depicted in very problematic ways, too: one is given the reputation and storyline of being a slut (and it's done in a very disturbing manner, in a scene that made me very, very uncomfortable to read because it objectified her terribly) and then she's raped later on in the story but the characters don't necessarily buy this from her because of her reputation; the other girl, who we get to meet in a very intimate moment (one where she ends up hurting a boy pretty bad) we find out is expecting a baby. There is a third girl, but she's given so little time it's hard not to walk away wondering what the message about females and males was in this story.
Monument 14 is the first in a series, and I am pretty certain I won't be picking up the next title. This one didn't offer me any reason to because it didn't offer me compelling characters or a world worth caring about. The ending is very much first-in-a-series in terms of being a cliffhanger, but it was more disappointing than hooking. If characters in the story aren't going at this with their whole heart, I can't either. I left this one feeling bored, disinterested, and deeply unsatisfied as a reader. Other books have taken this concept of teens trapped together and offered up not only strong characters, but also great external threats. Monument 14 will be available June 5.
Review copies provided by the publishers.