The Awakening: The Darkest Powers #2 (2010), by Kelley Armstrong

I’ve just finished re-reading The Awakening as part of my friend’s research project, and have to admit that with my review of The Reckoning when it was first published (2010), and my recent review of The Summoning (2010), I haven’t really a lot to say. Still, I thought I would share my few thoughts. They relate, not too surprisingly, to my perhaps overly strong opinions about trilogies and series fiction, expressed elsewhere.

The Darkest Powers is unequivocally a trilogy not a series, which is not an issue. The problem I have is that the author wrote the beginning chapters of the second book, The Awakening, as if it were a stand-alone part of a series and the reader would not have read The Summoning. Even with the not-so-subtle reminders of the plot and characters, The Awakening cannot stand alone. As you know, I am totally fine with that, but authors need to know what it is they are writing. It seems to me that Kelley Armstrong did know, and yet was convinced (by self or others) to cater to the still-current trend in teen fiction of needing a series to be open-ended, permitting publishers to continue (should they so desire) with a solid franchise (should the story turn out to be one). The existence of the three books in Darkness Rising and a number of intermediary stories and prequels that form the series, suggest that Armstrong had an intended, overarching narrative that has been hijacked by financial or other expediencies. I have absolutely no basis for my opinion, of course, except my discomfort with the texts as a set. I have yet to read Darkness Rising; that trilogy is next on my list, and I will let you know then whether my perception changes.

Aside from my concerns about genre, The Awakening is a strong continuation of Chloe and her friends’ story. Armstrong leads her characters through a maze (or three) of doubts about who to trust, what to do, where their strengths lie, how to navigate a world that they don’t understand. As they slowly learn about themselves and their beginnings as part of a paranormal experiment, the reader is left—as are they—with a sense of confusion and tension that is still strong at the conclusion. At the end of The Summoning, Chloe and Rae are captured; at the end of The Awakening, the players on Chloe’s team have changed; allies have been killed or turned; and we watch them surrender themselves to the care an adult who may or many not be safe to trust. Like the teens, we really hope that after all the betrayal and emotional pain they have suffered they are finally heading to a safe space. That hope is mitigated, though, by the knowledge that there is still one more book…

The Summoning: The Darkest Powers #1 (2008), by Kelley Armstrong

I’ve promised to fill in a questionnaire about Kelley Armstrong’s The Summoning for a friend’s research project, so I set myself to reread the series (the questionnaire rather requires it). I remembered reviewing The Reckoning (2010) when it came out, and being gratifyingly surprised at how much I enjoyed the series, but I guess time had mellowed my recollections. Picking up The Summoning for a second time, I was again immediately sucked in to the powerful world of Chloe and her friends. Fortunately, I have a horrible memory for plot (hence the need to reread), so it was (mostly) all new the second time around. But equally enthralling. I read it through in one sitting, only rising for a Skype meeting in the afternoon and to make dinner in the evening. Almost reneged on that responsibility, actually.

All that I said about The Reckoning remains true (and please read it so I don’t have to repeat myself). Chloe and her friends and associates are very realistically drawn—for teens who have paranormal abilities—and their struggles translate easily into the lives of less “special” teens in the general North American population (even better, I would hazard to guess, for otherly-“special” teens in the general North American population).

We meet Chloe as a young child afraid to go down into the basement: not an unusual childhood fear. Chloe, though, is afraid because there really are ghosts, and they speak to her. Sometimes they are benign, but sometimes they are evil and malicious. Her trauma causes her parents to move, and she settles into a normal life. We meet her again as a teen on the cusp of adolescence. Her repressed memories come back as she crosses over that cusp (gets her period) and the ghost of a dead custodian at her school reaches out to her. Things go downhill from there, and Chloe ends up in a group home for a two-week diagnostic and therapeutic visit. She finds herself in a classic situation of emotional and psychological tension: is she crazy, schizophrenic, as she is told? Are the other teens crazy? Why are they here, and is she in danger from them? Who can she trust? By the end of the book, she still hasn’t answered that last question, although the answers to the first two have become clearer. She is not crazy: she is a necromancer; the ghosts cannot actually hurt her, despite her fear. This is a powerful realization, but not sufficient to keep her safe. She learns the stories of some of the other teens, but not all. And she really doesn’t know who to trust. And she gets it wrong.

Cue the end of the book.

This would be troubling if the second novel in the series (yes, thankfully, series, not trilogy, as stated on the cover of The Reckoning) were not available, but at this point, one can just read on (if Book #2, The Awakening (2010), weren’t out of the library as usual even now). And this time around, I will be able to carry on immediately reading the second series, Darkness Rising: The Gathering (2012), The Calling (2013), and The Rising (2014). In rereading my own earlier review I note that The Reckoning leaves the teens set up to take on the world as they know it. I can’t wait to see how that goes for them.

Bellamy and the Brute (2017), by Alicia Michaels

In Bellamy and the Brute, a popular, well-off high school senior is punished for his arrogant and entitled behaviour. Cursed by a disfiguring disease, he retreats into solitude in the upper floor of his family mansion. Enter Bellamy, who is hired as a summer babysitter for his younger siblings. Expressed this way, you can see how Alicia Michaels’s novel is in fact a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, even if the title weren’t so suggestive. But I have to admit that I had to actually think about the underlying teen-angst portion of the tale in order to draw the comparison. The story is so much more interesting than this superficial description leads one to believe, containing as it does murder, ghosts, political corruption, and familial conflict.

FBI Camilla Vasquez is on administrative leave pending a psychological evaluation. Her younger sister, Isabella, had been found dead in a hotel room, but Camilla refuses to believe it was suicide as claimed. It doesn’t surprise us when her brakes mysteriously fail and her car plunges over an embankment. It does surprise us when her spirit looks down on her dead body, takes the hand of her sister, and walks away from the accident. Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me, but I was already so engaged with Camilla as an intelligent protagonist that I was shocked. I had forgotten that I was still reading the prologue. And Camilla, it turns out, is not the protagonist.

Bellamy McGuire is shunned by her schoolmates, teased because of both her scholarly aptitude and her father’s eccentricities. In the two years since his wife’s death Nate McGuire has been seeing ghosts, and the townsfolk consider him deranged, if not actually dangerous. This impacts the income from the family bookstore, so Bellamy takes a summer job as a babysitter for the Baldwin family to help out. Their generosity is curtailed by only one demand: do not go up to the third floor of the house.

Cue mysterious music…

It should be corny, but it isn’t. When Bellamy first sees the ghosts of Camilla and Isabella, she is (not surprisingly) terrified; the plot thickens when she discovers that Tate Baldwin, the disfigured eldest son of the house, can see them too. This revelation (again not surprisingly) draws the two together in a complicated relationship of antagonism mixed with empathy. As Bellamy and Tate begin to work together to unravel the mysterious connections between Tate’s illness and the ghosts’ demand of justice, their investigations lead them deep into a web of corruption ultimately implicates even members of Tate’s family.

Part of what makes this novel so successful is that readers really don’t know the extent of Tate’s family’s involvement in the plot that the two are uncovering. Even when we begin to see what really is going on, we are uncertain how various characters will respond; this unpredictability is an essential component of an effective mystery. As the story progresses, numerous mystery novel tropes can be easily envisioned, and we are not certain which direction Michaels will be taking us. To her credit, her choices do not cater to our narrative expectations.

Continuing this trend of upsetting our predictions, just when we think the threat is gone—the corruption is revealed and the perpetrators headed towards justice—Bellamy and Tate’s lives are knocked sideways by the almost-forgotten high school bullying that landed Tate in his mess in the first place. While the adult world of political corruption is presented as a more serious threat to life, the conflict between Tate and his ex-friend Lincoln has more tragic results. Again, Michaels does not give clues to where she is going to take us; we really believe that bad things can happen to good people. The two separate narratives parallel each other effectively; the explicit message in both is that we are all ultimately responsible for all of our choices, not only our actions. In spite of the rollercoaster ride, karma ultimately plays a strong role in this very griping mystery novel.

The Mask that Sang (2016), by Susan Currie

This review was first published in a shorter version in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 22.1.

The Mask that Sang (2016)

currie-mask-that-sang

The Mask that Sang opens with Cass running from bullies, only to come home to learn that her mother had been fired from her sketchy job at a diner for standing up for another girl against the bullying boss. While suggests a message about bullying being endemic, the story is really about how Cass discovers her Native heritage.

Cass’s mother, Denise, has “been in over twenty foster homes” since she was given up by her mother at birth (10); as teen mother herself, she chose not to make that decision, and has raised Cass in a loving emotional security that transcends their poverty. When her dead mother’s lawyers track Denise down, she is adamant that she will have nothing to do with the house and money she has been left. Cass, however, does not carry the same emotional baggage, and talks her mother into accepting the legacy: the home and financial security Cass has always dreamed of. Wrapped up in tissue in one of the drawers, calling to her with a “mischievous purr” was an Iroquios false-face mask. The mask is responsible for the soft voices Cass has been hearing: “The hum was more like a song now … Maybe it was a voice in the wind, maybe it was several voices” (22) telling her how happy she will be in the house, coaxing her towards the drawer to be discovered.

The mask sings to her; it hums in approval when she stands up for a Native classmate, Degan Hill; it “vibrated with regret, with sorrow” (56) when she inadvertently hurts him; it gives her strength to stand up for what she knows is right. Befriending Degan brings Cass into the lives of his Native family, where she learns the stories of false face masks, and their power. When her mother unknowingly sells it with other unwanted household items, Cass and Degan struggle to retrieve it, first from a pawn shop, then from its purchaser, and ultimately from the school bully, Ellis, who turns out (stereotypically) to be dealing with issues of his own.

Despite the trope of the privileged-yet-bullied bully, the ingenuity of Cass and Degan, and their strength in standing up to Ellis’s father racism and illogical position vis-à-vis the mask, gives readers a sense both of the powerlessness of the child against unreasonable adults and the need to stand for what you believe in regardless. In a rather simplistic and idealized dénouement, their strength gives the abused Ellis strength; he returns the mask to its rightful home, and “generations of voices sang that it was home at last” (185).

Its rightful home, of course, is with someone from the Cayuga Nation, where it was created. That the mask sings to Cass is the first obvious clue. The method of delivery of the truth of Cass’s heritage, rather like Denise’s fortuitous inheritance, is rather contrived. A letter that had been left to Denise—which she threw out but Cass rescued—tells the story of Denise’s mother, a Cayuga girl, neglected by her widowed father and sent to Residential school, who (like Denise) chose better for her infant daughter. The letter itself is little more than a narrative list of all possible injuries experienced by Native children in care of the government, and reads more like an outline from a history lesson than a letter from a caring nurse. After she gives up her baby, Denise’s mother “traveled in search of answers, working as she went … she visited other countries and sought out quiet, holy places. She learned to meditate. She studied about great religions, and explored what it felt like to practice them. When she finally came home, she was ready to look at her own traditions…” (174). This passage, especially, rang false for me. I could not reconcile the previous description of her treatment with the resources necessary for such travel and learning, “working as she went” notwithstanding.

What I find troubling is that the Turtle Island Healing Centre that Denise’s fictional mother founded does possibly exist. There is a Turtle Island Healing Center in Flagstaff, Arizona (although that seems an unlikely candidate), and Turtle Island Healing and Wellness, part of the Turtle Island Native Network online, is a Canadian organization. As “Turtle Island” is a term for the world in some First Nations’ creation myths (significantly, for this story, Iroquois), it is also possible that the author has created a generic title for a Native healing centre. If the story of Denise’s mother is based on the founder of the Canadian program, on the other hand, a more careful description of her past—and perhaps an afterword explaining the historical reality—would be greatly helpful. As it stands, the lecturing tone of the historical information overshadows the delightful story of Cass’s life, and we are left wanting.