Book Love: Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan

Forest deep, silent bells
There’s a secret no one tells
Valley quiet, water still
Lynburns watching on the hill
Apples red, corn gold
Almost everyone grows old.

I believe I promised thoughtful thoughts about Unspoken, and I’m going to try to deliver, even though I’m still in the midst of the worst post-book daze I’ve had in a while. Believe it or not, this is a compliment. I read voraciously, and I’m currently working a job where I have about four hours in the morning that can be dedicated exclusively to reading, but I actually had trouble picking out a book to read after finishing this one, because I knew that whatever I read next was going to suffer by comparison. That, to me, is the mark of something that’s going to live solidly on my favorites’ shelf.

Most of the books that live on that shelf do three things — they make me laugh, they make me sob embarrassingly and often in public, and they make me fall in love with the characters. At her best, Sarah Rees Brennan has done all of these things to me in the past, and this is definitely her at her best.

I’m going to put the rest under a cut, because I fear that I risk being a spoiler who spoils things. Also, I know myself, and this is going to get long.

I almost never connect to the protagonist of a book (or movie, or TV show). Almost always, I end up falling in love with one or more secondary characters, and then maybe warming up to the protagonist of the story as it progresses. This was not so with Kami. Kami is lovely, and funny, and flawed, and oftentimes ridiculous. She talks a lot, and has a lot of energy, and is brave in a very human way, where she copes pretty darn well with the weirdass circumstances she finds herself in, but I never doubt that she’s reacting to those circumstances, and affected by them, and put in peril by them. Early in the book, when she stumbles on an incredibly violent scene, Kami doesn’t just shake off the violence of it — she keeps thinking on it, keeps being unnerved by it, but also takes pictures and turns it into a story, because she is an Intrepid Girl Reporter. This, for me, was the absolute perfect balance of making it clear why Kami is the protagonist and why she’s capable of surviving in these weirdass circumstances, while still keeping her relatable to me as a reader.

There are other reasons that Kami won my heart, and I think a lot of them have to do with relatability to the reader. Also early on in the book, Kami’s best friend makes a careless comment about how Kami is, “always like this,” and even though Kami knows that her friend means nothing by it, she still has a moment of uncertainty. I liked this acknowledgement that hey, a few careless words really can bruise, even when a person doesn’t show it, and having been the motor-mouthed, overly energetic person in a crowd,  I think this might have been the moment when I decided that Kami Is The Queen Of My Heart. (I know I said this about Holly in a previous post. I have multiple heart queens, okay? The characters in this book are too awesome for me not to.)

Kami’s male counterpart, Jared, could have so easily been unlikable. I mean, I like the bad boy archetype as much as the next girl, but it kind of falls flat if the character has no depth beyond being the bad boy. Jared has depth. He reads. He’s weird, and funny, and screwed up. He has all these feelings, but is kind of piss poor at expressing them, or expresses them in ways that result in people going, “Crazy eyes! He has crazy eyes! Ladies beware, and not in a good, sexy way.” He’s incredibly codependent on Kami and completely unashamed of it, but I’m left with the feeling that there’s a reason for this while still not feeling like the narrative is either glossing over or justifying his codependency. 

In a way, I think this is part of strength of Sarah Rees Brennan’s characters. She takes what seem like easily recognizable and cliche characters types, and lends them enough depth that they move beyond those cliches. The Intrepid Girl Reporter and the Bad Boy (and the Sexy Tomboy, and the Sarcastic Sidekick) aren’t just those things, which makes them both recognizable and incredibly fresh and interesting. I’m interested in these characters, and who they are, and why they are that way. Kami’s best friend is lazy and more than a little misanthropic? Excellent, tell me more. (Seriously, tell me more — I quite like Angela, and wish to know why napping and being too lazy to feed oneself is a family pastime. I am intrigued, which is another thing I look for in the first book in a trilogy.)

I could talk a lot (more than I already have) about characters and why these characters are wonderful, but I fear that I am already reaching tl;dr lengths here, so let us move on.

I love the Gothic genre like nobody’s business, and like the characters, the author takes the conventions of the genre and updates them, makes them pretty and fresh and interesting. The town of Sorry-in-the-Vale is small, and spooky, and full of secrets — basically everything that I want from a small town near a Dark and Mysterious Gothic Manor — but familiar in a way that Gothic settings usually aren’t, because the protagonist has spent her entire life there, and it’s not particularly spooky or mysterious to her at first, even if she’s just started to nibble away at its secrets. They are Dark and Mysterious secrets, about the town and the people who live there, and the pacing on revealing those secrets is lovely. The setting has all of the claustrophobic intensity of a lot of Gothic novels, but there’s also a nice sense of the wider world; Jared, whose familial home is the Dark and Mysterious Gothic Manor, spent most of his life in San Francisco, Angela has only been in town for about six years, and the protagonists make a few trips beyond the borders while trying to piece together the secrets they’re uncovering. For all of that, there is a sense that escape isn’t really an option, because the characters are, for a number of reasons, too closely bound to Sorry-in-the-Vale to just cut and run when the going gets tough.

In my attempts not to be too much of a spoiler who spoils, I’m not going to say too much about the mythology that Rees Brennan is building within this universe, except that it’s awesome. Each piece of the mystery feels like a revelation, but also like it’s been so well set up that I can just nod along and go, “oh yes, of course, that makes perfect sense. How did I not see it before?”

The writing is brilliant, and like I mentioned before, I’m always impressed when an author can make me laugh and reduce me to tears (I was in front of a class of ten- to thirteen-year-old girls, tears were not okay and hysterical laughter was not much better) within the space of pages, and sometimes paragraphs. Kami’s voice is incredibly well developed and witty, and I was very impressed with how Jared’s voice developed, because (due to mind meld-y circumstances) we get both his familiar voice, when speaking to a friend he’s known for years and trusts implicitly, and his much chillier outward persona.

Fair warning: the ending of this book will wreck you. I don’t know how I’m going to survive and enjoy other books until the second in the trilogy comes out. Seriously, you guys, I think Unspoken has temporarily ruined me for other reading. This is a problem. It needs to stop (except, never stop).

I think this basically concludes my book ramble. I cannot in good conscience call it a review, for it was essentially me babbling in a very unfocused manner all over the computer about how I have feelings about a book and it is called Unspoken. If there was anything I didn’t love about this book, I’ve probably skipped over that, because there was no room around the feelings. I would make a terrible book critic.

If you’re interested but wanted to do a taste test before buying the book, the author has posted a couple of short stories set in the same universe here and here, and you can learn more about the book (which I have done a terrible job of summarizing) on her website. Go forth and read.