Kara and Dylan are two miserable teenagers living in some city somewhere, in the care of neglectful single mothers (Dylan's mum is a drunk, Kara's has an abusive boyfriend. Abusive to Kara, that is). They meet by apparent chance (actually, by frustrated intervention from a third party, due to a long stream of missed meetings), feel an instant bond, and become each other's only real friend.
Kara is desperately in love with, and attracted to Dylan from the start, but Dylan is too far gone to accept that, instead pushing Kara to see how much she'll take, or ignoring her in favour of any boy (or girl, I think - it's mostly boys, but it's implied that Dylan doesn't really care) who takes the time to admire her, promise her momentary affection or offers her drugs. It doesn't help that Dylan is attractive and the instant center of attention wherever she goes. Dylan does occasionally open up enough to respond to Kara's unspoken desire, but she always frames it as something she's doing for Kara, never actually admitting she feels the same way.
She does, of course, but Kara isn't sure of that for much of the story, and it means that there are two conflicts to be defeated, actually rescuing Dylan, and Dylan and Kara finally resolving their personal and romantic issues. The latter is made a lot easier by the rest of the plot explaining or removing some of the barriers between them (such as Dylan's propensity for drugs, and Kara's underlying need to protect her).
Turns out that neither of them actually belong in the human world, but were placed there for Dylan's safety (and Kara went with her to protect and care for her). Both of them were terribly weakened, both magically and emotionally, by being in the human world, making them less able to cope with temptation, or stand up for themselves. Once they are returned to the other world(s), they regain strength of character and their magical abilities start to return.
Dylan is 'Morning', the princess of the Daylands, whose mother was from the Nightlands. Unfortunately, this makes her essentially a citizen of Inbetween, and the ruler of that murky, miserable world, Demitar, attempts to claim her. So the King of Daylands had sent his child away to the human world, in the opes that she could hide until she was old enough and strong enough to resist Dimater's claim.
Dylan is the Important One, the princess and the potential power source. She's the prize and the treasure and finally the real thread. But Dylan is extremely passive, in personality and plotwise, throughout much of the book. She sleepwalks under the sway of drugs, amnesia and her captors, but glimpses of her strong, reckless and lively personality shines out through the cracks and in Kara's memories. When they're finally rushing to escape in the final showdown, Dylan emerges as the real Power and the potential leader, becoming a more active character the more she recovers.
Kara, her childhood friend, had bonded with her in a fairly vague position as her Guardian, which was made possible by the strength of their love for each other. This is as rare as - well, true love, unusual in that it happened while they were children, and apparently provides them both with a great deal of power. Not that they know how to use it, of course.
Kara is a nice girl, very much in love, resistant to peer pressure and surprisingly free of all the vices you might expect from a poor, miserable girl who lives half on the streets with no mention of school. For example, the first time she ever breaks the law is when led on by Dylan. It was quite refreshing to have the main character not be the most 'important' character for once, and she was generally considered ordinary by most people, apart from her bond with Dylan.
About the Story
Anyway, Dimater manges to steal Dylan away from Kara and into Inbetween, stripping her memories from her. Kara is dragged after her by their bond, losing her own memories along the way, and wakes up in Demitar's ... well, stronghold is probably the best word. He then tells her she has three days to rescue her beloved, and after that it will be too late. So of she stumbles into the misery of Inbetween, a realm of monsters and humans in a grey, nasty parody of a human city. Of course, poor Dylan is lost in a vacant haze of drugs and amnesia, kept as a toy and a prize by her guards, and far beyond Kara's abilities to rescue. Luckily she finds friends, who help her try and free Dylan from her captors, and escape to the Daylands.
While the events almost all take place in Inbetween, and the memories are usually set on 'the human world', there are also the other two main magical worlds; Daylands and Nightlands. Daylands is the 'good' kingdom and where they try and escape to (and they have a couple of scenes there), but Nightlands is barely discussed. I did wonder if the human world was actually the Nightlands, but it felts as if the three magic realms where very separate.
In a very obvious way, it's almost wish fulfillment fantasy. It is definitely 'message' fantasy. Hundreds of kids feel like they don't belong, their families wouldn't care if they left, and are utterly miserable. Hundreds of teens waste their lives in drug hazes and try and forget their personal miseries chasing the next hit, the next person who'll make them feel loved and attractive. And many of those people have carers, friends who desperately pour their hearts out in a completely unrewarding attempt to make those charming, burnt out addicts change.
And here, we have two kids who embody those two roles perfectly, minder and self harmer, each in pain and wondering how much the minder will take and how long before the self harmer goes too far. Only it turns out that there's a reason behind each role, and their lack of personal power to change anything, and the feelings of not belonging (without entirely invalidating their own individual personalities). And that they can change, once they escape the place they're trapped in.
So yes, there are definitely 'mature' themes. It's not a nice, happy, fluffy book, it's a book of pain, heartbreak, endless struggle and desperation, and no rest even at the end. But the prize is worth it, even if the players aren't always sure it's there. But along the way is slavery, drugs, implied rape, loneliness, betrayal and physical injury. And I think it's handled well, and I think this is a book I'd give to teenagers trapped in that sort of space. Oh, there's no onscreen sexual activity, other than a couple of kisses.
Criticisms and Other Discussion
The memory theme was interesting and could have been handled better, mostly because it had fantastic potential for their perceptions of each other to gradually change as more and more memories returned, rather than it simply being an 'achievement' plotpoint (save girl, hand her all her memories, deal with fallout). However, I was unduly influenced by one of the summaries of the book I had read, which made the storyline out to be a 'memory' story, when really, it's more of a 'love and abuse and drugs' story. In the latter context, the memory loss and regaining is fine.
For example, when the Big Bad just tells Kara right at the start all kinds of important details about what is going on and who she is, I was going 'why? Stop the monologuing! You have no reason to tell her what's going on!'. It is mostly redeemed by him then presenting a 'deal' for her that she needed background to understand, and needing or wanting her to agree to his little bargain, and being certain that she couldn't succeed. But I still think he shouldn't have just told her so much. He could have just said 'I have your friend, rescue her in this time or fail forever' and left her to find out along the way that Dylan and Kara were Special.
The other characters were generally quite shallow, if interesting. We never really see much into their lives, or the city itself and how it all works (or doesn't), focusing very strongly on Kara and Dylan. Mostly Kara, actually, but as she is all about Dylan, and so is everyone else, that ends up keeping the focus on both of them. Their motivations all make sense, if are occasionally slightly idealised, but we never really get to know them that well. The final betrayal-twist-that-everyone-saw-coming is defeated terribly easily, clearing the way for the Big Boss Battle, but this is redeemed by the final twist that sets the characters up for a sequel with a new, and very personal, enemy replacing Demitar.
Speaking of final twists, the last couple of scenes, with Kara recovering with Dylan and Baron, were very well done, especially as they could have gone so very very badly. 'It was all a dream' is the most aggravating cliche, and the author wins bonus points for subverting that so well.
The fighting at the end was probably the poorest written, and went on for a long, long time. The problem wasn't that the choreography was bad, it was just that the writing became increasingly repetitive. Once the number of participants dropped, and the characters began talking and interacting one on one again, it improved.
Oh, and the allergy to iron was both well and poorly handled. That Kara and Dylan took their fairy-like aversion to iron as a simple allergy was well done. Unfortunately, they didn't always avoid 'metal containing iron' (which would include steel) and there were no apparent consequences. For example, a knife that cut Kara's finger, zips, daily life. Half the time they remembered and used gloves and cloth, or suffered the burns, but it wasn't at all clear that this carried over into the rest of their contact with iron.
Finally, I may be projecting from the fact that 'Demitar' sounds like 'Demeter', but there was a definite Persephone-like element to the story, with Dylan being carried off into the Underworld and tricked into consuming drugs, with a pivotal moment in which Demitar offers her a drug to drink of that would mean she stayed forever.
Anyway, in conclusion...
It was a good story, and a very rich one for analysing. It wasn't the best written book in the world, but it was perfectly decent. In fact, it was a lot better than I expected!
Yes, there are plenty of warnings for drug use, miserable home lives, depression, emotional abuse, and a few (mostly unimportant enemies) getting killed at the end. But it also covers one way, dependent relationships very well, and how awful it can be living for someone who just spends their time trying to leave you behind. If there hadn't been a magical backstory that changed everything, I think the worst possible ending would have been for the two of them to stay together. As without some huge life event, Dylan was never going to change. Even getting raped while drunk wasn't enough. And Kara was only going to end up feeling increasingly useless, and hurting more and more.
But they do change. And you're cheering them on at the end, when Dylan's as strong and loving to Kara as Kara always tried to be for Dylan. And it looks like there's going to be a whole 'Guardian of the Morning' series, so it will be interesting to watch their relationship develop.
The alternate worlds, backstories and drug abuse analogies are developed further in the sequel, Darkness of Morning, which is reviewed here.
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