Friday, November 19, 2010

Review: "Torn," by Amanda Hocking

I've been thinking about boundaries and edges a lot lately since picking up Amanda Hocking's newest release Torn, which she was kind enough to let me review early.  The title alone suggests such things:  Edges.  Boundaries.  Thresholds.  Wendy Everly and nearly everyone she cares about stands at one of these in Hocking's second installment of her acclaimed Trylle trilogy.  Friends, family, enemies, and Wendy herself remain caught in cross-currents of political and class struggles, navigating complex personal ties that alternately bind and strangle, all the while confronting the eternal question of self-definition.  Who is Wendy Everly?  Who does she want to be, and at what cost to herself, to Forening, to her family and friends?

These are not new dilemmas.  Readers face them, or some variant of them, every single day.  They are endemic to the human condition.  And yet Amanda Hocking makes them not only new, but magical, distilling them into one not-quite human character who is wildness made flesh, a woman-girl who runs barefoot and wild-haired through woods and palaces alike, her sometimes angry, sometimes shy steps dogged by the sound of the baubles she loves and the scent of ancient magic in her blood.  That, and the routine righteous rantings of an American teenager, for Wendy Everly is nothing if not doubly cursed.  Or blessed.  For therein lies one of Hocking's greatest gifts, and one she shares with her late great idol, filmmaker John Hughes: the ability to capture young adulthood as the threshold it is, that immortal breath between child and adult when all seems possible.

What is it about the age of seventeen that makes everything so raw, so intense, and so magical?  Hocking knows, and in Torn, as in all her books, she manages to pin it for a moment, if not capture it outright.

Even mere mortals sense it.  I know I do:  At seventeen, I lay the wrong way on an old sofa in a darkened theatre inches away from a boy I loved so fiercely I felt us pulse between us like a living thing, an abyss so powerful we dared not move or speak its name.  So we lay there together instead, our backs where our butts should be, and looked up at the distant dull metal ceiling and invented constellations, awed by this new power between us.  What was that thing, and why was it so powerful?  What is the nature of the thing that makes usually obedient young people sneak out bedroom windows or refuse, out right, to stop seeing "that awful boy," even if it means losing the cell phone until social security kicks in?  Hormones?  First love?  Lust?  Rebellion? Need?  Compelling explanations, and probably true, but I prefer Ms. Hocking's:

Magic.  In the threshold between child and adult, we all have a breath of magic in us.

For Wendy Everly, the Trylle changeling heroine of Amanda Hocking's latest novel Torn, there is actual magic involved as she begins to master both her stubborn temper and her gifts of persuasion, telekenesis, and a few nifty new ones that make their presence known for the first time.  But Wendy also must navigate the two most difficult experiences anyone, Trylle or not, ever has to face: love and family.  As Wendy matures (delightfully so, in fact), love and family only become more and more complicated.  Her own life choices are highly restricted by unfair rules and a racist class system she neither supports nor helped to create, and yet she finds herself expected to not only obey this system of laws, but to one day be its supreme enforcer.  If she doesn't, her world will be engulfed in a brutal war, killing many of the people she loves.

And I thought picking a college was hard.

Within her limited range of choices, Wendy makes good ones.  In this sequel to Switched, we watch as Wendy cobbles together some acceptance of her past and her dual heritage, both Trylle and human. Not ready to forgive and forget (nor should she be), Wendy nonetheless comes to understand Elora, if not love her, even as she remains unapologetically attached to her human family.  She carves out pockets of peace for herself in Forening: a patch of garden, a view of the sky.  She ventures beyond the palace to see how other Trylle live, where the societal cost of her people's parasitic existence becomes real for her in uncomfortably personal ways.  She goes where she shouldn't and speaks (er...yells?) when she should be silent.  We learn quite a lot more about Troll culture, including its history, the rival Vittras, and the ancient Tryllic language.

I've got to give Amanda Hocking props for her research here.  In my research on her research for the Trylle trilogy (if that made any sense), she at one point wrote about how the genesis for the series came from a line in a book about Scandanavian mythology, and the idea kind of caught fire from there.  I was intrigued; there is nothing new under the sun, after all, but never before have I encountered an engaging YA read about trolls.  In fact, I don't think I've ever read about trolls as anything other than rock-eating monsters.  I had to know more.

***Alert: Research blatherings ahead.  Romance resumes exactly one paragraph below***So when a group of characters in Torn encounter an ancient tome written entirely in Tryllic, the ancient tongue of these elegant, enlightened beings, I was stunned to see that Hocking had phonetically written it in Cyrillic letters, a variant of Old Church Slavonic, which would have been what the region's oldest myths were first recorded in.  Lose you?  Bore you to death?  Sorry.  It's just that she's obviously done some serious research here, chosen authenticity over fluff, and my pulse raced more than a little when Wendy got her hands on that lovely Cyrillic Tryllic. The research that goes into crafting a well-written book so often slips under the radar, and I didn't want to let this one slide.  Indie books are often criticized for basic grammatical/typographical errors, and yet here we have one that not only evades these most basic of indie writing pitfalls, but reaches beyond into the kind of deep world building that marks territory previously cordoned off only for "serious" writers. You don't get much more serious than Old Church Slavonic; the last book I read to tackle it was by Orson Scott Card, and even he didn't reproduce its actual alphabet.  It's one of the reasons I love her writing: it maintains the fresh, experimental voice of the indie writer with occassional forays into the realms of "serious literature," and yet manages to be, above all, entertaining.  Excellent, Ms. Hocking.  We need more like you.  So then.  Where were we?

Romance?  Let's talk Finn.

Yes, Finn.  He's back, with his fierce black eyes and overwhelming protective instincts.  He's still determined to protect Wendy's honor from the danger he poses to her as a lowly tracker.  (She's really gotta do something about that caste system.)  And although all the elements of a great romance with Finn are there, from sizzling jealousy to help-I-can't-breathe-'cause-you're-looking-at-me moments to daring Vittra rescues, Hocking introduces a maddening new element: competition.  See, Wendy's grown up a bit. She's coming to terms with this Princess thing. She's more self-confident and her hair has better manners.  She's making peace with her wardrobe.  She's taking less crap, and when she gives an order, it's usually obeyed.  And the boys are noticing.  All of them.  There are the ususal suspects, of course, from Switched, including Finn and, to an extent, Rhys, but we also meet a sexy new one.  He's hot (very- think motorcycles and leather jackets), he's edgy, and if your mama didn't warn you about him, she just hasn't met him yet.  He can offer Wendy the one thing no one else ever has, or maybe even can: complete and total freedom, from Forening, from the Vittra, from everything.

And then there's Tove.

Tove, you say?  WTF?  I know, I know.  But don't count him out.  Tove is instrumental in this second installment of the Trylle trilogy; because of his Trylle gifts, in many ways, he's the closest thing Wendy has to an equal. He makes an excellent teacher, pushing Wendy to the limits of her powers even as he reiterates, over and over, the need for change and his confidence in her abilty to bring it about. Hocking exercises a deft touch here. I mentally conflated "Tove" with "Toad" for a variety of reasons that should be obvious to Switched readers, but in Torn, suddenly I turned the page to find an altogether decent guy.  It's like that moment when your best guy pal for like, forever, whips off his shirt one hot summer afternoon when you've been mowing lawns or something equally grimy and you just sit there, quietly stunned, wondering when the hell the fairies stole your dorky friend away and replaced him with someone you would actually date.  Awkward, but also cool and sexy in a squirmy, embarrassing kind of way.  And an incredible feat of character building for any writer.  Bravo.

All in all, Torn offers up a thoroughly entertaining read with all the things we have come to expect from Amanda Hocking's writing: engaging characters with fresh voices; a well-crafted world; solid writing with professional editing and packaging; an energy and connection with her readers that is somewhat harder to define.  She continues to be, in my opinion, one of the very best indie writers in the industry: edgy, hard working, whimsical.  I'm very much looking forward to the third installment in her Trylle series, along with whatever other offerings she throws our way.