I know that young adult literature is undergoing a revival, both in publisher interest and popular culture. I know that everyone, young and old, has been enjoying “new” YA, from Twilight to The Book Thief to The Fault in Our Stars. I know that there is some fine YA out there, and that I’ve been lucky enough to have read some of it when I was actually a young adult.
I also know that I personally struggle to appreciate the current trends of YA sometimes, and that I am basically a grumpy old curmudgeon, yelling at kids to get off my lawn.
All of this to say that I am not the target audience for Kat Ellis’s debut YA novel, Blackfin Sky, but it’s not because it is YA; it’s because it is not a well-crafted novel overall. In fact, I think it is pandering and insulting to its intended audience of young adults, many of whom are critical and discerning readers themselves.
Blackfin Sky starts off promisingly enough: Sky Rousseau is dead. Or rather, she was dead–for three months. Now, to the shock of the town of Blackfin, she’s alive and well, with no memory of the time that she spent “dead.” This part of the book was enjoyable, as Sky’s family and friends tried to deal with her apparent resurrection, and Sky struggled to unravel the mystery of what really happened the night she supposedly drowned. Then things start getting a little bonkers, as Sky discovers she has certain special abilities, that the burned-down circus on the edge of town holds importance to many of the secrets of her past, and that someone out there is hunting her down. This summary makes the disparate elements sound more cohesive than they actually are. Thrown into that main plotline are narrative cul de sacs like a missing little boy at the circus, a murder mystery, a “haunted” house, and some truly distracting attempts at a French accent.
It’s not often that I want a book I am not enjoying to be longer, but many aspects of Blackfin Sky could have used more fleshing out. Certain details were dropped into the story and then never referred to again, despite raising questions. (Where do Sky’s powers come from? What’s the story with the amber skull that the main baddie derives his own power from? Why are killer whales called “blackfins?” Why does everyone end up having powers and doesn’t that defeat the purpose?!?!) Other elements were explained quickly and dropped – some characters try to kill Sky and it is handled bizarrely quickly, with no apparent trauma for Sky. The various tropes were just not developed enough to be cohesive, especially for a novel that clocked in at only a touch over 300 pages.
It honestly felt as if Ellis took note of some of the popular elements of current YA lit and mashed them together, without any concern for how it would affect the story. Creepy circus? Check. Love triangle? Check. “Ordinary” teenage heroine with mysterious powers who everyone is drawn to? Check. Bad guy with ill-defined motives? Check. Absent parents? Check. Time travel? Check. Mind control? Check. Simply including one or two of these concepts – and then covering them in-depth – would have been enough to ensure teen interest in this novel. The narrative “hook” – dead girl returns after three months, insisting she’s been here all along – is great and could have gone in so many interesting directions on its own, without all of the other window-dressing. Instead, Ellis’s end result felt unfocused and unsatisfying.
The love triangle is tepid and fairly standard. I’m not a reader who is interested in romance in the best of circumstances, so I didn’t spend too much time pondering the relationship between Sky and the boy-next-door vs. Sky and a mysterious loner. (You can tell–I don’t even remember the guys’ names! Oops.)
I received Blackfin Sky free for review at BEA 2014, courtesy of Running Press. It is now available for purchase in the UK and is available starting in September 2014 in the US.
Bookwanderer Rating: Two out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “The entire population of Blackfin maintained a wary distance from her, as though the skeletons in their closets were spring-loaded and ready to burst out onto the front lawn.”
Other Reviews: Kirkus Reviews, The Book Nook, Luna’s Little Library