021 – Unearthly by Cynthia Hand

Unearthly cover In the beginning, there’s a boy standing in the trees…

Clara Gardner has recently learned that she’s part angel. Having angel blood run through her veins not only makes her smarter, stronger, and faster than humans (a word, she realizes, that no longer applies to her), but it means she has a purpose, something she was put on this earth to do. Figuring out what that is, though, isn’t easy.

Her visions of a raging forest fire and an alluring stranger lead her to a new school in a new town. When she meets Christian, who turns out to be the boy of her dreams (literally), everything seems to fall into place – and out of place at the same time. Because there’s another guy, Tucker, who appeals to Clara’s less angelic side.

As Clara tries to find her way in a world she no longer understands, she encounters unseen dangers and choices she never thought she’d have to make – between honesty and deceit, love and duty, good and evil. When the fire from her vision finally ignites, will Clara be ready to face her destiny?

Unearthly is a moving tale of love and fate, and the struggle between following the rules and following your heart.
Hm. Uneartly is one of those books that, despite not officially being released for another two days, is extremely well-liked among YA/PR bloggers, thanks to NetGalley. And I’ll be honest, I was prepared to roll my eyes and go “Oh God, another inexplicably popular teenage book that’s going to be cheesy or bad or mediocre at best,” because, let’s face it, angel romance is Not My Thing. But you know, this is one of the few times where that isn’t the case.

Don’t get me wrong, Unearthly isn’t perfect, by any means. It’s not one I would give five stars – if, y’know, I gave stars – because some improvements could be made and a few things bothered me, but it’s quite a bit better than any of the other YA books I’ve read in a while. It’s certainly one of the better ones about angels.

One of the best parts about Unearthly is the introduction. We’re dropped right into the action for once, with a protagonist who actually has a reasonably clear idea of what’s going on. She’s not quite the Professional yet, but she isn’t the Clueless Teenager whose life is about to be irrevocably changed by the Supernatural New Guy, and this is extremely refreshing. Technically, our protagonist Clara is the Supernatural New Guy Girl, the one who has been sent to protect the Clueless Teenager. It’s a nice switch, because we don’t have to spend half the book waiting to find out that OH MY GOD, the sexy quirky mysterious new person is a __________ (insert paranormal creature here). From the very beginning, the protagonist knows just about as much as we do after reading the flap summary, which helps to speed things along.

I’ll admit, after reading the introductory prologue and the first chapter, I was squeeing a little bit, like OMG THIS IS GOING TO BE SO GOOD. I’m not religious at all, but I loved the opening reference to John 1:1, IT SET A GOOD MOOD OKAY. I spent the first few chapters in this sort of cheerful glow, actually, until I realized, as Clara and her family made the move from California to Wyoming to track down a total stranger based on some information she gleaned from her visions, that what was happening here was basically parent-sponsored stalking.

WHAT?

Y HALO THAR FIRST SPEEDBUMP.

Okay, okay, yes, I know, she’s an angel. Her visions are supposed to give her clues and she’s supposed to follow them, and she’s probably supposed to protect this boy. And yes, this is her Purpose, it’s quite literally what she’s been put on earth to do, but seriously? The moment she gets a glimpse of his license plate in her vision, her mother moves them all to the corresponding state and county, and enrolls Clara in the same school. It wouldn’t be as bad if Clara didn’t immediately become obsessed with the guy – Christian – but once she meets him, all she can seem to think about is him. She moons over and stares at him every chance she gets, blows off new friends to stalk him around town on lunch hour, and even finds herself hating his girlfriend because, well, she’s his girlfriend (and kind of the school bitch, but that’s beside the point). What’s worse, her mother encourages the love-struck obsession, because it’s her ~*destiny*~ or whatever. She goes as far as getting Clara lessons at and a season pass to the same ski resort as Christian when they realize he is a skiing enthusiast. There’s so much plotting involved as Clara constantly tries to find a way to burrow into Christian’s life, it’s WEIRD.

I never really got over the creep factor of Clara and her family going to all this trouble to meet this one person – especially while he can’t know a thing – but the better parts of the book distracted from that. There were some good secondary characters here, with a lot of potential for development as the series goes on. For once, our heroine is neither a loner nor surrounded by a group of one-dimensional flunkies. Clara’s two best friends, Angela and Wendy, are smart, spunky girls in their own right. I greatly appreciated Wendy’s grounded sensibility – she was the voice of reason among the supporting cast, calling Clara out when her obsession with Christian was getting too weird, bitching her out when she was being a self-absorbed jerk, and encouraging her to form a relationship with her brother, Tucker. I liked having that kind of reality-check character, even if she did sort of drop her older friends pretty quick to get all BFF with Clara.

Then there’s Angela, who actually reminds me a lot of early Faith, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She’s technically the more powerful one, but she’s also never had the kind of loving guidance that Clara has. Because of this, she becomes the devil on Clara’s shoulder (hurhurhur), enjoying the power, ready and willing to live for the mission because it might redeem her terrible conception, while Buffy/Clara longs for a normal life. And, like Faith, you get the sense that Angela is quite emotionally fragile, wanting the kind of familial bond that Clara has always had, ready to let the jealousy turn her to the dark side at any time. Or, at least, that’s what I got. I pretty much expect the face-heel turn sometime in the next book, so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

Either way, it’s nice to have side characters that, if you ask me, could stand alone as heroines of their own novels. At the very least, you know that they have more going on in their lives than just what’s happening with the heroine.

The love interests are pretty decent, too. Christian is a nice guy, if a bit bland until you get to the end, and I’ll cop to being pleasantly surprised by that particular revelation. I was indifferent to him as a character before then, but, like Angela, I’m curious to see where the story will take him, and what roll he will play. Tucker I got to like more and more as the story progressed. Yeah, his relationship with Clara started out as the typical Slap-Slap, Kiss-Kiss type romance, but the time they spent together during summer vacation felt like genuine relationship development. It was sweet and charming and I was sooo glad that Clara was finally getting out of her creepy Christian rut. Tucker was a good match for her, and I was quite pleased with both the inevitable “WHAT ARE YOU?” scene, and the way Clara handled it.

As for Clara herself…I was a bit torn. She’s a fairly realistically portrayed teenage girl, neither a saint nor a totally annoying twat. It was a little trying, being stuck in her head the entire book (seriously, so glad when people called her out on her self-absorption(?), and yes, it was very difficult to see past the whole “stalking” thing, but I did eventually come to sympathize with her. I’m a big fan of fighting fate, so when she got some balls and started focusing on something other than her obsession with her Purpose and ~*Christian*~, I found myself liking her a bit more.

Ah, but there are flaws. Like the pacing – it was very uneven. We fast forward through weeks, even months at a time, and then stop for a day or a week, or two, then zip right through another week. Often Clara would summarize events I expected to be somewhat significant, and it would wind up feeling like a run-down of a deleted scene. It’s something that happens in books that cover an extended amount of time, and though I understand the need, it’s still somewhat jarring.

There are some fairly typical YA elements, too, although many of them are nicely filled out or given a bit more depth, which was a pleasant surprise. You’ve got your usual YA-book-high-school clique division, for instance, (rich and poor kids, big surprise), but unlike some other books I could name but won’t, the divisions aren’t absolute. You have some of the poorer kids – like Tucker – hanging around or at least friendly with the richer ones, and not all of the pretty, well-off students – like Angela – are social butterflies. It’s a nice change, since The Outsiders-style social tension among upper/lower-middle class suburban teenagers is one of my bigger YA pet peeves.

You’ve also got your designated High School Golden Couple, Christian and…his girlfriend whose name I cannot remember for the life of me, who also happens to be the Queen Bitch. Hand tries to add a little depth here, too, with various characters – even Clara, eventually – insisting that this girl isn’t as bad as she pretends to be. B+ for the thought, but it’s more tell than show, and we never really see her play any role other than that of the woman scorned. She’s hardly a real character at all. What does come out loud and clear, though, is that Christian is not into it simply for the sex – he truly does love this girl, and those feelings are what keep him from fully pursuing Clara.

There are also the inevitable moments of kinda-stupid that come with an angel book. Glory, for example, while cool in its capacity to terrify normal humans, is kind of laughable when you think about it making someone’s hair glow, even their eyebrows. Does that mean her armpit hair would ~sparkle~, too? Similarly…I can’t help but laugh at the idea of Clara quite literally talking a bear out of attacking. Okay, I get she’s good with languages, but really, is bear grunting a language? And the flying – I really can’t ever picture that without Clara looking really dumb xD You’ve also got your White and Black Hats wings, literally, which proves that Giles was right.

And when all is said and done, let’s be honest: this is still and introductory book. We get a lot of set-up, and very little payoff. The ending is a huge mess – we get almost no answers and a crapton more questions that I can’t believe aren’t immediately followed up on.

SPOILERS! Skip the next couple paragraphs if you want to avoid them.

Clara’s little brother especially – how could she possibly do anything except go upstairs and immediately talk to him? Hi there, BLACK WINGS ARE A HUGE DEAL. I’m also frustrated at the overall point of Clara’s purpose – was it really just some cosmic blind date? Is that her divine Purpose on Earth, to hook up with some guy, probably produce some super-powerful prophesied angel spawn? Man, I will be so pissed if that turns out to be it. And her mother! I’m pretty sure her mother’s Purpose – and her hours “working” in her study – have something to do with helping/forcing Clara fulfill hers, but I hate the way she acted as though there was no room for Clara’s desires in fulfilling her purpose. That’s so wrong :/ I’m very glad that Clara did what she did in the end, and I’m even more curious to see what does become of angels who don’t fulfill their Purpose. I think those are going to be my people. Fuck blind obedience.

Also, LOL that Black Wing. Was he a plot device or what? It’s like Hand said “OH SHIT I don’t have any action scenes, UMMMM A BLACK WING RAN INTO CLARA” – why was he there, anyway? – “TOOK HER TO HELL” – which is just earth with the colors turned off and the thermostat turned down, THIS WILL SAVE ON THE MOVIE’S SPECIAL EFFECTS BUDGET, thanks Hand! – “FOUGHT HER MAMA, AND THEN STARTED THE FIRE OUT OF SPITE. HA, DONE. Oh wait, there’s no actual fighting, just lots of thinking about the power of LOVE~! OH WELL MAYBE THEY WON’T NOTICE.”

END SPOILERS

All in all, I think Unearthly is a promising start to a new series, even if its ending is complete and utter fail. These are good characters, and the whole premise has a lot of promise. I hope to see a bit more action and a LOT MORE ANSWERS TYVM from the next installment.

four stars

 

5 Responses

  1. Lisa

    January 3, 2011 5:29 pm, Reply

    I really enjoyed parts of this book too. I liked the supporting characters the best especially Clara’s mother, Wendy, Tucker, and Angela. I also think it was really neat that Clara knew what she was before the novel started.

  2. Kayla + Cyna

    January 4, 2011 12:08 am, Reply

    @Laurie – no problem :3 I hope you like it!

    @Lisa – Yeah, I liked Clara’s mother, too, but I didn’t wanna go into that much cause LOL long. I agree. Hopefully the next one’ll answer a few more questions!

  3. Brodie

    January 13, 2011 5:42 am, Reply

    Thanks for the review! I’ve been hearing nothing but positive comments about Unearthly, so it was interesting to read a more mixed review. The whole stalkerish situation with Clara/Christian does sound weird… but I’m hoping that like you, any flaws I find in the book will be outweighed by the positives. I love that it’s a fresh new take on the angel themed books, so I’m eager to get my hands on a copy!

  4. Kayla + Cyna

    January 14, 2011 4:14 am, Reply

    Haha, yeah, that was my biggest problem~ Stalking and teenage obsession is v. creepy. But yeah, it’s definitely worth a read~ I’m curious to see where it goes.

    I hope you end up liking it!

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