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Mary E. Pearson

REVIEW:  The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson

REVIEW: The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson

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Dear Ms. Pearson,

Amazon listed your YA fantasy novel, The Kiss of Deception, as one of the best young adult books of the summer and I remembered enjoying your earlier book, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, so I requested The Kiss of Deception at my local library.

What can I say about this book? Its beginning was a letdown but by the end I was riveted. And it had almost nothing in common with The Adoration of Jenna Fox except for the theme of deceptions and secrets. It is also a darker book than its predecessor.

The Kiss of Deception begins awkwardly. The opening paragraphs, in seventeen year old Lia’s POV, is portentous:

Today was the day a thousand dreams would die and a single dream would be born.

The wind knew. It was the first of June, but cold gusts bit at the hilltop citadelle as fiercely as deepest winter, shaking the windows with curses and winding through drafty halls with warning whispers. There was no escaping what was to come.

Honestly, when I first read this it struck me as heavily melodramatic and by the end of the first chapter I was tempted to stop reading altogether. But now that I’ve finished the book, I see double meanings in these words and they make a lot more sense to me than they did at first.

In this first chapter, we learn that seventeen year old Lia (short for a string of four names that ends in Jezelia), Princess of Morrighan, is about to be married to a prince whom she has never seen, from Morrighan’s neighboring kingdom of Dalbreck.

Even worse, like all first daughters, Lia is supposed to have a gift for knowing the future to bring to her marriage. But Lia has never seen evidence of such a gift and she is being forced by her parents to marry under false pretenses.

The reason for the marriage is that the “barbarians” from faraway Venda are beginning to encroach on Dalbreck and Morrighan. Neither nation can defeat the Vendans alone, but united by this marriage, they would be able to accomplish it.

A wedding kava, a temporary drawing, is applied to Lia’s back. At the last moment her mother touches Lia’s shoulder, where the lion of the kingdom of Dalbreck is drawn, intertwined with the vines that represent Morrighan.

Lia has other ideas though, and she escapes with her lady-in-waiting Pauline. The two girls ride into a nearby forest and plant misleading clues along the way. They sell jewels and trade their two horses for three donkeys before they arrive in Terravin, a village where Pauline knows an innkeeper who once took her in.

From the first sight of Terravin, Lia feels at home. She decides to take on a new life as a commoner and insists to Berdi, the innkeeper, that she’s not too aristocratic to work as a maid in the inn’s tavern.

Lia does not realize she’s been followed by two men. One is the Prince of Dalbreck. Before their wedding day, Lia, who mistakenly thought him much older than she, wrote him a missive, “I should like to inspect you before our wedding day.” The nineteen year prince did not comply, but now he realizes he should have. Injured pride and curiosity cause him to follow Lia alone and incognito.

The other man who follows Lia is a young assassin who hails from Venda. The assassin’s past is shrouded in mystery but the little we readers know about him is that he’s had a bad experience with royals elsewhere and was taken in by the Komizar, the leader of the Vendans, who trained him to be a killer.

Now the Komizar wants all hope of an alliance between Morrighan and Dalbreck scuttled and has sent the assassin to kill Lia to ensure that. The assassin has a month before he has to meet with four other killers he’s traveling with—a group that includes a ten year old boy.

(The assassin and the prince’s names are given, but due to occasional chapters in their viewpoints initially titled “The Prince” or “The Assassin,” many readers may not guess which of the two is the assassin and which is the prince for quite a while into the book– a technique that generates considerable suspense when Lia later begins to fall for one of them. One is named Kaden and the other Rafe, but I won’t say which is which.)

The two guys quickly ascertain Lia works as a tavern maid and enter the inn at the same time, sitting at the same table. They witness Lia dressing down a soldier who harassed Pauline, and realize Lia must be the princess. In typical YA fashion, Lia is attracted to both boys, but she doesn’t realize who they are.

Shortly afterward, the assassin has the opportunity to kill Lia but her kindness to him stays his hand. But he still has a month left until his rendezvous with the other assassins, and he’s sure another opportunity will present itself.

For a while, life in Terravin appears idyllic. There are some problems, like the fact that the part of the kava Lia’s mother touched won’t wash off her shoulder, a wrong conclusion Rafe and Kaden jump to when Lia has a visitor, Pauline’s unexpected pregnancy by a man whom Lia senses may be dead, and the arrival of another assassin sent by Morrighan’s Scholar, an advisor to Lia’s father from whom Lia stole two rare books.

But all these concerns seem trivial in the face of something that happens around middle of the book. This involves big spoilers (including revealing which of the two guys Lia falls for), but I can’t discuss the book without mentioning it, because it creates a huge tonal shift in the book and also involves a couple of elements which may be triggering for some readers:

Spoiler: Show

Shortly after Lia has fallen in love with the prince, her brother’s young and pregnant wife is killed by the assassins working in tandem with the assassin. Lia’s brother is devastated and vows revenge on the Vendans who killed her. Lia feels that her evasion of her duty to marry made this killing possible, and she resolves to return home and marry the Prince of Dalbreck, little realizing he is her suitor.

The prince does not reveal his identity, but asks Lia to await his escort on the road, and rides away to meet with a few of his fellow soldiers. But the assassin also learns what Lia is planning, and before Lia and Pauline can reach the prince, he and his fellow assassins kidnap Lia and take her on a journey to Venda. Pauline tells the prince what happened, and he decides to follow Lia into danger with a small group of his own men.

I would never have guessed what to expect from this book, and the sequels to follow, based on the way it began. The first half is flashback-heavy, and some of the backstory conveyed seems trivial, such as the way Lia got her name (And also, why Lia? I couldn’t help but think of Star Wars’ Princess Leia). In fact, details such as this later come to matter.

It was also hard for me to care about Lia at first. She escapes her arranged marriage with no concern for how it will affect the political situation facing her country, partly from a refusal to enter into a marriage by deceiving her husband, but more because she wants freedom and to be loved for herself rather than for her title.

While these are understandable reasons for most people, I didn’t understand at first where she got these ideas from. It takes a long time for the mention that her brothers married for love to arrive, and without it (to some degree even with it), it seems odd that a princess would have such notions.

Then there is the matter of the gift Lia is convinced she doesn’t have. Why do only first daughters have it? This seemed silly to me. It’s also clear that Lia does have intuition about some things, such as the fate of Pauline’s lover. Hints come to her over and over, and she ignored them. Why? Both these things annoyed me, but when the answers to these questions finally came, my annoyance disappeared and I was satisfied.

The love triangle too, initially seemed like it was going to tread predictable YA ground, with two boys vying for Lia’s attention and affection at the same time. Although occasionally there was a chapter in one or the other’s POV, at first I had to remind myself which was the one I thought was the assassin and which was the one I theorized was the prince, since they didn’t seem to differ that much. But then came the twist at the midpoint and this expectation, along with many others, was utterly subverted. I don’t think I will  see Rafe and Kaden as similar from here on out.

The first quarter of the book reads like a standard issue YA, and if I hadn’t read and liked The Adoration of Jenna Fox, I might have quit right there. The second quarter is a sweet village-based story, with a romance that develops perhaps too fast. But then come the latter two quarters and wow, is that a totally different story. One where the heroine’s strength becomes truly impressive and very bad things happen to people she loves.

If it was hard for me to care about Lia at first, I was entirely on her side by the end of the book. We witness her maturation from a girl who is guided by personal concerns into a young woman with a spine of steel.

If it was hard for me to care which boy Lia would choose at first, I’m firmly in one camp now, but can’t say more without spoilers.

This may not be the book for readers who don’t want to put up with a slow-to-catch-fire beginning and with the novel’s seeming flaws. But to readers who are willing to make the initial investment for the riveting second half and for the rest of the series, I recommend this book. B-.

Sincerely,

Janine

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REVIEW: The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

REVIEW: The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

The Adoration of Jenna FoxDear Ms. Pearson,

I first heard about your YA novel, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, last December during the Smugglivus event on The Book Smugglers blog. Author Nalini Singh did a guest post recapping her favorite books read in 2009. Her description of the book was brief but, combined with the hardcover's eyecatching cover and with the fact that I've enjoyed several Singh books, it intrigued me enough to look up your novel, and after reading a longer description, I purchased the ebook.

I used to be someone.

Someone named Jenna Fox.

That's what they tell me. But I am more than a name. More than they tell me. More than the facts and statistics they fill me with. More than the video clips they make me watch.

More. But I am not sure what.

"Jenna, come sit over here. You don't want to miss this." The woman I am supposed to call Mother pats the cushion next to her. "Come," she says again.

I do.

"This is an historic moment," she says. She puts her arm around me and squeezes. I lift the corner of my mouth. Then the other: a smile. Because I know I am supposed to. It is what she wants.

"It's a first," she says. "We never had a woman president of Nigerian descent before."

"A first," I say. I watch the monitor. I watch Mother's face. I've only just learned how to smile. I don't know how to match her other expressions. I should.

"Mom, come sit with us," she calls out toward the kitchen. "It's about to start."

I know she won't come. She doesn't like me. I don't know how I know. Her face is as plain and expressionless to me as everyone else's. It is not her face. It is something else.

"I'm doing a few dishes. I'll watch from the monitor in here," she calls back.

I stand. "I can leave, Lily," I offer.

She comes and stands in the arched doorway. She looks at Mother. They exchange an expression I try to understand. Mother's face drops into her hands. "She's your nana, Jenna. You've always called her Nana."

"That's all right. She can call me Lily," she says and sits down on the other side of Mother.

So begins The Adoration of Jenna Fox, an eerie, unsettling novel told from the viewpoint of a seventeen year old girl who has just awakened from a year and a half long coma.

The setting is California in the not-too-far future. Jenna doesn't yet have all her faculties back, but she has enough to sense that something is wrong. Or perhaps everything is wrong. Or maybe it is she who is the something wrong.

There is a mystery surrounding her which Jenna feels the need to solve. But how can she do so when she lacks almost all memories of her former life, and of things as basic as words? She begins by looking up word definitions.

Curious adj. 1. Eager to learn or to know, inquisitive.
2. Prying or meddlesome.
3. Inexplicable, highly unusual, odd, strange.

At her mother's request, Jenna begins to watch recordings of her previous life. She discovers that Jenna Fox was adored by her parents, a beloved only child. The Jenna Fox on the discs physically resembles the Jenna who watches them, but on the inside Jenna feels like a different — curiously so — person.

She can remember and recite historical facts, and yet she feels disconnected from her own history. And then there is the way her grandmother, Lily, keeps her at arms' length and the way her parents conceal things from her. Jenna doesn't love her mother, but when her mother tells her to go to her room she is helpless to do anything else.

The adults in Jenna's life try to restrict her activities. They don't want her to leave the house without them, even to explore the yard. They don't want her to eat anything other than the nutritional liquids they give her. They don't want her to ask questions which they have difficulty answering.

Things come to a head when Jenna begins to remember. She remembers that before her accident, when she and her parents lived in Boston, she used to go to school and have friends. Two friends in particular stand out in her mind, Kara and Locke. Where are they now? What's happened to them in the time Jenna was comatose?

Jenna insists that her parents allow her to attend school, and eventually her parents cave. Jenna can go to a special school, which has only four other students.

Once there, Jenna discovers that her fellow students all have reasons for attend such a small school. Dane, who calls the others freaks, is lacking in empathy and humanity, but Jenna is nonetheless drawn to his blunt honesty. Allys, who uses artificial limbs because she suffered a bacterial infection and was not able to obtain the restricted antibiotics, has a special interest in bioethics. And then there is Ethan, who seems to feel too much, who is rumored to have done something terrible, and who shows Jenna the understanding that she craves.

Who can Jenna trust in her search for the truth? Dane, who will not soften his words but who may do her harm? Lily, once her adoring grandmother and now a skeptic where anything Jenna does or says is concerned? Ethan, who cares for Jenna but whom she may inadvertently hurt? Her parents, who claim to love Jenna unconditionally but who sometimes make Jenna feel imprisoned?

The Adoration of Jenna Fox is a disquieting, genre-bending novel. It is equal parts science fiction thriller and family drama, with a little bit of YA romance and coming-of-age story added into the mix.

This novel is character-driven and almost all the suspense comes from the characters. How will they react? What will they reveal? And how will Jenna react to the knowledge she uncovers? There aren't any car chases or guns drawn in this book and yet the suspense never dissipates.

One of the reasons why is that Jenna is fascinating protagonist. She is both similar to and at the same time, utterly different from a typical teenage girl. At first she is a mystery, not just to the reader, but also to herself. Who is she? What is she? These questions consume Jenna and they also kept me turning the pages.

But even though Jenna was clearly unusual and odd, she also had a core of longings that I could relate to – the needs to be known and understood, loved and accepted – and it was this core that made me care about her and fear for her.

As for the other characters in the story, they felt very real to me. They too were compelling and sometimes mysterious, but most of the time, I could understand what motivated them, even when I also understood why Jenna was at odds with some of them. My one complaint about the side characters is that every single one highlighted something about the novel's themes, to such a degree that when the characters are taken together, this sometimes felt artificial, though as people they themselves did not.

One of the highlights of this book was the language. The writing was simple and spare, but at the same time, amazingly effective at conjuring an ominous sense of danger and a disturbing, eerie feeling. Each time I picked up the book I was sucked in, while every break I took from reading made me think about Jenna and dread what she might discover and what might happen to her.

The book ends with an epilogue that I'm of two minds about, because it raises almost as many questions as it answers. But I love the final image with which The Adoration of Jenna Fox closes, and I will definitely be reading more of your work in the future. B+.

Sincerely,

Janine Ballard

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