REVIEW: Isle of Night by Veronica Wolff
Dear Ms. Wolff,
When I opened to page one of Isle of Night I was expecting a historical romance set in Scotland—presumably on the Isle of Night. The ARC I had didn’t have a cover image and because I have enjoyed your books in the past I did not seek information about the story before starting to read. My assumption was half right: most of the story takes place on the Isle of Night.
Isle of Night begins with seventeen-year-old Annelise leaving her abusive dad’s dingy Florida apartment to register for college. The specter of her father, who uses his fists to communicate, sows the seeds of suffocating menace that permeates the pages of this story. Unable to register for college and left with no money and nowhere to go, Annelise accepts the offer of a mysterious young man to drive her to the coast. But in turns out he didn’t mean the coast of Florida, and what follows is a coming of age story set in a school that trains girls to become agents for vampires—Watchers—who travel the world doing their masters’ work, whether it means gathering information or assassinating enemies. The experience of reading this book is visceral. As I read page after page my body was tense, my heart rate picked up as Annelise faced danger, I was scared for her and simultaneously wanted her to win and to escape, but mostly I wanted her to survive.
Unlike Jaclyn, I knew from the beginning what this story was about. I was expecting an unusual setting for YA (Scotland – not the boarding school itself, which is a common trope in YA books) and something with a little more spice than the regular vampire novel. The blurbs and marketing have been promising this as a combination of The Hunger Games and other big YA titles. Many of the comparisons could have set this book to fail before it even began, but I was soon sucked into Wolff’s world the same way you were.
What makes me feel like this book works from the beginning is that it’s appealing to a lot of different fronts without feeling like a pretender. I never once questioned WHY Wolff wrote this book – which I often due with these adult-turned-YA authors that come out with hyped books – and that in and of itself is something that I am impressed by. She strikes a tone that feels completely natural, and she manages to make everything feel suspenseful and gripping. Even the romance. It’s a paranormal novel that really has a lot of grit to it.
I agree with John about the tone and level of grit in this book. The most compelling novels create rich atmospheres that allow me to drop out of the real world and immerse myself in the events of the story. Wolff does this by appealing to all of the reader’s senses. Almost all romances offer detailed visual descriptions and appeal to a reader’s emotions, describing how things look and what the characters feel; with Isle of Night, sound, taste, and scent are deftly woven into the story, and in particular sound plays an important role in Annelise’s life and maintaining the tension throughout the story.
Annelise smuggles two things into the boarding school, a photo of her mother and her iPod, deciding that her need for the solace of music and a tangible connection to her beloved mom is greater than the potential for punishment if she is caught with the forbidden items.
During the early weeks of her training these two items become a source of life support, a moment of escape from the stress of the intense Watcher training and Annelise’s way out of the school without leaving the campus. But because they are forbidden, they also become a point of stress for the reader—will she get caught? What will happen if the items are discovered? And they are eventually discovered.
My only complaint in this whole story is the iPod: whenever Annelise listened to her iPod I found myself wondering how she managed to charge it—which drew me out of the story for a brief moment.
I think Jaclyn makes a really important comment above, so I’m going to reiterate it:
“Almost all romances offer detailed visual descriptions…”
The comparison is very adequate on a multitude of levels. What is so appealing about Wolff’s style is that she has all of the description and atmosphere detailing of a romance novel—which would make sense, considering she’s penned several historical romances—while still keeping the pacing and focus of a YA work.
What Jaclyn describes about Annelise is precisely why I enjoyed her character. I haven’t read The Hunger Games, so I can’t say how she’ll compare to Katniss fans, but I felt like Wolff knew how to make a strong female character that wasn’t perfect. The iPod and the picture are both obvious weaknesses that get exploited throughout earlier parts of the book, and I felt Wolff really understood that her character couldn’t be this perfect person. Annelise’s weakness is such a highlight to the story, and it’s really rewarding to see her grow into someone who can be utterly ruthless.
I think that the characterization extended well into the side characters, too. Annelise’s love interest admittedly made me swoon. Even her friends caught my attention. Wolff has really thought about what her world entails, and I think it’s most obvious when you consider the side characters. She has an island in Scotland where the elite train to be vampires—which is already a step from the YA norm—and she places all of these really interesting and diverse people on it. There are characters from around the world in this story, and they don’t feel tacked on at all. It gives such a good idea of just how sweeping her world is.
John makes a good point—the secondary characters enrich this story. At the same they also play into the menace—Annelise is learning a dangerous lesson about whom she can and cannot trust. Each new person she met at the school left me wondering if they would betray her, though she manages to make some genuine friends.
In the last quarter of the story violence ratchets up as all the first year trainees, including Annelise, take part in a competition for the Directorate’s Award. The girls fight in one-on-one combat. There are a few rules to the fighting, but they are not intended to keep everyone safe and the girls are often fighting for their lives. In the last match Annelise faces off against her archenemy in an epic battle. When it’s over the true threat to Annelise is revealed.
After finishing Isle of Night I sat for a moment and realized I had read it straight through. Then I immediately headed online to find out when the next book in the series will be published. Isle of Night earns a well deserved A.
Like Jaclyn, this book completely sucked me in. I didn’t read it in one sitting, but if I had the time I easily would have. Minor quips like the iPod easily brushed past my reading, and I think Wolff sets herself up for what promises to be a strong YA series. A-
Jaclyn & John