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REVIEW: The Origin by Wilette Youkey

Dear Ms Youkey,

The promotional information for your self-published, professionally-edited novel, The Origin, listed several ingredients I like. It’s a superhero-themed romantic Urban Fantasy, which seemed like it would be a refreshing change from the usual vampires, werewolves, demons, etc. that dominate the subgenre. Plus, it looked to have one of my favorite character types in all of fiction: The Morally Ambiguous Hero.

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The book description opens with the words, “He may have super powers, but his is no hero’s story…” and ends with, “Daniel has never considered himself a hero, but in the end, as he looks at the blood on his hands, he wonders if he isn’t the villain of the story after all.” That last sentence sold me on the novel.

Daniel Johnson was once a promising high school football star in Oklahoma, but when he developed super strength and accidentally broke another player’s back during a tackle, he retreated from sports and life, becoming a high school hermit. Ten years later, he’s living in New York City, a bank security guard by day and a masked vigilante by night.

Ballet dancer Olivia King had a crush on Daniel in high school, and when the two meet again she’s determined to go out on a date with him. Daniel is initially stand-offish with Olivia because he fears hurting her, but she is persistent and lures him into a relationship. Daniel lets down his guard and reveals his secret. He’s surprised Olivia accepts him, but just as they get comfortable, Olivia disappears. He is so desperate to find her that he commits terrible acts in pursuit of his goal.

Though The Origin delivered all the elements promised in the description, I was underwhelmed by their execution. The Origin felt unfinished—and not just because it ends in true comic book fashion with many unanswered questions and unresolved issues. Though the prose is, for the most part, clear and capable, it has a tendency toward passive voice, with passages such as this one in which Daniel fights and captures some criminals:

They did not even have a chance to lift their knives before punches were landed squarely on their faces. A few seconds later, they joined Jocko on the ground, bound and defeated.

My problem with this stylistic choice is not born of an ardent devotion to Strunk & White. My gripe is that it diminishes the protagonists’ dynamism—and these characters need every ounce of dynamism they can get. Though I did develop an interest in one of the villains, I just couldn’t warm up to Daniel and Olivia, or bring myself to root for their relationship.

When I read a romance, I like to see the hero’s and heroine’s personalities and skills complement each other. I like knowing that out of all the people in the world, these two people fit together. Daniel and Olivia are portrayed as attractive people who are attracted to each other, but I had no sense that they belonged together any more or less than with other characters in the story. And because

[spoiler]Daniel and Olivia’s relationship plot arc does not have a Happily Ever After, or even a Happy for Now ending[/spoiler]

I think my lack of investment in the success of their relationship may have been for the best.

As a vigilante, Daniel is surprisingly ineffective, and outside of crime-fighting, he seems under-developed. Though we do get a flashback to his first attempt at crime-fighting, we never see Daniel’s Batman Moment—the event that shattered his confidence in the police so thoroughly that he became determined to seek out and prevent crime through extra-legal means.

By contrast, Olivia’s life and background are more detailed, but those details tend toward cliché: She’s a stunningly beautiful, half-Korean-half-Caucasian, wealthy, violet-eyed ballerina who is set to dance the lead in Swan Lake. I could accept her beauty, her familial wealth, and even her vocation as a ballerina—the narration does a good job of showing that Olivia worked hard for her success in ballet—but all of that combined with her violet eyes to push the character perilously close to Mary Sue Country. Every time the narration mentioned Olivia’s eyes, I found myself rolling mine.

I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll be vague, but I do want to mention the character I did enjoy. John functions as something of a villain in this story, but unlike most of the criminals Daniel fights, he is not a one dimensional baddie.

Stereotypical antagonists take the sting out of the morally ambiguous actions promised in the description. For me, Daniel never quite rises above (sinks below?) the level of a good man who does bad things to bad people for good reasons. By contrast, John is a decent man who does dastardly things for skewed but mostly understandable reasons. Except for one fairly important act, I thought his motivations were well detailed. If the rest of the story had been more compelling, I would be interested to read more about him in the future.

Unfortunately, the rest of the story just didn’t grab me. The prose shows promise, and often made me smile with clever flourishes of humor, but time and again while reading this, I found myself wanting to send it back with red-pen note requests for more detail, active prose, and corrections on the American idiom. More than anything, I feel like this story was unfinished. The characters need more depth, the prose needs more polish, and the setting needs more research.

Though the story is supposed to take place in New York City, the urban environment is generic and flimsy as a movie set, right down to the straight-from-central-casting petty criminals who conveniently pop up like whack-a-moles so that Daniel can play vigilante. Instead of referring to specific neighborhoods or landmarks, the narration sometimes uses vague, stereotypical descriptions like, “As Daniel passed through a rough part of town, he came across a sex store—the type so offensive the windows were painted black…” And, of course, said sex shop is frequented by criminals with “acne and greasy hair.”

I love urban fantasy. I love it when authors make a city setting come alive. I hoped for that from The Origin, but, like a lot of other things I hoped for—indelible characters, a compelling romance story, and an honest-to-not-so-goodness morally ambiguous hero—I didn’t get it. Though The Origin’s writing and the premise show talent and potential, the novel could have done with more work. I would be interested to read another novel by this author in a year or two, but I cannot recommend The Origin.

C/C-

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Josephine

Josephine is a professional bibliophile whose hobbies include reading and writing. She enjoys genre fiction in general, and romance in particular. She is especially fond of romances with Paranormal, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Urban Fantasy elements. Her list of favorite authors changes with her mood but she's always eager to read the next good book.

16 Comments

  1. Wilette Youkey
    Apr 26, 2012 @ 16:51:23

    Dear Josephine,

    Thank you sincerely for reviewing my novel. I will take your constructive criticism and use it to improve my writing.

    All the best,
    Wilette

  2. Charlotte
    Apr 26, 2012 @ 18:52:09

    Good review. I’ll skip this one -those kinds of issues with the execution can drive me batty.

    But I do enjoy Morally Ambiguous Hero stories. Anyone have any good recs?

  3. Ann Bruce
    Apr 26, 2012 @ 20:19:19

    She’s a stunningly beautiful, half-Korean-half-Caucasian, wealthy, violet-eyed ballerina

    The geek in me can’t ignore the faulty science.

    Does the heroine wear contacts? Is she not quite 1/2 Korean? I ask because Koreans pretty much have brown or black eyes, which are a dominant trait so the heroine cannot have violet eyes unless the Korean parent isn’t fully Korean and carries a recessive gene for violet eyes.

  4. Josephine
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 02:34:41

    @Wilette Youkey: Thank you for submitting it for review. It takes imagination, initiative and hard work to write a novel, and a lot of courage to put it up for review. While this one didn’t work for me, I do plan to check out your work again in the future.

    @Charlotte: In Urban Fantasy, or just in general?

    @Ann Bruce: The Origin’s narration implies that she inherited her eye color from her (Caucasian) father.

  5. Ann Bruce
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 07:58:14

    @Josephine: She might inherit one recessive gene for violet eyes from her father (if he has violet eyes, he would have to have both recessive genes for violet eyes and pass on one to his daughter) but her mother’s dominant gene for dark eyes would, well, dominate. Unless, she also inherits another recessive gene for violet eyes from her mother, in which case her mother is not 100% Korean and she–the heroine–would have violet eyes.

    I would do a diagram because I love diagrams, but I have to get to work.

    But I’m sure this only bothers science geeks like myself. Most other people wouldn’t notice or care.

  6. LG
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 08:34:23

    @Ann Bruce: It bothered me too, and the last time I studied basic genetics was, I think, in high school. I suppose I count as a geek, though, because I enjoyed working on Punnett squares.

  7. Cathy Yardley
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 10:02:08

    I absolutely love that there is a genetics discussion here. I briefly dreamed of being a geneticist in high school. And I actually remember an old Trixie Belden that proved a guy was a villain because he had eye color that was genetically incompatible with his supposed parents. :)

  8. Josephine
    Apr 27, 2012 @ 10:42:52

    @Cathy Yardley: I once read a book that featured the same plot twist–I think it was two blue-eyed parents with a brown-eyed child. I looked it up, and the answer was “Highly improbable, but not completely impossible.”

  9. Mohini
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 02:22:10

    @Josephine:

    Are you sure? Because from what I’ve been taught (I’ve done biology and genetic studies but not in college) it is impossible.
    Two blue-eyed parents means none of them have the gene for brown-coloured eyes. Hence they can’t pass it on is what I learned, though God knows our syllabus always simplified it down to uselessness.

    @Ann Bruce:

    On the other hand, Korean people having recessive violet eyes gene is IMO highly improbable but not impossible. Asian people in general have brown eyes (not black, black eyes are generally caused by genetic defects iirc, and it usually indicates blindness) but there are green/blue/grey eyed people here and one of my friends back in school did, in fact, have violet eyes. If it is possible to have two Asian parents and have violet eyes then this doesn’t seem that unlikely.

  10. Ann Bruce
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 02:42:16

    @Mohini: I did not say Asian. I have friends who consider themselves Asian but are genetically blond-haired and blue-eyed (long, complicated story). I said Korean. The heroine is 1/2 Korean, not 1/4, 1/8, or whatever, but 1/2 exactly. Thus, her Korean mother must be 100% Korean, so I doubt she carries a recessive gene for violet eyes. Sure, there can be genetic mutations, but they are extremely rare.

  11. Ann Bruce
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 02:50:34

    @Mohini: I’m very literal and exact, especially when it comes to numbers and science. I’m one of those people who get really “engaged” when discussing whether or not white light is composed of all colours.

  12. Mohini
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 05:01:26

    @Ann Bruce:

    I’m actually pretty interested in this. So, when you say 100% Korean you mean no other race even 20 generations back? Because most people talking about their ethnicity generally don’t count that far back unless it’s a race that is dying out. If so, then it is far less likely to have a violet eyes gene but not impossible. Genetic mutations, like you said. Rare but nowhere near impossible. Unlikely, (in fact in fanfic this would hit my Mary-Sue warning bell) and I wonder if anyone in the book commented on it. Lampshading it would make it work better maybe.

    Getting interested in nitpicky details is half the fun of discussing books for me.

  13. eggs
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 07:18:28

    As an absolutely tragic Anne Stuart fangirl, I’ll have to pimp her Cinderman as another ‘superhero’ romance. Don’t read it looking for gravitas or scientific realism. It’s old, it’s sexist, it’s about as scientifically accurate as a 1970’s episode of Doctor Who, but it’s also a fun ‘dude get’s super powers’ romp if that’s what you’re in the mood for.

  14. Kari
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 12:32:48

    I absolutely loved this book, so I was a little surprised to see this review. I spend a lot of time reading comic books, and I really felt like Wilette Youkey brought one to life. Instead of seeing the pictures and reading frame-by-frame, it was written in text, and the images it created in my head were vivid.

    And…

    When I read a romance, I like to see the hero’s and heroine’s personalities and skills complement each other. I like knowing that out of all the people in the world, these two people fit together. Daniel and Olivia are portrayed as attractive people who are attracted to each other, but I had no sense that they belonged together any more or less than with other characters in the story.

    I really felt like this was intended.

    Very well-thought review, though! I’m sad to find a low rating, but I guess not everyone can enjoy every book.

  15. Wilette
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 17:10:06

    Okay, I must interject here as I feel like the subject of Olivia’s eyes is getting out of hand. The character never said she was “exactly” half-Korean. Her words were:

    “My dad’s Dutch/ Irish and my mom’s Korean.”

    Another thing I’d like to mention is that there is a reason for the color of Olivia’s eyes which will be addressed later on. I’d love to elaborate but don’t want to risk giving away an important plot point, so I’ll just leave it at that.

    I am, however, impressed with the fact that Dear Author’s readers can and do discuss genetics casually as if you’re just talking about the weather. It’s very refreshing.

    @Kari: Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed the book.

  16. Josephine
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 19:26:19

    @eggs: Sounds interesting!

    @Kari: You are right, not every reader can enjoy every book. Reviews are subjective, and my tastes don’t always match the majority opinion (as seen in the comments for my review of Patricia Brigg’s Fair Game). That’s why its great when others who have read a book share their take on it. Thank you for providing a contrasting opinion.

    I really felt like this was intended.

    I thought perhaps it was intended, but was not given enough information by the text to be sure. My dissatisfaction with Olivia and Daniel’s relationship arc may be due to the genre listing– “Romantic Urban Fantasy.” I expected romance, not romantic elements, and because of that, I was more disappointed than I might otherwise have been. However, since neither character really clicked with me, I don’t think it would have significantly altered my grade.

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