Book Review: Harbinger, by Sara Wilson Etienne

January 25, 2012 at 11:17 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Wracked with visions, Faye gets shipped off to Holbrook Academy when her parents can’t deal with the crazy anymore. Holbrook isn’t your typical school, though; student brutality is a fact of life and the goal isn’t to heal the students so much as break them and make them conform. Fortunately for Faye, her assigned Family actually has a way of looking out for each other, of supporting each other even when they all have to take the pain for it. Then they wake up filthy and exhausted, their hands covered in red like blood, and Faye’s floor has a strange design painted on it. Between navigating the atrocities of their so-called caretakers and the mistrust inherent in meeting new people, they’ll have to get to the bottom of the mystery. Except…Faye’s pretty sure handsome, full-of-secrets Kel knows more about it than the rest of them. She’s also pretty sure he’s trying to kill them, and maybe the entire world.*

I have to admit, even before I got to read a description, this was one book where the title and cover totally drew me in. I have a completely geeky love affair with the word ‘harbinger’ and have for a long time, and the cover? Just look at it! My first thought was that it’s like a tarot card (which turns out to be a pretty valid assumption), but it blends all the elements together so well that while you’re very sure the book is going to have a great deal of mystery and intrigue and danger to it, you’re not quite sure what that setting is going to be. It could be anything- fiction, historical, sci-fi, fantasy…with the bright-glowing sea and the rocky shore and the blood moon low and heavy in the sky, this cover leaves you open for anything.

Which is a good thing, because this book has a strong element of WTFery all the way through. And it WORKS. This is one of the very few books I’ve ever read where the uttery confusion of what’s going and the fact that characters are completely clueless actually works in its favor. From the first scene in Dr. Mordoch’s office, we know that separating the line between reality and appearance is going to be very difficult, maybe even impossible, but we’re placed into such a lush, vivid description of the visions that we’re pretty much okay with that. The characters are in such a welter of confusion and we sink into that chaos with them. Enough comes together at the end to give us belated comprehension, which makes for a fantastic reread when you know what to look for already.

I love Faye. Even just her narration- she’s honest and vivid, an artist that never has to tell us she’s an artist. It’s there in the way she describes things, in the words she uses to relate a thing, even just in the way she looks at things for the individual pieces of their overall shape. I love her pain and bewilderment, her betrayal, and in light of that I especially love how- until memory and purpose intrudes- she still tries to protect other people. I love the sense of loss that comes when the thing she’s feared, hated, the things that made her different, are stripped away. Maybe they were terrifying but they were also hers, part of her, and I love the ache that comes with that. She’s a good middle ground between rebellious and passive, which lets us appreciate the more extremem qualities in others.

I really enjoyed the layers and layers of complications in Kel and Faye’s relationship. Even from the first moment there’s a lot that goes into it. Complicated? Yes. Angsty? Not really. Emotions and tensions are high, they’re both used to being betrayed by others and abandoned by the people supposed to care about them, but there’s something very real about all of it, something grounded in everything they experience even over so short a time. It’s a strong bond, even when pulled taut between them with distrust, but there are reasons for that, and I love it. (I’m not going to tell you what the reasons are, though- spoilers)

The degree of brutality at the school strains credulity a little bit. Granted, these kids are mostly unwanted or given up on by their families, so their parents aren’t going to raise a fuss, but it’s hard to believe that there could be that kind of savagery (especially against minors) without repercussions. Though, granted, given the overall setting I suppose there’s not exactly much in the way of governmental oversight. The atmosphere and danger the school itself represents is important, but it’s also a little off-putting that there is genuinely nothing to act as a limit.

I would have liked to know more about the others. It’s Faye’s story, that’s true, and the relationship focus is on her and Kel, but the others of their Family unit are really quite interesting and we only get to see them in flashes. They’re separate and distinct, with individual personalities, but they’re relegated to role of crowd most of the time. They’re strong enough to band together, to stand together against outside interference even at the price of being tasered, starved, humiliated, etc, but we’re only left with echoes of the connections, rather than seeing the connections forged.

Dr. Mordoch, the head of Holbrook Academy and a not-quite-remembered figure from Faye’s past, is a monster, but she’s a monster who is at times almost sympathetic. I love that we get to see those flashes in an otherwise multi-layered repugnant personality. She truly is repulsive and what she does to the students in the claim of helping them is egregious, but I loved seeing how her guilt compounds with severe flaws to render her nearly insane. We stop just short of actually feeling sorry for her but the impulse is there- the idea that we would feel sorry for her if she were a better person.

Honestly, I think the only thing I didn’t particularly enjoy about this book was how heavy-handed the environmental message was. Is the setting believable? Aside from the brutality of the school, yes. An oil crisis has caused a severe shortage of fuel, resources are being pillaged, and communities are drawing together into cooperatives to shield against the outside world and protect what resources they have. It makes sense and it’s certainly a worthy cause and a concern, but I rather felt like I was being bludgeoned with it. Rather than being part of the book, it becomes the book.

Harbinger is a book you sink into, like floating on the ocean and gradually sinking below the waves. It envelops you completely, draws you in to barely contained chaos and a pain that stretches across time. It is, in short, gorgeous. AND- it comes out first week of February, so you don’t even have to wait for it (long).

Want to win an ARC of Harbinger? Just answer a question here and you’ll be entered to win, PLUS there’ll be another chance to enter on Sunday. Answer both questions, be entered twice.

Until next time~
Cheers~

* As a disclaimer, I won this book through the Goodreads First Reads program.

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