The Premise: Clara Gardner is a regular seventeen year old, except for one thing – she’s part angel. With visions of a boy standing among pine trees as a fire rages towards him, Clara thinks she knows what her Purpose is. She has to save him. When her visions give her enough details to figure out where this fire is going to be, her mom uproots the whole family from Silicon Valley to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Clara thinks all she has to do is find the boy from her vision and make sure she’s there at the right time and place to fulfill her destiny. Except things aren’t always as simple as they appear. The longer Clara is in Jackson, the more she learns how little she knows about her powers and about her vision, and how life never goes the way you expect.
My Thoughts: I have to admit that I went into this story with a little bit of trepidation. It’s not really anything against angels (although they aren’t my favorite supernatural creatures), so much as a bias against young adult paranormals these days. I think I have this little aversion to this genre because I’ve read one too many with a predictable storyline. That said, I hadn’t seen anything about Unearthly that sounded any alarms. In fact, I’d mostly read good reviews. With that in mind, and without knowing much else, I borrowed Unearthly from the library, and I’m happy to report that Unearthly doesn’t go the predictable YA paranormal route (although it does do a couple of things that seem to be common in YA these days – more on that later).
What stood out for me was a few things. First of all there’s Clara’s voice, which felt like it had the right mix of pre-adulthood maturity peppered with sarcasm and angst. She’s no airhead, but there is a balance between her angelic traits (good looks, preternatural athletic ability and angel powers), and her human ones. For all her awe-inspiring ability (wings and glowing and speaking in tongues), she is still an awkward teen. Actually, it seems like Clara is more awkward than angelic – for every moment of celestial grace, she has more than her fair share of humiliation, like a hair dye horror story and New Girl dorkiness. Then there’s Clara’s relationship with her mother. They don’t always see eye to eye, but they have a close relationship, one in which her mom is in the picture, wants to know about her life, and actually tells her daughter that she’s part angel! Basically, she’s a mom that actually acts like one.
Because of her mother, when Clara talks about her visions, she is matter-of-fact. After all, she’s known what she is since her fourteenth birthday. We don’t have to go through the slow build-up of Clara discovering her angelic side, instead the story begins a little further along. Yes, there’s a lot that Clara still doesn’t know, and her mother isn’t always forthcoming, but at least it feels like Clara has a tangible goal, one that I was curious about:
“In the beginning, there’s a boy standing in the trees. He’s around my age, in that space between child and man, maybe all of seventeen years old. I’m not sure how I know this. I can only see the back of his head, his dark hair curling damply against his neck. I feel the dry heat of the sun, so intense, drawing the life from everything. There’s a strange orange light filling the eastern sky. There’s the heavy smell of smoke. For a moment I’m filled with such a smothering grief that it’s hard to breathe. I don’t know why. I take a step toward the boy, open my mouth to call his name, only I don’t know it. The ground crunches under my feet. He hears me. He starts to turn. One more second and I will see his face.
That’s when the vision leaves me. I blink, and it’s gone.”
The fire, the boy, and Clara’s purpose drive the story. At first, everything she does is for the sole goal of getting to the place and time that the vision foretells, and at first it looks like you can see where things are going. The first day Clara arrives at school, she sees him. His name is Christian, and of course, he’s perfect. All-American, popular, and as beautiful as can be. Clara promptly faints. I cringed, expecting the usual saccharine love story to follow. In my mind, all kinds of red flags were going off. I didn’t like that Clara hardly knew Christian and was so intensely involved, vision or not. He had a girlfriend! Clara just looked like a stalker, so obsessed was she with fulfilling her purpose. But the story didn’t go the way I expected. It wasn’t about Christian so much as it was about Clara, making new friends (strange loner Angela and friendly, nice-girl Wendy), and finding a life outside of her vision. Things happen which begin to suggest that there is more to being an angel than a purpose, and there are darker things afoot that Clara’s mother never told her about. Another boy begins to get Clara’s attention. Things weren’t going like I expected and pages were flying by as I raced to find out what happened next.
The love triangle in Unearthly at first felt like a necessary evil. Clara had to discover some things about relationships for herself. I hoped that once she realized that one relationship was superficial compared to the one developed over the course of the story, that we’d see the end of it. It looked that way – the intensity of Clara’s feelings is palpable and reflected the emotions of first love. Clara seemed to know what her heart wanted, and I liked her more for it. I also really liked the romance. Then the love triangle is shoehorned back into the plot. Despite how much I want to know what happens next (enough to want to read the second book, Hallowed), and how much I liked the romance and the angel elements, the threat of the unending love triangle brought my enjoyment down a notch.
Overall: There were quite a few things I enjoyed about Unearthly. It’s a compulsively readable – I wanted to know what would happen next and the pages just few by as I got caught up in the mix of real world teen drama and paranormal intrigue, all voiced by the very human Clara. In many ways it avoids the cliches of YA paranormals – but it doesn’t completely avoid common YA tropes like the dreaded love triangle, nor is Clara always poised – I winced a few times on her behalf. I think it will depend on the reader if what Unearthly does differently from your typical paranormal YA balances out where it treads over well-worn territory. For me, the differences outweighs the commonalities, and I am curious about the second book, but if Hallowed strings the love triangle out further, I’m going to bail.
Literary Swoon with Cynthia Hand