Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan

As already mentioned on this blog, Unspoken was the pick of last month’s YAcker’s talk. This was something I suggested because I read it and really enjoyed it. It’s got humor, a Gothic storyline, and believable relationships. That’s a cool combination right there. Plus, it has a knock-me-flat ending, and I kind of love those.

This review is based off an eARC I received through NetGalley.

Unspoken
Sarah Rees Brennan

The Premise: Kami Glass is cheerfully odd. She has long conversations in her head with a boy named Jared way beyond the age when having an imaginary friend is deemed acceptable. Also, she’s full of crazy ideas. These are all in Pursuit of the Truth, like exposing the dark underbelly of the cricket club, which often requires that she ‘volunteer’ her best friend Angela in her madcap schemes. Her latest plan involves her quiet hometown, Sorry-in-the-Vale. Nothing really happens there. Nevertheless, she, the intrepid journalist, will discover its secrets. She’s just convinced her school to let her start a newspaper and she is just burning to find a story. The most obvious topic for news is the Lynburns. They are the family that originally founded Sorry-in-the-Vale, and own a big mansion overlooking the town that has stood empty since Kami’s been alive. Now the Lynburn family has returned, and among them are teenage cousins Ash and Jared. Since the Lynburns have returned, strange things are starting to happen around town, and Kami discovers something she may have never wanted to know: the voice in her head is definitely not imaginary and belongs to a very real Lynburn boy.

Read an excerpt of Unspoken here

My Thoughts:  This is actually my first experience reading Sarah Rees Brennan, so I came into this story without knowing what to expect. From the cover and the blurb of Unspoken, I thought I would get a Gothic mystery, but what I didn’t expect was the humor. It infuses the story with a lightheartedness that makes a serious plot into something fun. I loved the banter between characters – banter that was not just funny and highlighted the camaraderie between Kami and the other characters, but that also conveyed everyone’s individuality – like Kami’s gung-ho personality and Angela’s antisocial one:

“There are only two important things for us to discuss right now,” Kami said. “The first is that to be a success, our newspaper requires a photographer.”
“What’s the other thing?”
“He’d be excellent decoration for our headquarters,”Kami said. “You have to admit, he’s very good-looking, and I need a photographer, so can I keep him, please, oh, please?”
Angela sighed. In the cupboard, the sigh was like a gust of wind. “Kami, you know I hate guys being around all the time. They won’t stop staring and bothering me and giving me the sad, sad eyes like a puppy dog until I just want to kick them. Like a puppy dog.”
“So you have some puppy issues,” Kami observed.
The cupboard door swung suddenly open.
The new boy stood framed by the bright light of the office.
“Sorry to interrupt,” he said. “But I can hear everything you’re saying.”
“Ah,” said Kami.

Right off the bat, Kami reads a this kooky girl who just really wants to nose her way into finding things out. Like some sort of amateur sleuth, she bulldozes her way into getting her best friend to join whatever scheme she has currently cooking up and sort of exasperates Angela with her enthusiasm until she relents. Kami does get her way and signs up the new boy to be their paper’s photographer, as she does with many other things. But without this irreverent personality a lot of the story wouldn’t be. Kami is the star character; the glue that binds the story together. Without her, there wouldn’t be a newspaper, and when weird things start happening, there wouldn’t be anyone even paying attention.

With Kami, students who previously didn’t really belong to a group, suddenly do – Kami and Angela are joined by Holly and the two Lynburn boys, and soon everyone is interacting in lovely, complicated ways. Kami and Angela navigate including another girl into their circle and what this means for their current friendship, Ash and Jared prove to be cousins who just met each other for the first time, and Kami is put in the awkward position of getting attention from not just Ash but Jared as well. What I liked was that these were relationships that were nuanced and evolving and that there’s a fair amount of growing pain that comes along with the humor and banter. I liked the healthy female friendships here, and the lesson and that there’s always something to learn about people you think you know. Angela’s prickliness, but her surprising vulnerability under that, won my heart.

But particularly delicious for me was Kami’s relationship with Jared.

Kami did not feel comfortable talking about Jared’s mother, but she knew they didn’t have a good relationship.She also knew it was irrational and illogical and insane to worry about his family troubles. It was insane to care so much in the first place. He was a voice in her head, after all:she tried not to think about it too much because it made her think she really might be crazy.
Jared filled in the silence.  She wants me to stop talking to you.
Kami did not let her dread touch him. And will you stop? she asked, trying to show him nothing but support.
I told her I had to think about it, said Jared wearily.
Kami curled tighter under the covers, feeling cold. Jared said nothing else. There was silence in her head and silence beneath her window, and still she could not sleep

While Kami always feels reassured by the Jared in her mind, they’ve had to build barriers between themselves in order to appear sane. The voices scare their mothers, and Kami has stopped asking Jared about his life or talking about him with others. So when Kami meets Jared in person, he is so rude and unlike her Jared that she doesn’t make the connection until it’s blatantly obvious the two Jareds are one and the same. I liked that there was a dissonance between inner and outer personalities, because so often how people read you can be so different from what is in your head. Unfortunately it’s not just different perceptions that Kami and Jared have to contend with. The mental barriers between them adds the awkwardness of literally being in someone’s head but not really knowing them, and their lifelong link means both have a desperate need for the other. The irony is that being in each other’s head actually makes it more difficult for them to communicate their feelings for one another than less. There’s no telling if their intense feelings are real, and if one were to feel a certain way about the other that isn’t reciprocated, being stuck with them for the rest of your life is a special kind of Hell. This situation combined with teenaged angst is a recipe for relationship drama and catastrophe.

Speaking of drama, Unspoken is very Gothic. Some of the Gothic elements added a certain creepiness to the story, some of it felt tongue-in-cheek, but all of it felt very familiar to the genre. There are dark, spooky nights with strange noises, a mysterious caste, a ruin, the strange Lynburn family, dead animals, and many more. Even the interest in Kami by the two Lynburns and her hesitant response is not unfamiliar when it comes to Gothic romance. The story is very atmospheric, with a certain amount of build up: questions about what secrets Sorry-in-the-Vale holds, and hints of a dark entity in the town, but without any solid confirmation that anything is really going on until the story is well underway. I really enjoyed how these elements were pulled into the story but didn’t make Unspoken feel old-fashioned. The teen protagonists and the snappy dialogue kept everything modern.

Also keeping this story in this century: the fact that Kami was a quarter Japanese (her father is half), and so are her two younger brothers. I’m always happy to see characters with a mixed racial heritage since I am too. I particularly liked that Kami and her brother Tomo looked more like their dad, and her brother Ten looked more like their mom. I think those true-to-real-life details are important.

So about that ending. When I was updating my goodreads status, I think I called the ending a cliffhanger, but I don’t think that is technically true. No one is in dire danger and there’s no shocking revelation, but there is some drama that left me dying to find out what happens next. I expect angst and even more drama, and usually I am not a fan of these, but Unspoken is the exception: I actually LOVED how it ended. I think it opens up a lot of possibilities for where the story can go and I’m excited that we could be on an emotional rollercoaster next. So delicious!

Overall: I am a fan. I didn’t expect to be so won over by this book, but I am. The concept of young adult with Gothic overtones is done in a fresh and satisfying way, the characters are nuanced with fully-fleshed and engaging emotional lives, and the humor takes it to another level. The balance between these things guaranteed that I would thoroughly enjoy Unspoken.

For more thoughts on this book (with a bit more spoilers), check out the YAck Attack of Unspoken on the YAckers blog.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Harbinger – “it’s going to be a long wait for Unbound.”
The Mountains of Instead – “While Unspoken is an enjoyable read it is not without flaws.”
Book Nut – “[Brennan] has a way of keeping me engaged, turning pages, until her satisfying-yet-frustratingly-open conclusion.”
Fantasy Literature – 3.5 stars
The Book Smugglers – 7 (Very Good), “The most striking thing […] is its combination of the utterly familiar and the clearly distinct.”
Smexy Books – B, “a huge, enjoyable surprise”
The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia – “on my ‘Best of 2012’ list.”
Clear Eyes, Full Shelves – “between this novel and Team Human, I’m pretty much hooked on Sarah Rees Brennan’s writing”
Bunbury in the Stacks – “The struggle of a relationship that is both symbiotic and parasitic makes Unspoken shine”

Other:
Sarah Rees Brennan answers 6 questions @ Tor.com


The Spring Before I Met You
The Summer Before I Met You
– two prequel shorts set in the world of The Lynburn Legacy.

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7 thoughts on “Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan

  1. I love this review, Janice! I feel like we had pretty parallel reactions to this one. I hadn’t read SRB before either, and I was totally taken by surprise by how much I enjoyed it! Kami is the kind of character I should by all means hate, but I absolutely love her. I feel like you really got Jared and Kami’s relationship too, wonderful and horrible as it was. I didn’t even think about the reality that the person we are on the inside isn’t always reflected on the outside, particularly not to strangers. It really makes sense why Jared and Kami didn’t recognize one another. Can’t wait for the next one! In the meantime I have Team Human and Demon’s Lexicon waiting for me on the nightstand. 🙂

    • I know, we both liked this one, yay! Hah, what are the traits Kami has that would normally dislike? I know I have one: Kami just runs foolishly into the woods by herself (pet peeve in characters!). But since she had her security blanket of someone in her head I think she just never felt like she was really going off somewhere on her own, and I was less annoyed by it. I wonder how that will go in the next book.. hmm.

      When I have a good dent in the TBR I am buying the whole Demon’s Lexicon trilogy and Team Human.

      • Yep! That’s one of her more annoying traits that didn’t bother me, the other big one being nosiness. I’m usually very bothered by nosy characters, but with her it comes off as cute and all reporterly. I kind of loved the random stuff that would come out of her mouth as a result of her and Jared’s relationship–one of my favorites was before they were going out for their girl’s night and she was thinking about Jared’s ‘back-alley eyes’ and he gives her a look so she blurts out “For killing people in!” randomly. Just gotta love that girl.

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