Blackwood by Gwenda Bond
Review by Ryan Lawler
On Roanoke Island, the legend of the 114 people who mysteriously vanished from the Lost Colony hundreds of years ago is just an outdoor drama for the tourists, a story people tell. But when the island faces the sudden disappearance of 114 people now, an unlikely pair of 17-year-olds may be the only hope of bringing them back.
Miranda, a misfit girl from the island’s most infamous family, and Phillips, an exiled teen criminal who hears the voices of the dead, must dodge everyone from federal agents to long-dead alchemists as they work to uncover the secrets of the new Lost Colony. The one thing they can’t dodge is each other.
This is my second young adult novel in a row, the second one I have read from new guys on the block Strange Chemistry, and the second one to start with a bang. Blackwood, the debut novel from Gwenda Bond, explores one of the oldest unsolved mysteries in American history – what happened to the colony on Roanoke Island that disappeared without a trace back in 1590 – but with its own modern fantastical twist. From the adult perspective, this story is a light read, it dabbles with some dark arts, it takes a few liberties with history to tell what I think is a cool story, but it falls victim to a number of cringe-worthy YA stereotypes (which would probably work for the target audience, but not for adults).
The story follows two main protagonists – Miranda Blackwood the resident loner geek who had a rough upbringing after her father couldn’t cope with the death of her mother; and Phillips Rawling the boy genius who cant help but to rebel against his very stable upbringing and his police chief father. After the disappearance of 114 people from Roanoke Island, the exact same number of people that disappeared 400 years ago, our two teenage protagonists must work together to solve the island’s mysteries if they want to bring back the 114 victims and save their loved ones from the terrors that are coming.
If you are thinking this sounds a little bit cliché, you would probably be right, but there is more to this story than this initial description. Bond has made great use of her Roanoke Island research to cleverly construct a mystery plot revolving around historical figures, the quest for immortality, and a penchant for alchemy. The facts have been blended with fantasy almost seamlessly, showing that Bond has a real talent for world building along with mystery plotting. But for all the cool concepts and original ideas that Bond brings to the table, the overuse of and reliance on what are normally very bankable YA elements brings this story down a few pegs. Ideas such as awkward teenage love, betrayal, daddy issues, and incompetent authority figures aren’t really communicated in a satisfying way, and I found myself at times yelling at my eReader in frustration. Just kiss her already. The FBI are not that stupid. The story telling also gets very confused during the middle third of the book – we are swamped with a bunch of ambiguous exposition, a few characters start acting inconsistently, and the narrative started jumping haphazardly from scene to scene disrupting the flow and making it hard to read. I think what annoyed me the most was that, in my opinion, the plot relied on authority figures being incompetent, or relied on them being incapacitated off-screen. Any FBI agent at full capacity should have been able to stop most, if not all, of the critical plot events from happening. I know I’m not in the target audience, but I’d like to think that at least a few young adults would have the same problems with these YA elements as I did.
Moving on to the characters, I really enjoyed the company of the two main protagonists. Miranda is a very complex character, a girl who has grown up in a family that is discriminated against by the rest of the town, who has spent her teenage years without a mother and with a shell of a father. Bond does a pretty good job at imbuing Miranda with a bunch of geek qualities, and while she may have gone slightly overboard with the excess ‘frakking’, there were plenty of more subtle references that felt like little easter eggs waiting to be discovered. Phillips on the other hand is a boy who has spent his teenage years hiding behind a mask of both rebellion and apathy. He shares similar complexities as Miranda, being excluded from groups because the voices of the dead wouldn’t stop talking to him. Phillips comes across as a ‘Mary-Sue’, he seems to be an expert at just about everything, and while Bond gives some credible reasoning for this, it did seem to be slightly over the top. The best thing about these two characters was their immediate chemistry – they worked well together, they played well together, and you knew almost immediately that they would end up together. So when the awkward teenage love plot line kicked in and they didn’t end up together until near the end of the book, I was really annoyed. There was no reason why these two couldn’t have hooked up at the end of the first act, and I think having the two of them in a relationship during the latter thirds of the book would have provided a number of better story telling opportunities. The supporting characters and the villain were given reasonable treatment – they were well fleshed out with their own personalities and motivations – but these characters struggled to engage with the plot in a meaningful way, and with the exception of Bone I can’t really remember any of their names. The story may have been designed that way to give Miranda and Phillips maximum time in the spotlight, but really, I think this is an area for Bond to target in her next novel because this book has shown she definitely has the characterisation skills to make her supporting cast shine.
YA books like Shift and Blackwood have allowed me to get out of the morally ambiguous suck hole that fantasy has been circling for the past decade, and back into cool stories with fun characters that are satisfying because of the happily ever after ending. Blackwood is a fast and easy read, I had plenty of fun reading it, and even the pickiest of readers should be able to extract some good fun out of it. There are some big issues with this book, many of them the result of an adult reading a book intended for teenagers, but all in all it’s a solid debut from Gwenda Bond.
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