Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Review: What's Left of Me & Once We Were

"We'd been born with our souls' fingers interlocked. What if we'd never let go?"

What's Left of Me (Hybrid Chronicles #1)
Once We Were (Hybrid Chronicles #2)
Kat Zhang
343 pages & 352 pages

Rating: 6 ; 6


YA dystopias may be my jam, but that doesn't mean I love all of them. I've read dozens that I've promptly forgotten five minutes after I turned the last page. It's kind of what I've come to expect. I had slightly higher hopes for What's Left of Me, mostly because I loved the premise. It has a certain high-concept charm. But I wasn't holding my breath.


It's nice when a story comes along that actually sticks with me. 

What's Left of Me introduces us to Eva and Addie, two souls living inside one body. In their world, everyone is born with two souls, but they're supposed to "settle" and have one soul fade away during early childhood. Addie and Eva never settle; Addie becomes dominant and takes control of their body, but Eva is still there, a secret voice inside her head. Their AU-version of America only allows the single-souled, and hybrids considered a dangerous threat. Addie and Eva spend fifteen years hiding their status, until befriending some fellow hybrids who teach Eva how to assert control again. Unfortunately, they end up getting caught.

First of all, Zhang totally pulls off the premise. The world works. She doesn't go too deep into explaining things, but provides enough to paint a clear picture. The plot is simple, but solid. I liked that she kept it small- no one is trying to save the world, they're just trying to save themselves. It works on a believable level. Nothing about this book overreaches or tries to mask weakness with epic plot or melodramatic romance.  

Zhang also manages to competently juggle a number of characters, most of them living inside the same body. They all had their own unique voices; I felt like if I were living with all these people, I'd be able to tell them apart. I liked Eva and Addie, who are fairly realistic teenage girls, without any particular talents or specialties beyond finding their own courage. Heck, I even kind of liked the main male characters and their relationship, and that's usually where I get the most critical.

What's Left of Me doesn't have towering heights, but it also doesn't have any lows. Overall, Zhang's written a good, steady book. 

(I'm going to talk about the sequel now, but only in general terms. So no real spoilers, but if you don't even want to know any vague plot points, stop reading now!) 

Once We Were picks a month or two after the first book ends and asks "what do we do now?" Eva and Addie learn more about how to function as hybrids, with all the difficulties that entails- particularly with regard to relationships. They also start wanting to do more than simply hide. 

Some reviewers have been referring to this book as "filler", which might be true from a plot perspective, but it's not from a character development perspective. Eva and Addie have to deal with feelings about their own (lack of) bodily autonomy and grapple with questions about morality and rebellion. This book is about their growing up. Plus, the plot felt realistic- they're a bunch of teenagers, the best they can do is fight the only way they can, even if it doesn't actually change anything on a macro-level. I do grant that the pacing in the first half could have been quicker.  

I also wish we had gotten to see more of Addie- though both books are narrated by Eva, this one seems a bit too heavily focused on her. Also, Lissa and Halley strangely disappear as main characters. We did get some new people too- some of them felt extremely under-characterized (I know nothing at all about Emalia, Cordelia, or Warren), but others captured me right away (I want more Sabine and Josie!). I think Zhang's writing is improving too; the addition of a few short, poetic dream sequences really made the story shine. 

I know it's not for everyone, but I'm a big fan of books dealing with teenagers and terrorism. Once We Were reminded me a lot of Animorphs or The Tomorrow War at times, asking those sorts of difficult questions. What are you allowed to do to fight for freedom? Does there have to be a right time? How far is too far? Zhang does a good job depicting Eva and Addie's struggle to find answers, without coming off as overly certain that there is one absolute right answer. 

Between the two books, Zhang has earned my respect. With any luck, the third book will be out next year.

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