Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Review: The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay

“I live in a world without magic or miracles. A place where there are no clairvoyants or shapeshifters, no angels or superhuman boys to save you. A place where people die and music disintegrates and things suck. I am pressed so hard against the earth by the weight of reality that some days I wonder how I am still able to lift my feet to walk.”

Former piano prodigy Nastya Kashnikov wants two things: to get through high school without anyone learning about her past and to make the boy who took everything from her—her identity, her spirit, her will to live—pay.

Josh Bennett’s story is no secret: every person he loves has been taken from his life until, at seventeen years old, there is no one left. Now all he wants is be left alone and people allow it because when your name is synonymous with death, everyone tends to give you your space.

Everyone except Nastya, the mysterious new girl at school who starts showing up and won’t go away until she’s insinuated herself into every aspect of his life. But the more he gets to know her, the more of an enigma she becomes. As their relationship intensifies and the unanswered questions begin to pile up, he starts to wonder if he will ever learn the secrets she’s been hiding—or if he even wants to.

“The Sea of Tranquility” is a rich, intense, and brilliantly imagined story about a lonely boy, an emotionally fragile girl, and the miracle of second chances.

In the past few weeks (and months), I’ve been on an almost uninterrupted streak of contemporary YA books dealing with broken girls and the bad boys who love them. “Pushing the Limits”, “How to Save a Life” and now “The Sea of Tranquility”. Though the stories are fairly different, I can still see a pattern emerging as I go through them. Proof? I pretty much had the same reaction to each of those books.

So, because I am a lazy ass, here are the things in which “The Sea of Tranquility” is similar to the other two books I mentioned.

- I really liked the protagonists. Their voices were distinct and interesting, and I enjoyed seeing them play off one another.

- I loved how layered the supporting cast was, and how they were given more depth than you usually see in this sub-genre.

- I liked how we are given fairly positive portrayals of sex and sexual relationships, where the bad stuff gets called out and the good stuff gets celebrated. I truly believe we can’t get enough of those books, so authors, keep doing that, absolutely!

As for the things in which this particular offering differs from the others of its genre… well…

I actually can’t come up with any.

See, here’s my problem: whenever I read more than two or three books of the same sub-genre, I eventually pick up on its tropes, and that makes the stories predictable. Twilight rip-offs? I’ve read so many, nowadays I get a Pavlovian upchuck reflex to the words “sudden and inexplicable connection” in a book blurb. Dystopian romances? “Forbidden attraction” should be your key word. Even if I enjoy those tropes (let’s face it, forbidden romance is the most interesting kind), overexposure could lead to a loss of interest.

Or, if I’m feeling nasty, overexposure could make one a more demanding reader. Post-apocalyptic world where most of humanity are reduced to cannibalistic practises? BORING! A dystopian society where love is forbidden? Gee, where have I heard that before? Oh, yes, EVERY SINGLE CLASSIC DYSTOPIAN. EVER! Up the stakes! Don’t just content yourself with one disaster, heap them up! Earthquakes, tsunamis, deadly plagues that turn people into magical dancing monkeys, it’s never enough!!!


So maybe that’s not wholly accurate.

But don’t pretend you wouldn’t like to see magical dancing monkeys in a book.

Oddly enough, my problem with “The Sea of Tranquility” wasn’t that the stakes weren’t high enough or that there were no reasons for drama. Quite the contrary. I think my problem is that there is just too much drama.

The key aspect of those broken-characters-meet-and-fall-in-love trope is that the reason those two people fall for each other is their brokenness. Because both of them have been hurt badly, they can bond over their brokenness in ways which they can’t possibly bond with other “normal” people. And that’s fair enough - there are things that you don’t truly understand unless you experience them first hand, even if they are explained to you patiently and in great detail. But with such levels of brokenness and drama, there’s the danger of crossing the line between an emotionally draining story and soap opera.

“The Sea of Tranquillity” doesn’t quite cross that line, but there is still a lot of drama, so much so that the last act feels like one extended climax with no distinctive high or low points. There’s a buildup, although to what, I’m not sure, and it makes me wish that, for just this once, we had a romance between one broken character and another who was… relatively well-adjusted. I wanted to see, just this once, how things would turn out if one half of the main couple DIDN’T understand the other, and that they never would. I think that would be an interesting story to tell.

Nevertheless, I think this is a very good book, with some solid writing and wonderful characterisation that will leave you, if not dumbstruck, then at least contemplative at the end.

Note the first: A copy of this book was provided by the publishers via NetGalley.

Note the second: Synopsis and images courtesy of Goodreads.

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