Monday, April 4, 2011

Review: Brenna Yovanoff's The Replacement

(Ed. Note: Today’s review looks a little different because I submitted it to The Ranting Dragon! I won a lovely signed copy of this book from their 2011 Locus Challenge, and Stephan of TRD reached out to me, asking if I’d contribute a review. Of course, I said yes! I’ll let you all know when it’s posted. For now, you can check me out in their “Upcoming Reviews” queue.)

Brenna Yovanoff debuts on the dark side of YA with The Replacement. This standalone tale of sacrifice and secrets follows Mackie Doyle, a replacement left in the crib of a human child. Sixteen years have passed since the real Malcolm Doyle was taken, and Mackie’s increasingly violent reactions to iron, blood, and consecrated ground mean he is slowly dying in the human world. His deteriorating condition and the theft of a classmate’s baby sister drive him to seek answers from the mysterious beings living beneath the town of Gentry. Mackie’s fate rests in the balance of his two worlds, but everything he knows is about to topple.

To start, I loved the angle. More often than not, changeling stories depict how far a loved one will go to get their own child back. What happens when the changeling is the focus of the story? What if the family acknowledges the replacement, accepts him into the family, and loves him in spite of it? How does the changeling feel when he realizes what he is?

The characters, aboveground

In many ways, Mackie is a typical teenager. He checks out girls, plays music, and is obsessed with fitting in. Granted, his desire to blend in is based partly in survival; too much attention is a death sentence. At the same time, his worsening symptoms mean he can’t survive in the home he’s known. There’s a lot of pain in that realization, and it pushes Mackie from his passive position, forcing him to actively participate in his life.

While Mackie’s narrative voice is compelling, I also grew attached to his family and friends. Yovanoff surrounds her protagonist with fully fleshed-out people—protective parents, an unwavering sister, a charismatic best friend, mischievous twin inventors, and a wounded love interest—who transcend their generic descriptions. They keep his secrets and put their lives on the line, convincing both Mackie and the reader that he is someone worth saving. Their fierce affection is what grounds Mackie aboveground, the real reason he so desperately wants to be human.

The setting, background

The town of Gentry is a place with a gruesome history. Its secrets are twisted into the lives of its inhabitants, though some are more aware of the influence than others. This backstory is unraveled slowly, dragged out of characters who would prefer to stay silent. At the heart of the town’s implicit pact is a question about knowledge and responsibility, but it never feels like a heavy-handed “issue.”

Yovanoff writes each part of her novel with the same light touch. Her prose is artistically unobtrusive—flowing but not lyrical, clever but not too cute. As if to offset this restraint, the physical book is gorgeously ornamented. The book jacket and inside design interact harmoniously, referencing the text and feeding the reading experience.

The mythology, grounded

The backbone of The Replacement is the changeling mythology, so it follows that Yovanoff has done her research. She crafts Gentry’s Unseelie underbelly with care, populating it with eerie figures, their customs, and their politics. There are some nasty creatures crawling around in the darkness, but just as many of the underground dwellers are charming.

A particularly well-done aspect is the literal faerie band. Music is deeply embedded in faerie lore, but Yovanoff makes it make sense in a modern context. Her descriptions are evocative, giving music the visceral power it has in person yet rarely receives in writing.

Why should you read this book?

If you like your tales more faerie than fairy and more Grimm than Disney, this creepy bildungsroman is for you. The Replacement adds a great masculine voice to YA in Mackie—a reluctant hero but a hero nonetheless. You should definitely spend some time getting to know him and discovering what’s lurking beneath the town of Gentry.

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