I really enjoyed Unearthly by Cynthia Hand but at the same time did not quite understand why it appealed to me so much. I am not a huge fan of ‘angel’ themes in Young Adult paranormal novels. Probably the only book of this ilk I have enjoyed previously was Angelfall by Susan Ee but that is because it broke a lot of the conventions of this particular brand of paranormal YA fiction (the angels were the bad guys and responsible for the end of civilisation as we know it). I haven’t yet read Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor but I hear that is also a stand-up for this genre as well.
However I had read quite a bit of positive press about the Unearthly series so I decided to give it a try. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up enjoying this book even though there were a lot of prevalent tropes so common in YA present which normally bug the hell out of me (pun intended). There is an inconvenient love triangle (groan), a quasi-bitchy best friend (double-groan), plenty of misunderstandings (triple-groan), an absent parent (okay you get the idea!) not to mention the fact that the MC Clara starts off as a total pain in the behind. I mean, she totally bugged me at first – I thought she was going to turn into a complete Mary-Sue. But as I kept reading I became more and more drawn into the story and I ended up really liking Clara and the fact that the story went in completely the opposite direction from what I thought was going to happen.
Let me set the scene a little. Clara Gardner is part angel. Her mother is a half-angel which makes Clara and her brother Jeffrey quarter-bloods. Her father is largely absent from her life but her mother is a very real presence, devoted to both her children and has made them aware of their angel heritage and that one day they will know what their true purpose is (all part-angels have a purpose which they need to fulfil during their days on Earth). Clara’s purpose is revealed by her prophetic dream of a beautiful young man and a forest fire. In order for Clara to achieve her goal, upon discovering the possible location of the boy from her visions, Clara’s mother uproots her family and moves them to a small mountain-side town in Wyoming.
It is here that Clara meets the boy from her dreams, Christian Prescott, and he is even hotter in person. Clara is more than a little bit infatuated with this boy but he unfortunately has a girlfriend and does not seem to reciprocate Clara’s interest in him. It was at this point in the book that I started thinking: ‘Oh here we go – eventually Christian is going to come to his senses and realise that Clara is the one for him. They will both solve the mystery of the forest fire and fall madly in love with each other – the end’. Except…that is not remotely what happened. In steps Tucker Avery, normal boy extraordinaire, the twin brother of a girl called Wendy (who becomes a good friend of Clara). Tucker annoys Clara, teases her and calls her ‘Carrots’ (you see Clara had to dye her naturally golden blond hair when it literally started glowing after she discovered her true purpose – and unfortunately this turned her hair a lovely orange shade which no amount of re-dying can get rid of). Tucker is the regular boy (though he is of course hot and athletic) – the proverbial third in this little love triangle. I did not have a lot of high hopes for this character and didn’t see the point of getting too attached given that he would likely be swept aside for Christian. Boy was I wrong!
After her attempts to get Christian’s attention during the school year fail, Clara ends up spending the summer with Tucker. No one is more surprised than Clara when she genuinely begins to fall in love with him. Tucker, of course, has always had feelings for Clara, right from their very first meeting when she almost rear-ended his truck in her car on the first day of school. The two of them become very close and it is only then that Christian steps back into the picture and Clara has to question where her duty truly lies. Christian is more deeply involved in her purpose than either of them have realised – indeed it appears as though the two of them are destined to have an even deeper connection – they may in fact be soul-mates. When Tucker becomes an obstacle in obtaining her goal, Clara must decide what is most important to her – her purpose or the boy she has fallen in love with…
I cannot lie – this novel really impressed me. It not only contained a love triangle which did not make me roll my eyes but the story ended up feeling really fresh and was an interesting take on angel lore. I think what made this book for me was the characters. They all felt wonderfully real and flawed (especially Clara which is funny since she is part angel and you would not expect her to have any flaws!). I especially liked Clara’s close relationship with her mother and her brother Jeffrey is also very intriguing – particularly when you discover what his purpose actually is.
I ended up liking both boys in the triangle (though I admit I was rooting more for Tucker, at least at this point). They were both nice, decent, good-hearted people – no bad boys needing redemption here. I think Clara is going to have a very hard time choosing between the two of them and I have no doubt that things will not be smooth-sailing for the so-called ‘victor’ – I foresee many bumps in the road for this relationship. Love triangles normally drive me crazy – I usually vastly prefer one guy over the other (I pick a ‘team’ and stick to it) but to be honest I am not sure which of these two characters would be better suited for Clara or which one I like best. For now I am a Tucker girl, but I admit Christian was also a great character and I would not be unhappy if he and Clara are meant to be together in the long run (despite my dislike of the notion of soul-mates – think I can firmly blame Dawson’s Creek for that particular abhorrence of mine!).
I also really enjoyed Cynthia Hand’s take on the whole angel subset of paranormal fiction. I liked the idea that each part-angel has a purpose – a destiny to fulfil – but I also appreciated the way this book showed that the path is never that easy or straightforward. There were various twists and turns which kept me guessing. I don’t want to give too many plot details away but suffice it to say the whole resolution of Clara’s purpose took a much different turn than I was expecting and I cannot wait to see what the ramifications of this are in the second book Hallowed.
I liked the almost leisurely-paced way the whole plot unfolded. It really allowed the reader a chance to get to know the characters. I found the secondary characters such as Clara’s brother Jeffrey and Tucker’s sister Wendy very interesting and relatable. I also ended up quite liking Angela (the fore-mentioned ‘bitchy’ best friend) who also is an angel-blood though I definitely think there is more to her than meets the eye and that she warrants further scrutiny – I am just not sure of her motivations as yet.
Unearthly was a distinctive breath of fresh air. The plot was intriguing and not overly bloated with too many sub-plots (although I am curious how the whole fallen angel sub-plot is going to fit in further down the line). It was slower-paced than most other books of this genre but that ended up really being a benefit as it really allowed the story to be shaped in a dramatic but not melodramatic way. The Wyoming setting was beautiful and evocative. The descriptions of the town were lovely and really transported the reader and allowed them to feel a part of the story. The characters also felt very realistic and down-to-earth. I loved how involved Clara’s mother was in the plot and her place in her daughter’s life. Too often in YA literature there are an abundance of absent parents and it was a joy to see such a functioning mother-daughter relationship. Although Clara’s dad was not really a part of her life I rather hope that it is for plot purposes, rather than just to up the angst, but time will tell.
Unearthly is the start of what I hope will be another amazing paranormal series. It was an impressive debut from Cynthia Hand and I am eager to read the rest of the series.
Overall score: 4/5 stars