The older I get, the harder I am to satisfy. Certainly I grow crankier: Amalie Howard’s The Almost Girl impressed me with how thoroughly it managed to annoy me. And not, I hasten to add, for the most common reasons: retrograde or thoughtless prejudices, poor treatment of its female characters, poor or clichéd prose.
No, The Almost Girl annoyed me because it is almost more than a set of shiny ideas thrown together with no particular concern for world-building, pace, character development, and logic. It is, in fact, almost a book.
The Almost Girl is a Young Adult novel. It’s not always just to judge Young Adult novels by the same criteria we apply to works for an older audience, just as it’s not always fair to judge tragedy by the same criteria as comedy: they have different goals and purposes, and speak to different experiences of life. A good deal of discussion of YA as a category stumbles when it comes to making this distinction: the heightened emotionality, the fraught intensity of close relationships, love and treachery, life and death—in short, the qualities that appear to many an adult critic as overdone angst—reflects the ardent fervour of adolescent inner life.*
*I remember being fifteen. Everything important to me felt like a matter of life and death.
But it’s possible to take that emotional intensity too far; to add to it, or to create it from, so many disparate elements that it breaks the suspension of disbelief and invites bewilderment. You can have a murderous mad-scientist father and a dying liege lord and an upbringing scarred by a violent world and a sister you’re afraid you might have to kill, but it seems rather excessive thereafter to add long-lost anti-establishment mothers, triple helpings of treachery and deceit, and falling in love with someone you intend to betray.
Then again, I’m not fifteen anymore, and quite possibly I’d have had a great deal more tolerance for the combination of these elements if The Almost Girl had not, in addition, combined portal fantasy with technological dystopia. Two great tastes, I grant you; but I’m far from convinced they taste great together.
Riven, our protagonist, comes from a parallel world to Earth. A world in many senses both post-apocalyptic and dystopian: ravaged by terrible wars, her home has developed into a repressive authoritarian technological dictatorship. By the age of fourteen, she was an accomplished killer and a general in service to her prince. At the age of seventeen, she’s spent three years bouncing between American high schools in search of her prince’s long-lost “brother” Caden, who was spirited away to our Earth shortly after his birth. When she finally finds him, her task is to bring him home regardless of his wishes: to a home where his likely fate is death. A task complicated by the fact that she’s hardly the only person searching for Caden: there’s a dastardly royal uncle and the aforementioned murderous mad-scientist father in the mix, as well.
The juxtaposition of other-world technological dystopia and modern American high school brings a number of the novel’s… inconsistencies… to light. Riven is surprisingly au fait with some aspects of popular culture (including The Princess Diaries), but is remarkably lax about her cover story, to the point where she says, when introducing herself, “Where I come from, we don’t have two names, only one.” Presumably in order to enrol in high school, or operate her motorbike, or rent a motel room, she has to have some kind of documentation that wouldn’t raise too many American eyebrows? Documentation, one presumes, that has a dominant-culture form of name to avoid attracting too much attention?
A girl can only handwave so many things before the effort all gets too much. Like the number of coincidences that contribute to the progress of the plot. Like the fact that so much Cool Shit(tm), so many disparate elements, get introduced with insufficient development, until it begins to feel as though the author poured Cool Shit(tm) into a blender, but the blender wasn’t quite working properly, there was a thin layer of grit in the bottom, and chocolate went in with the beetroot and onions.
I may have over-extended my metaphor, there. But if I were to list all the things that niggled at my potential enjoyment, we’d be here until tomorrow. After the dozenth time some new curveball—emotional or world-building/plot-related—flew in with little-to-no incluing ahead of time, in fact, I stopped keeping track.
That said, Howard’s prose is brisk and straightforward, and the immediacy of the first-person-present-tense plays to its strengths. And in many ways, the novel’s overall emotional tenor, if not its events, reminds me of Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass—not a book I can personally recommend, but one which many people seem to have enjoyed*—so I feel confident that Howard will find her audience.
*By my lights, at least, Howard is a much better writer than Maas.
Alas, I also feel confident that I cavil too much about details to be among it.
The Almost Girl is available January 7th from Strange Chemistry.