Paul Blackwell takes front and center in Fragile Spirits, a new YA novel by Mary Lindsey set in her Shattered Souls universe. Paul is a kid from the wrong side of the tracks whose special talents landed him in the biggest house in town. In his world, there are three kinds of people: humans, Speakers (a person who can commune with the dead), and Protectors (those who guard the Speakers). Speakers and Protectors are monitored and paired up by a secret global organization, and that pairing will last lifetimes. They are basically immortal. They can die, but they always come back in a future version of themselves.
Paul is a Protector awaiting his Speaker. When she finally arrives, she’s a hot-tempered wannabe goth who despises Paul and everything he stands for. Vivienne is brash, outspoken, intense, and volatile, while Paul is calm, considerate, thoughtful, and planful. Are they opposites or complements? If they plan to work together for the rest of eternity, they’ll have to sort out their feelings toward one another. But first they’ll have to battle a paranormal evil set on re-killing one of their fellow Speakers. Vivienne will have to decide if revenge is the most important thing in her life, and Paul will be forced to choose between duty to his job and loyalty to his Speaker.
Fragile Spirits is a semi-sequel to Shattered Souls. Really, it’s a semi-related story that partially involves a few of the original characters but is set up to tell a new-ish story based upon the events from the previous, if that makes sense. It’s a sequel but not a sequel. I never read Shattered Souls, nor anything else by Mary Lindsey. I went into Fragile blind to any previous storylines. Given that, she does a pretty good job of reintroducing the characters and concepts carried over from the first book. No risk of getting lost in a mire of in jokes and unexplained references.
Lindsey’s book shares many of the same issues as the last book I reviewed for Tor.com, The Pretenders by Charlaine Harris and Christopher Golden. It’s a fine book—not good, not bad, just mediocre. It takes far longer than it should for the main plot to get rolling, and the subplots are routine and functional. The answer to the mystery the novel revolves around is revealed in the same breath that the mystery itself is revealed, meaning that the reader is watching the characters simply react to the plot for the rest of the book. Her writing style is readable and engaging, but also rather simplistic and unchallenging.
While I won’t spoil the ending, I will say it’s the sort of hackneyed, grafted on resolution that smacks of an unwillingness by the author to do anything risky for fear her teenage readers might actually have to feel something other than romantic glee. Kids are a helluva lot braver than most people give them credit for. Coraline, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and myriad others proved that in spades. Not that I’m suggesting Lindsey should’ve set her world in a dystopian hellscape—although that would’ve been way more interesting than early 21st century southern Texas—but she could’ve at least pushed the envelope a bit. (I will add that I was a little confused at her eagerness to have two 15-year-olds have teh sex while simultaneously refusing to do anything too dangerous to them. Seemed like an odd disconnect to me.)
If you’re going to have a crazed sociopath who has spent the last 150 or so years (plus all of Shattered Souls) killing and rekilling the same teenage girl over and over again, then you have to be willing to see that villain through to the end. Lindsey literally strips away all the badness from her Big Bad until all we’re left with is a ghost with a serious stalking problem. The characters go on and on about how terrifying Venezuela Smith (seriously? *groan*) was in life and death, but little of that comes through his actions. I was promised Voldemort but ended up with a Dursley.
The book’s biggest problem—and I can’t believe I still have to bring this up in 2014—is it’s lack of diversity. Only a few characters get physical descriptions, and I can’t recall a single one not being white (every character mentioned even in passing is cis-het). I’m calling the characters who aren’t described white as well, because a majority of readers will assume they are. I’ve heard the argument that some authors don’t describe characters because they want the reader to insert themselves in the role—*cough* Stephanie Meyers *cough*—or because they want the reader to picture them how they will. Trouble is, in American/Western culture, the default mode is white. I’m Black, white and Cherokee and even I fall into the trap of picturing them as white, because that’s how I was culturally trained. (Don’t believe me? Remember the racist insanity over The Hunger Games casting? Yeah. And those characters actually were given detailed descriptions.) Minorities of all kinds need to see ourselves represented, teenagers even more so. Unintentionally keeping us out is just as bad as intentionally doing so. I’d rather have a token minority character than none at all. (To be fair, Lindsey may have described her blank slate characters in Shattered Souls; on the other hand, that doesn’t count where Fragile Spirits is concerned.)
Lindsey had the perfect opportunity when she made Vivienne a poor kid from New Orleans to target a whole host of social issues. She could have easily been Black (or bi/multi-racial—the Crescent City has a long, complex Creole history just begging to be utilized in YA). Lindsey never touched on how poverty affected her life other than that her grams has to take a cab to the store. And the biggest gap of all was the absence of Hurricane Katrina. Given her age and the general period in which the story appears to be set, she should’ve been a child during the storm. Vivienne should be impacted by her socio-economic background and the trauma (and ongoing political, civic, and financial catastrophes left in its wake). But instead she’s a straight white girl whose entire world seems to be snark and grumpiness. Yes, teenagers tend to be self-centered, myopic, and melodramatic, but come on. New Orleans is such a weighted subject in and of itself, and to waste it as a meaningless bit of background is, at the very least, disappointing.
The best thing I can say about Fragile Spirits is that it has a lot of potential. There are some sparkly bits sprinkled amongst the beige. I would love to see what Lindsey would do if she injected a sense of adventure in her work, or perhaps she typically does and Fragile is the outlier in her quality spectrum. The book could’ve been worse. It could’ve been poorly written and overly conservative in its plotting. As it stands, it’s worst crimes are being meh plot-wise and anachronistic diversity-wise. It’s not that I’m irked Lindsey didn’t write a drastically different book, I wish she better utilized the topics and plot points she picked. It’s a book that feels like a second draft. She hits all the scheduled beats but lacks the motivation and character development.
Even for something aimed at 12 and up, it’s a stale story that has been done better by others (Alyson Noël’s Immortals series and Lauren Kate’s Fallen series, for examples). I’m not bothered by creators retreading well-worn territory, but the goal should be to do something unique with it. Lindsey achieves this only on the most basic levels. I suppose if you have a kid who has never read fantasy fiction before, this would make a fine enough entry point, but frankly I’d rather give them something a little more intriguing. Fragile Spirits is the kind of book I’ll rediscover on my bookshelf in a few years and have absolutely no memory of how I acquired it or what it was about. Its minutiae has already begun fading. Not a good sign.
Fragile Spirits is available now from Penguin.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.