Stephen has been invisible his entire life, unseen by any eyes, even his own. His father left when he was young, and he’s been on his own in New York City ever since his mother died a year ago. He gets by courtesy of online ordering and the joys of a city where anything can be delivered, his absentee father’s money covering all his needs. It’s a quiet, lonely life.
Elizabeth has just moved into Stephen’s building, along with her workaholic mother and younger brother Laurie. She’s struggling to overcome some old emotional pain, ready to lash out at the world, wanting nothing more than to be left alone so she can pursue her dreams of producing comic books. What she doesn’t expect is to meet a strangely compelling neighbor.
That’s right: For the first time ever in his sixteen years, someone can actually see Stephen. Nothing will ever be the same again.
Stephen and Elizabeth form an instant connection, a mutual attraction born from whatever inexplicable factor allows her to see him, and their relationship blossoms quickly. At first, Elizabeth doesn’t even realize there’s anything truly unusual about her new boyfriend, until a chance run-in with Laurie brings the whole charade crashing down. Luckily, their friendship survives the surprise and inherent weirdness, and soon they turn their attention towards understanding why Stephen can’t be seen, why Elizabeth can see him.
Enter the reclusive Millie, who introduces them to a secret world of magic, where cursecasters inflict harm upon others for fun and profit, and where spellseekers like Elizabeth have the ability to see and maybe even remove curses.
Several problems: Elizabeth is young and untrained, barely even aware of her abilities, and the curse which has fueled Stephen’s invisibility is old and powerful, woven by a true master of cursing. As for the why behind it all? Let’s just say that Stephen’s family has a few secrets of its own….
To cure Stephen, they’re going to have to defeat one of the nastiest, most powerful cursecasters alive. Good luck.
Invisibility feels very much like two books in one, and it’s hard to tell just where each ends and the next begins. It’s a collaboration between David Levithan, whose work tends to be more slice-of-life and character-driven (including Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Every Day), and Andrea Cremer, whose Nightshade series is distinctly fantasy. What we get here is one part slice-of-life romance-with-a-twist, and one part urban fantasy/paranormal romance.
It definitely opens up as a Levithanesque romance, with two charmingly quirky outcasts finding companionship while dealing with the inevitable complications of Stephen’s invisibility. They’re cute, awkward, and perfect for one another, the chemistry practically rising from the page right from the start. There’s snark, witty banter, clumsy flirting, and a sense of fun. The whole book could have been these two trying to build a relationship while running sitcom rings around other people, with Laurie there to provide help and/or a comedic foil, and that would have been fine.
Once they start delving into the whys and whats, it falls into the urban fantasy frame of mind, introducing spellseekers, cursecasters, long-lost secrets, mysterious mentors, and a Big Bad in need of defeating. In this regard, I was actually reminded of Holly Black’s Curse Workers series, though her world is a lot more organized, the magic more prevalent than it is here. The ordinary Elizabeth turns out to have untapped abilities, and her narrative arc allows her a great deal more power.
I’d happily have enjoyed either “book” on its own, but together, the transition feels just a little disjointed. There’s no clear delineation between the themes, with the teen romance gradually giving way to epic battles of good vs evil, but it’s still there.
That said, I really dug how this story played out. Leviathan’s knack for realistic, memorable characters serves him well here, with Elizabeth and Stephen, both lonely individuals in their own right, finding kindred spirits in each other. There’s no denying that they work together, even when they argue and disagree. Laurie’s a trip as well, almost painfully ordinary but a vital cog in the overall dynamic. Oh, and unsurprisingly given Levithan’s history, Laurie’s gay, which influences both his back story and his own personal subplot involving another neighbor.
I wasn’t as impressed with the villain our heroes have to fight. While he possesses a certain level of twisted genius, he comes off as a bit too…well, cackling evil to be fully believable. Not only that, but it’s a careless, sloppy evil, the sort that shows up and starts doing stupid, unspeakably nasty things until a climax happens. Given his established nature and abilities, you’d think he’d have been a whole lot smarter about engineering the inevitable confrontation. Although I will admit he has some moments of truly despicable brilliance with the application of his curses, which made me shudder.
The language in this book is beautiful…a little overblown with a tendency towards purple prose and introspection at times, but beautiful nonetheless, conveying a wide range of emotion. “I immersed myself in other people’s words, in the park, in weaving a nest for my future out of the loose strands that I had left in my life. After a while, I stopped wondering about thy why. I stopped questioning the how. I stopped noticing the what. What remains is simply my life, and I lead it simply. I am like a ghost who’s never died.”
And there’s the part of the concept which really struck me. As with Every Day, Levithan seems to be questioning the very nature of identity and self-perception. Stephen’s grown up unseen, unnoticed, unable to see himself. His sense of self is quite firmly established by this lack of presence, to the point where very few people know he exists, and he has no idea what he looks like. He could be anyone, anything (although the luck of the story allows him to be acceptably cute and well-groomed, appealing to Elizabeth’s sensibilities. I’m a little surprised they didn’t throw in some Beauty and the Beast, let her give him a proper makeover for the first time in his life…) But with the arrival of Elizabeth, Stephen is finally a real person, able to exist through someone else’s perceptions and it allows him to grow and change. In return, his unique plight gives Elizabeth the opportunity to come into her own previously-unknown identity as a spellseeker.
So while this book may be a slightly awkward blend of teen romantic dramedy and urban fantasy, it’s also an interesting tale with plenty to offer, thought-provoking and entertaining all in one. Already familiar with Levithan’s work, I wasn’t sure how Cremer’s participation would affect things. I must say, I was quite happy with the results. Definitely worth a look.
Invisibility is published by Philomel. It is available now.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. He is the editor of the recently-released anthology, Scheherazade’s Façade. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.