City Come to Life: Jenna Black’s Nightstruck

Becket is “an ordinary teenage girl walking her dog one evening” who accidentally unleashes a supernatural hellscape on Philadelphia when she falls for a trap set by creatures from the much nastier side of reality. A drop of her blood opens a pathway so that, at night, the city comes to gruesome life: at first a few subtle changes, but soon enough things like statues that commit murder and street grates that swallow the unwary. Her police commissioner father, her attractive neighbor Luke, and her unstable best friend Piper are all going to have to deal with the consequences.

Jenna Black is a regular in the paranormal romance world, but less so in the young adult end of the pool. Nightstruck is the first book in a new series published by Tor Teen, and she’s trying her hand at a different sort of narrative with it. Becket is a plucky protagonist with a really great dog and parents who aren’t quite getting it right, though they’re trying. If it weren’t for the intrusion of murderous horror-show abominations from beyond, her biggest issue would be picking a college, but here we are: the real world has gone strange and she has to help fix it, since she broke it in the first place.

I’ve read Jenna Black before—I actually found her paranormal romance series from several years back, the “Devil” books from the Guardians of the Night arc, compellingly sexy and engaging. As far as the genre goes, those were rich with tropes but also managed to turn them in interesting ways and provide me with a strangely queer, intense thing between the protagonist and two of her male associates (who are together) in the relationship department. So, I was curious to see if the association I had between that style and young adult paranormal would hold up.

Which brings us to Nightstruck. Spoilers Ahead!

I’ll admit, wholeheartedly, that I struggled with this one. I found the beats for the first half of the book so predictable and flat that it was difficult to maintain an attachment to either the characters or the plot. Becket is, for quite some time, Charming But Self-Conscious Smart Girl Protagonist #1 – she has a dad who is too in her business and a best girl friend who is kind of a popular jerk, a crush on the handsome boy neighbor she assumes could never be, et cetera. Her tone is back-of-cereal-box bland.

There is a bit more individuation and tension as the book progresses, but it frankly should not ever take until halfway into a project for me to begin to get a sense of a single unique or memorable trait about a protagonist. None of the people in the book feel real for the majority of the novel; it takes moments like Piper trying to trade shirts with Becket to save her from detention, or Becket knowing her way around a handgun, to give me something to latch on to, but those moments are few and far between.

Considering that the point of these sorts of books is for the reader to latch on to the protagonist and point-of-view, to experience the paranormal and the romance with them, well—this is an issue. There’s a line between “everyman protagonist” that allows the reader room to identify and “cardboard cutout,” and Nightstruck wobbles unfortunately between these for too long. The city coming to life gives it more oomph, and certainly kept me reading, as I’m always a sucker for “supernatural intrudes on normal world, normal world flips the fuck out” plots.

The plot, however, is also slow to evolve. While we get the initial conflict fast—city coming to murderous life!—we don’t get much of a sense of the stakes or purpose of this happening for at least three-quarters of the book. While it is a short, fast read, the pacing is very off in this case. I did find myself fairly engaged and interested in the plot once we neared the end, though, and we start getting a sense that this city-wide phenomena has a greater and more terrible purpose with an actual leader at the helm.

Because the turn comes almost at the end of the book. (Highlight text for MAJOR spoilers.) After murdering Becket’s father and almost murdering Luke’s mother, Piper convinces Becket to come out into the night. Becket shoots her under the prodding of Aleric—the unfortunately attractive but awful demon-boy—and is then trapped outside when the sun rises. The book closes on her texting Luke that she’s been turned nightstruck, because she got stuck out in the Transition after committing an act of rage and violence.

I didn’t see that coming, and it does make me wonder what comes next, but it unfortunately feels more like this entire book could have been condensed into the first half of a better book, rather than a strangely long and drawn out introductory volume. The descent into actual violence and fright is well done; I didn’t expect the stakes to raise so much so quickly, and it definitely caught me out in a way that I appreciated. However, it should have happened significantly earlier in the book, or I might have never made it there in the first place.

Overall, I can’t say I’m enamored with Black’s newest paranormal romance offering—it starts to show a glimmer of promise, at the end, but I don’t know that it’ll be enough to convince me to pick up the next volume. Perhaps too little, too late. Odds are I will still check it out when it comes around, because Black has written things I’ve enjoyed before, and I think this could be going somewhere interesting—but I just wish it had gotten there in this volume too.

Nightstruck is available now from Tor Teen.
Read an excerpt from the novel here on Tor.com

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.

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