After a lengthy push to finish up a manuscript, I'm sort of blinking in daylight. Time to dig into a pile of neglected books! First up, a debut from Bay Area writer Whitney A. Miller. I would characterize this one as horror - but though there's gore and a lot of eyeballs, the graphic content is merely phantasm. Mostly. Though the storyline eventually makes sense, you have to stay on the ride to get there, and be warned, if you're a regular horror reader, you might not agree to this. I admit to having had trouble sticking it at first - I had issues with Harlow's relationships, her prescription drug use, her father's incomplete backstory, and more. But, if you're not reading closely, but reading more for Gothic chills and fun, this is Horror Lite, and a somewhere to start for those who want to eventually graduate to Christopher Golden.
Concerning Character: Though she appears to be Asian, she has green eyes, and the lightest dusting of freckles. 17-year-old Harlow Wintergreen is adopted, and her father, whom she calls the General, is the Patriarch of VisionCrest, a religion so successful it claims one-quarter of the world’s population as followers. Did I say "religion?" I meant "cult." Harlow is not a fan, nor is she a believer, and, once upon a time, neither was her guy bestie and maybe-soon-to-be boyfriend, Adam. All this ended when he and his family were kidnapped... when he returned, he is a True Believer, heavily tattooed, and -- treating Harlow as if she did something to him personally. Not just indifferent, but rude, and only hanging with Mercy Mayer, Harlow's archnemesis. What is up with that??? Then there's the VisionCrest Ministry as a whole - why are they hiding the stories of the kidnappings? Who's doing it? What's going on? And, why is Harlow's father suddenly afraid of her?
More than Adam's defection, something else is eating at Harlow - visions. Or, voices. Or, something. I must admit that I wish more time had been spent on the voices Harlow heard. Apparently they had started when she was "knee high," and she'd been immediately put on a series of medications, so that it would be apparent that she had no "defect." Well, I can see that, but I would have liked to have a flashback of memory to when they started, and to see the medication affect her. What the heck is Subdueral? Does it make your mouth all cottony and dry, like other psychosomatics? Or, is it a psychosomatic? How come she can cram them into her mouth at all times, with seemingly no backlash of physical symptoms? What are they supposed to do, and how are they supposed to do it? Much about this drug has to be taken on faith, as does much about Harlow's voices. Though I immediately thought she was schizophrenic, that word never even comes up, nor does mental illness seem to be an option for her. The text never makes clear what will happen IF someone finds out, but there's an inference that Something Will, which is unfortunate. Specificity is always good in a story.
The Violet Hour is a part of the VisionCrest True Believers cant and catechism. It's the hour of night when The General found Harlow in the ruined temple in the jungle - that's what he said, that he found her. It's the hour that's most sacred to the cult, when the veil between the Inner-eye and mortals was thinnest. With enough mediation, True Believers feel that they can go into the depths of mysteries and Know Things, as well as receive everlasting life. Harlow doesn't believe in this, but eventually comes to believe that there's some truth to a little of what on which her father has built his religious corporation. I was disappointed that she wasn't able to delve into that further - she never seemed to wonder why she could do what she could, who her benefactors and enemies truly were, and why people were willing to shed blood - and give up eyes - for it. (Also, WHY EYES?) When the General eventually tells Harlow the truncated story of how she came to be adopted, he reveals information to her about her mother - or her creator - which confuses and troubles her. She has promised him riches and respect, in return for returning her corporeal body to earth. But, how did she come to not be on the earth? What happened to trap her at the temple where she was found? And, other than being on hand after her religion is established, what does she get out of it? These questions are never really answered.
A major issue for me was Harlow's age - she was seventeen, and in Asia, yet seemed to fear her ability to make it in the world. Her entering further into the mysteries of this cult when she didn't believe in it seemed to make sense, at first - she wanted to see what, if anything, her father might share with her, but when it becomes apparent that he's not only disinterested in sharing, but actively has a distaste for her, it makes ZERO sense to me that she stays. Several time the book mentions "severed" children, offspring of Ministry employees who have been kicked out. Everybody even knows where some of them live - together - but Harlow never takes this option, acting like if she goes into that place, she'll ...cease to exist? Despite her age, she seems to be strangely helpless, dependent and immature.
Another issue that stood out for me was Harlow's relationship with her classmates. She names an archnemesis within the first few pages, and throughout the book, while Major Things are going on, she daydreams about boys or fumes about taking revenge on this archnemesis, who dares feel up her boy. Um... so, the black-out visions where everybody dies are second to making sure you get a boyfriend? Why does Harlow even have an archnemesis? I kind of hate it when there's no explanation of female antagonism in a YA novel it's as if the writer assumes that you'll just accept that girls take an arbitrary dislike to each other, because, you know, hormones. Mercy does a lot of stereotypical Mean Girl types of things like tossing her hair and taunting Harlow by kissing Adam and running her hands up under his shirt. Eventually they hook up, and then there's the "No, I love you, no really, it was just sex," sorts of conversations that made me roll my eyes. I think the novel would have been stronger without this, but it motivated Harlow to include Adam in her inner circle.
Things I loved about the story include Dora, the robot-mad, wisecracking daughter of Ministry supporters who is Harlow's sidekick who drags her into health and cheerfulness, even when she feels otherwise. Unfortunately, her personality goes a little two-dimensional when things get tough - at the end, she sort of vanishes. It's interesting that a group of teens from today are so deeply interested in the Sex Pistols and punk rock - that's a bit out of their time period, but, since the book opens on a train headed toward Harajuku in Tokyo, it makes sense for her to be embracing heavy makeup and pretense, as the fashionable teens there do. There's a great Gothic creep-factor from a little girl in a white dress called Mei Mei Wang; she and her mother are some of Harlow's supporters... but they, too, vanish, leaving the reader with too many questions. Likewise, Harlow's old crush appears and vanishes. So many loose ends are left hanging from this novel that at the end, I wrinkled my nose and waded through publication information to see if there was supposed to be a sequel... and to that I can say, "No."**
This was confusing for me - dark, and murky, and some of the loose ends were never tied to my satisfaction. However, readers who appreciate a romantic triangle, heartache, rejection, impending plague, mysterious voices, and Sid & Nancy references will enjoy this uneven, Gothic mystery.
3/9/14 EDITED TO ADD: **I was wrong! Hat tip to intrepid reader/reviewer Nicole Hewitt for pointing me toward this post on the author's site. There WILL be a sequel; ALL SHALL BE REVEALED. Or, something like that.**
I received my book courtesy of the publisher. After March 8, 2014, you can find THE VIOLET HOUR by Whitney A. Miller at Flux, or at an independent bookstore near you!