It's not every day you read a book that reads like... a movie. Though the book took a little more than ninety minutes to get through, from start to finish I kept muttering "movie." Even the cover has cinematic aspects (though I don't love it, and think all the people look entirely wrong. WHERE is Cal's faux-hawk, I ask you? Why does he look more ten than sixteen?); it looks like a movie poster more than a novel cover. And the novel itself? Fast-paced, action infused, with lots of running, explosions (okay, mostly hydrants and Porta-Potties - not so much the rain of fire), harrowing, high-stakes drama, and plenty of adventure. Less character development than I would have liked but plenty of plot. Most of the relationships make emotional sense, and are, if not entirely satisfying, reasonably so. The romance isn't insta-love, and if the danger sometimes seems more superhero/comic book hyped than real, that's because it's kind of a superhero-comic book kind of book...except like a movie.
How does one write a novel like that? Maybe the magic is if one writes with one's mother? Suzanne and Melanie are a mother-daughter team, and Suzanne Brockmann, occasionally writing as Anne Brock, is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling romance author, has won 2 RITA awards, numerous RT Reviewers’ Choice, and RWA’s #1 Favorite Book of the Year three years running. She has written over 50 books, and is widely recognized as a “superstar of romantic suspense” (USA Today). NIGHT SKY is Mel’s debut and Suzanne’s 55th book. Maybe Melanie is planning to follow in her footsteps. If so, this is a great start.
This novel is apparently set in the Fighting Destiny series of adult novels Suzanne writes, though the reader needn't know anything about her adult books for this one to work. At the time of this posting I've also just discovered that there's an e-prequel to the novel which I missed, which explains how Calvin and Sky meet. While it's not necessary for enjoyment of the novel, it certainly might explain some things I wondered about.
Summary: In this near future, dystopia-flavored novel, China is a corporation, not a country, the United States is not really united and parents are still hyper-worrying pains in the neck. Sixteen-year-old Skylar Reid has no license - not for lack of whining about it - a ridiculously early curfew and too far too many rules. After a terrible accident in which her best friend is almost killed, she's been hustled from Connecticut to this little poky town in Florida, and if not for her neighbor and friend, Calvin, an African American boy confined to a wheelchair, she'd be completely at sea in the small town. Her mother is acting SO weird - trying to control all of her activities, having secret meetings with her awful band teacher, and altogether being annoying. Good thing she's got Sasha - the nine year old she babysits - and her family to secretly idolize. They're the perfect, beautiful family, and Sasha is a funny, weird, precocious and completely precious kid...which makes it doubly tragic when one night, Sasha turns up missing. And, her father, Edmund's gone, too. Sky will do anything to get her little friend back - anything, including teaming up with a scary, motorcycle girl and her hot sidekick, going into the bad side of town, and finding the truth about herself. Maybe none of that will help find Sasha - but unlike the rest of the adults and the police, Sky will never, ever stop looking.
Peaks: The plot is huge and while there are a few areas that don't get quite smoothed out to my satisfaction, it's clear that this world is already built and ready for action, and that there could be any number of sequels set in it, as there seem to be any number than budding superhero "greater than" characters running around.
Sasha is my favorite character in the whole novel and though she's missing for much of the the time, the storyline about retrieving her is urgent and real and works well. While Sky is the main character, and she handles the part of a being a budding superhero well enough, with occasional bouts of disbelief and frustration, she's frequently eclipsed by the awesomeness of Cal.
Cal is the sort of over-the-top, loud-mouthed funny guy who frequently ends up being a sidekick. He's "the comic relief," and it's clear that's his purpose. Fortunately, he gets to do other things (though not be sad or too serious). There's a game Calvin plays throughout the novel called "Would You Rather." It is basically two awful scenarios and you're meant to choose the least awful. It always cheers Skyler, and it always amuses the reader as to how Cal's mind works (answer: horribly, horribly well). He's from a very well-off family, is somewhat tone deaf as to how other people live (the very first scene in the novel, he's disparaging a store and a woman slumming there because it is peopled by lower class shoppers and is dirty - and in the end, he's right, they shouldn't have been there, but not for the reasons he thought), and I wondered briefly what his parents did and how Sky, raised in equal, if not greater wealth, is written as the character who is more down-to-earth. Cal is an interesting enough character to have a book of his own.
Interestingly, the females in the novel (with the exception of the moms - maybe teen females?) are very aggressive and take-charge, and the males are the supporting cast - Cal chauffeurs Sky around, lets himself be bossed, and basically finds most of his excitement following her around - she's a trouble magnet. Eventually Cal lets Milo do the same - in return for the odd kiss. Milo - a sidekick with his own mysterious past and nascent...something... seems to do the same for Dana, and then Sky even takes responsibility for the thoughts he's having. It's an interesting switch.
Valleys: The novel starts with a very harrowing incident, then jumps back in time to the week before the harrowing incident, and then jumps forward from there to after said incident. While only slightly confusing, the timeline jumps may act to lose the momentum of the story for some readers for awhile, but eventually they will find their feet again.
Adults in the novel seem unnecessarily mysterious. Cal's mother, Stephanie, is meant to be reasonable and sweet, in contrast to Sky's worrywart parent type, but as I mentioned, Stephanie also carelessly doesn't seem to notice when she loses her wheelchair-bound son for hours and, once, days at a time. "I'll just tell Mom I'm at your house." I found that dubious -- it's as if "the worst" has already happened to her son, so she's kind of ambivalent about whatever else he gets up to? Or, is Stephanie supposed to be the cool Mom of Color who is down with anything? Or, I wondered, is that attitude because he's a boy? That casual, "he'll come home when he's hungry" thing just stood out so HUGELY for me, it pulled me out of the story with my questions. I don't know too many parents of school-aged kids, able-bodied or not, who are so disinterested in their children's whereabouts.
Meanwhile, Sky's mother seems to be a neurotic bundle of nerves wrapped in ironclad enigma and secret dating. The details of Sky's mother are never revealed. She drags Sky from Connecticut for some reason - why? She's jumpy and overly worried - and yes, partially because Sky was in an accident, but Sky wasn't driving, doesn't drive, and finds trouble when she's not even in a car... so, why the continued nerviness and attempts to enroll her in everything and manage her free time? Worse, Sky - who is confrontational and mouthy and very teen in every other way - will not talk to her mother about it. At all. Except for snarks and slamming doors, she never asks the questions she has, leaving the reader to wonder again...why? Why is her mother so weird? Why is she huddling with the band teacher? What does he know? Is he, as Sky has a horrified suspicion, her father? (If not, where IS the guy, and what's the story on that?) Why does the band teacher send Sky out to find Calvin? Is he good or bad? SO. MANY. QUESTIONS.
I found other issues with the book, but it doesn't necessarily detract from this book being good for certain audiences who enjoy fast-paced, plot-centric fantasy adventure novels. That being said:
What follows is a dissection of this novel, which may contain SPOILERS of some of the detail of the issues of a sidekick character in a wheelchair. Read at your own risk.
Some of the characterization was problematic for me. While I loved that Cal was a character in the novel, I felt like he was a foil, in some ways, for the main characters, despite having some agency. I had a lot of questions of how he'd gotten there, and why. I wish we could see what brought an able bodied Caucasian girl to be best friends with a chair-bound African American boy. *NOT that it wouldn't happen, but I think it's important to be able to clearly identify what brings characters together at the beginning of their journey, and why they're in a story - what their purpose is. Was Cal only there to be a sidekick, the chauffeur? To be a witness to Dana and Sky's and even Milo's stories? What about his past, his history, his family? What makes Cal's mother the way she is - very easygoing, and not at all concerned that sometimes he doesn't come home, etc. (despite the fact that he's in a wheelchair). Where's his dad?
I know - inconvenient questions. But, because of how Cal was placed in the novel - obviously in the middle of things, but sort of anonymous all the same, I had even more questions. wished I understood more of the extent of Calvin's injuries. If you are differently abled, how you deal with your disability is part of you, and not something which can be left to individual readers' guesses and assumptions. Not to include spoilers, but he's lifted out of his chair at one point - sans tubes and connections. First of all - the wish-fulfillment aspect of that is disturbing, and speaks to an incomplete understanding of the freedom Cal has in his chair under his own direction. The novel makes it sound as if he would be ecstatic to have the appearance of mobility-via-magic -- and I disagree strongly -- I think he would have felt out of control and HORRIBLE in that instance, and I think it's a crock that all people in chairs want Magic Insta-Walking skills. (Honestly, I was terrified FOR him - it seemed so hideously invasive.)
Second, apparently Cal can leave the chair for toileting? He's not often seen shifting in the chair, so apparently he's not always in it, and has no issues with pressure sores, or -- ? While it's awesome, great and amazing to be inclusive in one's writing, and I can see not wanting to get mired in the details of his life, I can see the Disability in Kidlit people gently asking many pointed questions and questioning the authenticity of this character's experience in his chair. I had questions, and I'm not that knowledgeable. Authors who include differently-able people in their novels need to do a tiny bit more research - and since it's worth writing inclusively, it's worth doing it right. Even just a couple more sentences could have cleared some of this up easily.
Conclusion: When I discovered that this is the first book in a trilogy, I realized some of the "whys" will be answered later on. Readers satisfied with delayed gratification will survive the mysterious-mysteries feel of the novel and the unanswered questions. If you like movies like X-Men First Class, love comic books, wish for nascent paranormal powers, wise-cracking sidekick types and boys with ponytails, this action-filled romance is for you.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of Sourcebooks. You can find NIGHT SKY by Suzanne & Melanie Brockmann at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!