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Friday, September 30, 2011

Dark Companion (Early Review)

Yan: *waves* Well this is strange since I haven't reviewed anything in a long time, but hopefully the following review is coherent. It's a very VERY early review so I will be posting this again closer to a release date, but I wanted to get this out while it's still semi-fresh in my mind.

Dark Companion by Marta Acosta (website/twitter)

Grade: 4 stars out of 5
When foster teen Jane Williams is invited to attend elite Birch Grove Academy for Girls and escape her violent urban neighborhood, she thinks the offer is too good to be true. She's even offered her own living quarters, the groundskeeper's cottage in the center of the birch grove.

Something's not quite right about the school -- or is it Jane? She thinks she sees things in the birch grove at night. She's also beginning to suspect that the elegant headmistress and her sons are hiding secrets. Lucky is the gorgeous, golden son who is especially attentive to Jane, and Jack is the sardonic puzzling brother.

The school with its talented teachers and bright students is a dream for a science and math geek like Jane. She also loves her new friends, including hilarious poetry-spouting rich girl, Mary Violet. But the longer Jane stays at Birch Grove, the more questions she has about the disappearance of another scholarship girl and a missing faculty member.

Jane discovers one secret about Birch Grove, which only leads to more mysteries. What is she willing to sacrifice in order to stay at this school...and be bound to Birch Grove forever? 

Note Dark Companion is *not* a paranormal romance novel. Marta Acosta calls it dark gothic.

Dark Companion is a great title because it gives a sense of the plot and just how “dark” this novel can actually get. 

When the manuscript for Dark Companion first arrived in my hands, I admit that I was a little scared. It was daunting stack of 200+ pages that would later be printed, bound, and shipped off as a book. While 200 pages might not so scary on screen, when you have it your hands and feel its weight, you worry if you can ever finish it. So I set a goal for myself, a chapter per day while eating breakfast/lunch. (The convenience of a lightweight single paper as opposed to a huge book makes that possible.) But for some reason I couldn’t stop at one chapter per day.

Dark Companion is addicting. It immediately drew me in from the very first page and wouldn’t let go until the last. With its combination of sinister secrets and equal parts light and dark romances, Marta Acosta’s debut YA novel will surly captivate new readers. (And have some fans asking for their own Jake; I know I want my own Jack.) With strong, but conflicted heroine Jane Williams leading the charge of a delightful motley crew, Dark Companion really asks what the true worth of free will really is to a person.

The prologue leaves readers wanting to know what happens next, what happened before. Rather than forcing the readers to continue on just to make any sense of the scene, Marta Acosta dangles a carrot to entice the reader.

It was a great hook for what I hoped to be a great book. The characters alone seemed to seal the deal for me. When I say a motley crew, I meant it. From Jack, the epitome of an organic, healthy, silly boy to the melodramatic and amusing Mary Violet, every character is different. However it was Lucian (Lucky) that I suspect will leave readers torn down the middle. He is rather childish, selfish, arrogant and hard to emphasize with. I spent a good 10 minutes ranting to someone how much I disliked him and why Jane liked/pitied him. This is not necessarily a bad thing since polarization creates discussions between readers and what better way to spread a book than through talking.

Jane Williams was a surprising character. On one hand she is constantly praised for her intelligence. She’s book smart, but she’s also street smart. And yet I felt that because she’s never known physical and emotional security she latches onto Lucky (whom you might recall isn’t the most giving and kind boyfriend). He comes from a well-do-to family and definitely shows some sort of attraction towards her, which would later prove dark. He can provide physical security, but emotionally he’s much more immature than her. I could empathize with Jane while at the same time I wanted to shake her. Her development over the course of the novel showed Jane transforming from the little Mousie and just Jane and her taking roots. Her old lifestyle was all that she knew and can’t forget (that results in a charity that made me proud), but this new lifestyle was one she grew accustomed to.

Dark Companion delves into the issue of security that separates the major characters into two separate groups. There is the survival of a population and there is the individual survival. Which is worth more depends on the character’s personality which comes through the dialogue and action. Their actions are far from the norm which makes it hard for me, particularly, to comprehend and swallow. I understood why—for the sake of survival of course—but the motives were evil and dark.

Dark Companion will shock readers with its many twists and turns. While readers might have an inkling of what might come, the finer details will be a complete surprise. Marta Acosta has begun to what I hope will be a long continuation of YA novels.

Cover B: after finishing the novel I'm less in love with it*
Source: accepted manuscript from author
Publication Date: June 2012 from Tor/Macmillan
(not available on Amazon yet)

*this was my initial reaction that I expressed to the author:

I think the cover is pretty. Really pretty. It's simple and catches a reader's eye immediately because there's a great contrast of colors. And all the you really need is the chance to catch the reader's attention before convincing them with the synopsis. I mean after looking at it, I'm a little bit more eager to read it!

It fits nicely with the other YA fantasy novels now. Following the trend, however, can be bad at times. The cover is less "wow" than some of the other covers for example, The Girl in the Steel Corset. 

The leaf border on the bottom, I feel, is not needed. Most YA book covers do not have any type of bordering. The font of the title I'm iffy about. It gives off a playful air which is different from the sober environment/coloring.

I will say that the designer did a great job with the setting. In your synopsis, you mentioned birch trees, which thankfully was incorporated into the cover. Too many times I see covers that have absolutely nothing to do with the book. So while the cover is following the trend of 'girls in dresses', it's one of the better ones. Especially for a stock image. 

You described Jane Williams as a plain girl and what this cover is showing is a plain girl with a simple dress. The background is what gives the book a light fantasy element that you mentioned.

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