Initial reaction: Yeah, I have a few things to talk about later on when I'm feeling up to reflecting on this story. In sum, though? Probably one of the more mediocre sci-fi stories I've come across. The worldbuilding was sketchy, the characters were typical, the twists were manufactured and convenient, and the whole thing was a mess. Including the romance.
Argh, this is the kind of review I don't want to write, but feel I have to. This particular genre's a part of my heart and head, and seeing it done in a way that's undermining its own potential just guts me. I don't mince words about that. This is my first read from Amalie Howard, and I can't say that my end impressions of this work are positive enough to want to pick up another book, at least from what the presentation gives here. I may try to see if something else gels with me, but I'm entirely underwhelmed, cheated, and disappointed by this read. I have a feeling multiple audiences, whether intended or beyond, are going to have trouble with this one based on presentation and false promise alone.
I'll first copy the blurb of this book for posterity, because I'm going to come back to it later and reference it for a number of reasons, including to debunk some significant contradictions between the blurb and the actual narrative.
Seventeen-year-old Riven is as tough as they come. Coming from a world ravaged by a devastating android war, she has to be. There’s no room for softness, no room for emotion, no room for mistakes. A Legion General, she is the right hand of the young Prince of Neospes, a parallel universe to Earth. In Neospes, she has everything: rank, responsibility and respect. But when Prince Cale sends her away to find his long-lost brother, Caden, who has been spirited back to modern day Earth, Riven finds herself in uncharted territory.
Thrown out of her comfort zone but with the mindset of a soldier, Riven has to learn how to be a girl in a realm that is the opposite of what she knows. Riven isn’t prepared for the beauty of a world that is unlike her own in so many ways. Nor is she prepared to feel something more than indifference for the very target she seeks. Caden is nothing like Cale, but he makes something in her come alive, igniting a spark deep down that goes against every cell in her body. For the first time in her life, Riven isn’t sure about her purpose, about her calling. Torn between duty and desire, she must decide whether Caden is simply a target or whether he is something more.
Faced with hideous reanimated Vector soldiers from her own world with agendas of their own, as well as an unexpected reunion with a sister who despises her, it is a race against time to bring Caden back to Neospes. But things aren’t always as they seem, and Riven will have to search for truth. Family betrayals and royal coups are only the tip of the iceberg. Will Riven be able to find the strength to defy her very nature? Or will she become the monstrous soldier she was designed to be?
First, I have to say the blurb for this is very enticing, and the one that made me readily request this as a galley. Wonderfully engaging and establishes the motivations, the character, conflict so clearly that I was ready to jump into this read feet first. And the cover - awesome. This actually had me excited that I'd get to read another YA work with a strong sci-fi leaning, blended with an element of romance, and basically pull me along in its measures from beginning to end.
However, this is almost false advertising. I want to say a good portion of it is false promise for structure and organization of the story as well as intrigue. It tells you almost the whole story in just the blurb alone, but some of the significant details here aren't revealed until a good portion into the story and you almost wonder why these details aren't brought in sooner.
Anyway, let's take it from the top.
I'll reveal one of my biases right off the bat: maybe I have high expectations for purported BAMF heroine characters dealing with robots (or are subsequently part/full robots themselves). I can think of a lot of strong female characters from cyberpunk anime series and even from Live Action sci-fi movies. Those ladies can kick butt and take names when they're called to the task. Granted, they may have their moments of weakness, they may have personality flaws, but they still know what they have to do and get it done. And they do it with setbacks put in front of them. Some are teens, some are adults. Age is just a number when you're dealing with a character that's called to the task of rising above their means to deal with extraordinary conflicts.
This said: Riven isn't just a weak character, but she one of the worst purported BAMF characters I've come across in a while.
I'm going to address the content of the first paragraph of the blurb first. The majority of this information is true - Riven's a person of high rank and status in her world of Neospes, and it's thrown into something of chaos with android wars and beings called "Vectors" - which are dead people with microbots inside them basically taking over the dead people and moving them around like zombies in ensuing battles. Riven's entrusted with the task of finding Caden (her "target" if you will) to bring him back to Neospes and complete his destiny on behalf of his very ill and long lost brother Cale.
Only, you don't get the latter information up front about why Caden is Riven's respective target. It takes a long, long time to get there.
The story starts off with Riven being on the run in the prologue of the work. It's decentt. Good ensuing action, evil robots - I approved for the most part. But then the first chapter came, and I felt like I was reading a much more mediocre story.
Riven may come from a world with an ensuing android war and be tough as nails and cold minded, but she's perfectly capable of having emotions about things - what with having strong sentiments about judging the teenagers she's around as she's hiding her identity inside a typical 21st century high school.
The teenagers from her world are supposed to be so much more mature than the one she travels to, but she comes across as no more than a whiny, prejudiced brat. She says they're spoiled beings compared to those in her world, and while that may be explained by the differential between their societies, it's hard to care for a character who's that narrow-minded. She even shames the first female character she sees (who just so happens to be her target's girlfriend - go figure.) The only other interaction with a female character I can think of that she's not related to in some way in this world, she ends up rescuing because the girl's drugged and about to be date raped. So...the story's not exactly establishing lingering interactions with female characters here on the part of Riven's measure.
To hammer home some insinuated misogyny, Riven makes this statement within the novel:
"People tend to feel sorry for me. Boys in particular."
Why would Riven say something like this if she's supposedly able to handle things herself? It's not so subtle shaming, on the level of vying for dependence and doubly shaming her own gender to boot. How is this relevant to the plot again? This is supposed to be about a general taking back her target in the midst of a robot war in her home realm. Get to the point.
As for Riven not having room to make mistakes? AHAHAHAHAHAHA! Oh dear. One of the unwritten rules about being a BAMF character is like the first rule of Fight Club, you don't talk about being a BAMF character. You *show* through the things you do (some might talk and do, and that's fine, as long as you're "doing").
Riven says she smart, but gets low test scores when she tries to mask herself as a student in an effort to follow Caden. Riven talks about all the things she shouldn't feel towards Caden, but feels them anyway. There's a bit of instalove on the part of Riven upon meeting Caden, even considering he has a girlfriend. She calls the girlfriend a bitch, and apparently, Caden also calls *his own girlfriend* the same.
Also, Riven does not have fighting stamina as much as she thinks/says she does. Even when we see her in the first chapter, as much as I could probably sympathize with her making the long, rough transition to Caden's world to retrieve him, I didn't know how to take the fact that she fainted within 3% of the novel starting, in a closet of all places. Maybe I could've been more forgiving of her first two times passing out - where she was at the school and what happened on her motorbike when Caden first meets and rescues her.
But then it just kept happening - she keeps getting knocked out, passed out, and pretty much proving herself to be the most mediocre assassin/officer if her performance in retrieving Caden is any indication.
Guys, if your story progression has a character passing out more times than MacGuyver getting hit in the head and suffering from amnesia, you might have a serious problem to contend with.
I make that reference because in the 80s-90s TV series MacGuyver, the titular character had a series of storylines where he would get hit in the head in an ensuing battle (because he's kind of a jack of all trades helping various parties and foiling malicious government schemes where he can) and not remember who he was. People criticized it because it was an overused plot device for conflict, even in the scheme of so many episodes. In the case of "The Almost Girl", the fainting was definitely overused. It did not help the character. It did not create suspension in the plot. It just came across as very ill conceived, repetitive, and cheap method for conflict.
I'll address the last two paragraphs of the blurb in bulk because it talks about the love story and the overarching conflict in this narrative. The high school portion of this story goes far longer than it probably should've with respect to establishing the backstory, and the worldbuilding for Riven's world seems like it was created as it went along, not shaped before or after the story was constructed. It is not as neatly focused as in the blurb. It was tedious to get through and find vital details.
Riven comes across her long lost sister, whom she thinks is a traitor, but her sister also thinks the same of Riven. They're both fighting over Caden's respective fate, get caught in the crossfire, and people (even major characters) start dying.
Caden does eventually end up going back to Neospes with Riven, but I have to say in the ensuing conflict, their love story lacks in both depth and chemistry. I honestly have no idea why Caden likes Riven, as many times as she brushes him off, hurts him at his core for emotion and affection, and throws out information that shocks the heck out of him ("You're a clone!" she says at one point. This turns out not to be true, but cloning has a big part in the story regardless and I'm not going to spoil it for brave souls attempting to read this.)
I honestly have no idea why Riven likes Caden, apart from that he reminds her of Cale, the prince from her realm - which at one point, she was in love with him. While the story has some moments of trying to build the technology of the Vectors and some cool aspects of Neospes for experimentation and functional life, those play less role in this than the unfolding dramas surrounding Riven's ultra powerful and corrupted family (mother, father, sister) and Cale (who turns out not being the person Riven says he is). It would be more substantial if the reveals weren't thrown like hot potatoes and coming out of nowhere for revelation. It felt cheap and underdeveloped. It's like you can tell the author's flying by the seat of her pants trying to develop all of these as she goes along, and it doesn't come together very well. Not in the least.
Even with a certain reveal that comes across about Riven, it felt more like a cliche rather than a substantial reveal about her person and function in this whole conflict. I couldn't get behind it because it was so typical. It's not surprising given her demeanor, and I've read stories that do a much better job of establishing the stakes and identities of their characters for a sci-fi conflict that spans with the political, social, and ethical games that this story tries to put across. Here, it all comes across as surface with no depth to it and terrible pseudoscience to boot. I shook my head in places at the explanations for function sometimes.
The ending of this novel really didn't do much to sweeten the deal it ended on, because it involves a departure, and leaves the measure more open that it should've been.
In the end, save your time. This is not one of the better YA sci-fi novels with romantic elements. It's messy, the conflicts are repetitive, characters underdeveloped, worldbuilding unnecessarily convoluted, and the pseudoscience of it all just makes it worse for wear. It had potential, it even had moments in the second half where I think the author finally found some ground to depict the world of Neospes for featuring the conflict with the Vectors, but sadly - it's only really a pale backdrop in comparison to other, more grounded works.
Overall score: 1/5 stars
Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Angry Robot/Strange Chemistry.