I had come to learn that while Wormwood was full of many things, the truth was not one of them.
And the truth was what I needed.
I had nothing else left.
I’ve always wondered who David Baldacci is.
Okay not really. But it seems like every time I visit our local big chain bookstore, his books are out in display right beside Dan Brown. Okay that’s not exactly what drew me to read this either, but I have to admit I was a bit curious when I saw his name in a young adult fantasy novel about a small village and the mysterious forest the people are forbidden to go to.
Vega Jane is a fourteen
yearsession-old Wugmort living in the small village of Wormwood. She works as a Finisher in The Stacks where she adds the last touches to handicrafts (pots, figurines etc.) for purchase by fellow Wugs who can afford them. She lives with her perceptive younger brother in the slums while their parents lay in the hospital The Care, struck by an unspecified illness that renders them useless. She has no friends save for the stuttering boy, Daniel Delphia, who she has known since she was a child, and Quentin Herms, her mentor in The Stacks.
Her life changes drastically when she witnesses Quentin disappear into The Quag, the mysterious barrier surrounding all of Wormwood separating it from nothingness. Allegedly. As no Wug has ever gone to The Quag before for fear of the dangerous creatures that roam there. Quentin has left a trail of clues for Vega that leads her to find a map of The Quag. Having been seen in Quentin’s disappearance, certain members of Wormwood’s Council takes a particular interest in Vega and her brother… and in turn, Vega takes a particular interest in them. This sets a series of events that pushes Vega to search for answers to her ever growing list of questions (about her family, Wormwood and The Quag) Vega stumbles into an unknown history, a place of monsters and magic and a purpose bigger than her being a Finisher.
Okay that last vague bit I’m just speculating. I came into this book expecting a 512-pages standalone fantasy book, a novelty in this genre at this day and age, certainly. Instead this read like the first book in a YA-dystopian fantasy series. Which is fine, I just wish this owned up to it from the beginning. So that when at the end I am left with more questions than answers, the prospect of a second book cushions the crushing disappointment appropriately.
Just like any first book in a series, a great number of pages inThe Finisher was devoted into the world-building. Wormwood’s social customs, culinary practices(!), occupational strata, government and language were given enough attention to be built. The vernacular is a strange blend of Scottish-Pirate-Ghetto and certain terminologies take a bit of getting used to (minutes, days and years are slivers, light and sessions) but was nothing compared to keeping track of the creatures Vega had to come across. I loved the gory imagination behind the monsters! I was variably impressed but I can’t deny the idea of a creature with 500 pairs of eyes terrifies me.
I am a bit torn about Vega Jane. The way this was written, I’d think there are like ten female Wugs in all of Wormwood, and nearly all men are bearded misogynist. Vega of course is a cut above the subservient, fairer sex. She’s the only female in The Stacks, she’s not scared to talk back and dish some sass against men twice her size, and because of some trope towards the end where she’s required to fight in a competition, she’s not afraid to get a broken nose in a fight.
”You sound pretty confident of victory,” he said suspiciously.
“If I can’t believe in myself, who can?”
He flexed his muscles. “No mercy for you, female. None!”
“I don’t remember asking for any,” I said in a deadly calm voice.
These are nothing new in this genre and is slowly turning into the annoying stereotype (if it isn’t already one) but she also has some complexity and flaws in her that makes her entirely refreshing. I love her indignant pride when compared to her intellectual brother. I enjoyed her astute observations and her voice as a character. Initially I found her a little cold and humourless but found it was pretty much part of her charm. She has a healthy dose of arrogance mixed in with her sense of honour, something I don’t often see in YA heroines.
But something about how the story unfolded made Vega appear a little aimless, a heroine with no bigger plan. She doesn’t CAUSE the plot twist, she REACTS to what the plot throws at her. And the plot likes to build puzzles on mysteries on puzzles so often times, you find yourself in the middle of five unresolved issues. So she’s be in the middle of the mystery about the book Quentin left her but then she’d be given a distraction courtesy of Morrigone (the mysterious Councilwoman) and John, followed by an interlude with a creature that allows her to see her past and so on… all these things are interesting but nothing gets resolved! No history gets explained! Which is so frustrating because while these diversions would probably figure prominently later on (in the imagined succeeding books) I was really invested in finding out what Wormwood is and if Morrigone wiped out everyone’s memory. Furthermore, this lack of effort in creating a backstory on certain magical artefacts that Vega came to possess later on in the story just rendered it dull and lame: A magical spear? A chain that can make you fly? A stone that heals all wounds?
Which again may be explained in the “next books”.
There was a bit of romance later on, but it was delivered as though an afterthought. Which isn’t always a point for among YA-fantasy readers but something that I appreciated because it actually highlighted the storyline’s strengths, focusing the interest more on the mystery surrounding Wormwood. Most of the secondary characters tend to blend into one grisly, smelly, alcoholic and bearded asshole but didn’t really bother me much. The inclusion of Harry Two in the storyline would probably bother a few readers and all of them are heartless monsters.
Truth be told, I’m wary of recommending this to my YA-Fantasy reading friends. Based on what we usually read this is a little bit unconventional, extremely frustrating, rambling and draggy in certain stretches. I’m probably rating this a little too favourably for a book that makes no claim of being a part of a series (because this really SUCKS as a standalone)…
But I’d be lying if I say I’m not looking forward to reading the next book in this "non-series" (my brain hurts saying that).
Just beyond that, in the sky, were the stars, the lost stars as I thought of them now.
Lost, like we were.
Would they ever find their way? Would we?
Perhaps we would simply flame out.
But at least we would have tried.
ARC provided by Scholastic Press thru Netgalley in exchange for an honest, unbiased review. Quotes may not appear in the final edition.