Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: The Traitor's Kiss

I received a free copy of this book through the Goodreads First Reads program. While I had originally hoped to be getting one with completed cover art - how could I not? It's gorgeous! - I unfortunately was met with a far more underwhelming gray ARC cover when I opened my package. Oh, well! It was still one of my more anticipated YA debuts of the year, so I was pretty excited to crack it open. 

While the end result was a lot more disappointing than I had anticipated, I'm still glad I gave this book a chance. Here's why!

The Traitor's Kiss, by debut author Erin Beaty, follows Sage Fowler, the rebellious ward of a prominent family. Bound by duty, they keep her on as a tutor, only to submit her to be judged by a nearby matchmaker when she turns sixteen. After her interview goes awry, she's enlisted instead as the matchmaker's apprentice, serving as a ledger keeper and judge of character for her preening charges. As the country prepares for the Concordium - a gathering in the capital in which wealthy brides will be matched with their future spouses - the army prepares for war, as unseen enemy raiding parties from nearby Kimisar are spotted in the forests. When Sage's world collides with that of a charismatic army soldier, enlisted in protecting the valuable entourage from harm's way, she must keep her background a secret, in order to stay as invisible as possible. However, she's not the only one keeping secrets.

It sounds like a lot of fun, right? It was! At least for the first half of the novel. While there was some troublesome YA tropes that arose early that the fast-paced plot couldn't shake, I was enjoying the way the story was flowing.

One of the most notably different aspects of the novel from others in its genre was the significance of army movements and military strategy within the narrative of the novel. Its inclusion was so remarkable, that I felt persuaded to look up whether the author had participated in military service... and she had! Beaty has a Navy background, and is very effective in translating this kind of tactical description to paper, and I was on board.

Still, even while only halfway through the novel, it was hard to really sink into what I was reading, without ruminating on some of the accusations other Goodreads reviews had been leveling at the novel long before I'd even gotten the chance to crack open the cover. From accusations of racism, whitewashing, and even anti-feminist characters, there was a lot of ground to cover in the critical reading of a YA novel.

Here's what I found: 

  • While quite a few on Goodreads argue that it succumbs to the "dark skinned aggressor" trope, there are actually quite a few PoC within the main cast, including the primary love interest... it's just that the ways they're described are a little strange. Like, lots of references of how dark their skin/hair/eyes are, but not many mentions of any other notable aspects of their biological makeup. It did come off a bit as tokenism, but then again, there are plenty of YA novels that fulfill that generic qualification, too. However, the aggressors themselves are only partially fulfilling the cliche they're accused of: while the background army of antagonist characters are described as dark-skinned, the primary villain and his retinue are white. 
  • The idea of whitewashing - or deliberately stripping uniquely culturally-referential stories of their ethnic roots - can 100% be chalked up to a tragic marketing job. Here's the root of it: in the original marketing copy, they list the book as a "Mulan retelling." Naturally, anyone who hears this, then gets a white main character, will be justifiably upset, being that the story of Mulan is firmly enmeshed within the Chinese cultural canon. The problem is, anyone who reads more than 50 pages will immediately find that it's not that kind of story. Nor is it "for fans of Jane Austen," as the revised Goodreads blurb might suggest, or even a "Jane Eyre retelling," as it's apparently been seen elsewhere. Overall, the whole thing just screams of a lazy marketing job, and as the authors are rarely responsible for the promotional material, I can't fault the story for the sins of its PR team. 
  • The anti-feminist claim is a little trickier to handle, because of how obvious the purported "girl hate" was, as well. I think by this point, we're all a little tired of main characters making it so clear how they're "not like other girls," even though being like other girls isn't necessarily a bad thing at all, unless you write it that way. It sucks when you've created a cast of numerous female characters, and just coincidentally, not many of them manage to get along. And, of course, even our main character's beneficial qualities immediately fall to the wayside, once there's a hero involved. It's annoying that these are all such pervasive tropes of a genre that primarily caters to young women, and I don't think readers are wrong to ask that authors knock it off.

But even when you try to clear aside all of the controversy and enjoy the story for what it is, I still had some niggling doubts of my own, that were unfortunately exacerbated by a very disappointing third act, complete with its own insane handful of plot twists (Like, I'm talking Belzhar-levels of disappointment with those plot twists). And I feel vindicated by the fact that I'm clearly not the only one who thinks so: scroll through at least half of the reviews on Goodreads left by people who read the book, and you'll see that the majority agree that the book takes a significant plunge about halfway through. 

While it was a decent way to pass the time, and easy enough to overlook some of its more cringe-y conventions, I don't think I'll be recommending it to any of my friends or anything. It's probably the kind of book I would have liked a lot more back in middle school... but that was a decade ago. 

Final Verdict: Controversy has seemed to rob this book of a fighting debut author chance, but even with its fast pace, interesting world-building, and unique military focus, unfortunately, it's true downfall is a disappointing second half and overly-cliched main characters.

Have you ever been disappointed after judging a book by its cover? Do you look at Goodreads reviews before reading a novel? Let me know, in the comments below!

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