I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Series: Messenger of Fear #1
Published by HarperCollins Publishers, Katherine Tegen Books on 23rd September 2014
Genres: Fantasy, Horror, Paranormal Fantasy, Young Adult
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Mara wakes in a field of dead grass, a heavy mist pressing down on her. She is terrified, afraid that she is dead. There is a boy in that mist, a beautiful young man dressed in black and able to move effortlessly through space and time. He is the Messenger of Fear. And Mara is his new apprentice. The Messenger sees the darkness in human hearts - the destructive lies, the cruelty, the bullying, the violence. He offers the wicked a game. If they win, they go free. If they lose, they will live their greatest fear. Either way, their sanity will be challenged. It is a world of fair but harsh justice. If the world does not bring justice to those who do evil, the Messenger will. What has Mara done to deserve this terrible fate? She won't find out until three of the wicked receive justice.
“He is not indifferent, that’s the thing. His too-near voice that seems always to be whispering in my ear is held to a standard of cool detachment, but his eyes and his mouth and his forehead and the way he swallows all speak of reflected pain.”
The opening installment to Michael Grant’s new series seems largely a routine affair. As the introductory piece to a larger work, Messenger of Fear is rather simplistic in both its construction and its establishing of an overarching mythos and cast of characters. It’s all mostly predictable (particularly the big “twist” near the end, which one will likely figure out very early on), following as it does the well-worn formula that so many YA authors have taken to since the meteoric rise of the paranormal romance genre.
This particular incarnation centers on Mara, who awakens in a sort of limbo with no clear memory of who she is or how she came to be in this new dimension. She soon meets the titular character, who is – as can be expected – mysterious, intense, tortured, and surprisingly pleasant to look at. Mara has no choice but to follow along as he shows her his duties as the Messenger, regaining over time fragments of her past as she encounters both mortals from her world and the other supernatural beings who toy with them.
Despite the familiarity of the novel’s general schema, Grant’s storytelling works because of his attention to detail. His mythology is a curious mix of adolescent drama, Gothic horror, contemporary societal concerns and celestial dogma. While the book features its fair share of fantasy in the form of warring deities, demonic retribution and dimensional manipulation, it also examines grounded notions of adolescent bullying, suicide, guilt and familial tension. The author does a commendable job at blending these two worlds together, using the former paranormal concepts as a foundation to explore the latter, more practical concerns. It helps that the more fantastical ideas are decidedly unique for the genre, and contain about as much originality as one may be able to reasonably expect from a medium that is so saturated with what seems to be every imaginable premise. While notions of the afterlife, purgatory, reapers and the like have been utilized by others, Grant interprets and combines them in a way that feels fresh, and Messenger‘s biggest strength lies in the fact that Grant reveals these elements gradually so as to be sure that the reader is perpetually curious to see how the world will deepen and evolve.
“I wondered if Messenger had come to this same duty by a similar path. I believed he had. I doubted he would ever tell me the how and the why of it, but in that I proved to be mistaken. It would be a long time coming, but in the end I would know all.”
And while the real-world themes are tackled with equal gravity, they unfortunately do not work quite as well. Grant’s willingness to consider serious notions of teenage persecution, mental illness, and death is commendable, but its done in a way that feels cliched and forced. One gets the clear sense that these scenes involving high schoolers and their everyday concerns were constructed by an older writer outside of the culture. There is an artificiality to the events that leaves the importance of the messages imparted diminished, because one’s ability to immerse themselves in the story is interrupted by noticeable contrivances and stilted dialogue that is trying to hard to be “savvy” to the demographic involved. Events taking place in more otherworldly realms have a flow to them that is lacking in these other, earthbound incidents, and the result is a jarring flux between characters who manage to function as seemingly genuine people and characters who are obviously fictitious creations who are serving a plot point.
At less than 300 pages, Messenger is also problematic in the fact that it feels less like the first part of a much larger, much longer journey and more like an overly long prologue for that journey. The novel provides plenty of foreshadowing and hints at numerous storylines and mysteries, but really does nothing more aside from this. Being able to access later installments immediately after finishing this one may help in the future, but having only this standalone piece with which to consider the series at present means that the book’s incomplete nature is very, very obvious. The ending concludes things in a manner that feels satisfying given its initial premise (Mara being trained to become the new Messenger of Fear), but is also such a clear setup for the rest of the series that it’s as though the novel ends just as it begins.
Still, the length means that the story is an easy one to digest, and Grant manages to stuff what few pages he has with a good deal of character and plot development. And while it may end too soon, the self-contained arc at the forefront of Messenger still works as a fully realized, properly constructed story. It’s simply a brief one. Mara and her companions are given too little time to really connect with the reader, but their individual personalities and roles are simultaneously likable enough to keep one reading and complex enough to encourage interest in later expansions on these starting points. Because of this and an approach to world-building that grows truly intriguing only during the final chapters (when the scope is expanded to touch upon lore outside of Mara’s immediate perspective), there is enough potential inherent to the parts involved that the whole’s abbreviated nature is ultimately not as problematic as it could have been, and makes picking up the sequel seem a definitive. Given how easy a possible rereading would be, there isn’t much to lose, after all.
“And, in unworthy self-pity, I needed to cry for myself, because surely whatever I had done to deserve this, whatever had wrung soul-searing sobs from me, it must surely have been a mistake, an accident…”
Grant’s writing is the final confirmation that this series is likely one worth watching. There is a fluidity and poetry to it that is consistent and satisfying, in contrast to the simplistic and only occasionally notable style that was persistent throughout hisGone books. His penmanship ensures that events are memorable despite their brief nature, and also goes a long way to make Mara a noteworthy protagonist and narrator in the face of how little we learn of her here.
Messenger of Fear is a (too) brief taste of what promises to be an engrossing new series, and is proof that Grant’s notable imagination has not grown lax. It may not be the most satisfying (or complete) of stories, but its potential is clear, and worth trying given the ease with which it can be read. I only hope that the next installment proves a bit meatier. Considering how Gone and its sequels progressed, however, we’re all doubtless in for a rather wild ride regardless.