I received this book for free from ARC Tour in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Firstlife by Gena Showalter
Series: Everlife #1
on 23rd February 2016
Genres: Young Adult, Dystopian, Fantasy
Format: ARC, Paperback
Source: ARC Tour
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Tenley “Ten” Lockwood is an average seventeen-year-old girl…who has spent the past thirteen months locked inside the Prynne Asylum. The reason? Not her obsession with numbers, but her refusal to let her parents choose where she’ll live — after she dies.
There is an eternal truth most of the world has come to accept: Firstlife is merely a dress rehearsal, and real life begins after death.
In the Everlife, two realms are in power: Troika and Myriad, longtime enemies and deadly rivals. Both will do anything to recruit Ten, including sending their top Laborers to lure her to their side. Soon, Ten finds herself on the run, caught in a wild tug-of-war between the two realms who will do anything to win the right to her soul. Who can she trust? And what if the realm she’s drawn to isn’t home to the boy she’s falling for? She just has to stay alive long enough to make a decision…
“Over the years, the world has been divided into two factions. Those who support Myriad, and those who support Troika. No one ever supports both. How can they? The realms are too fundamentally opposed — about everything!”
This is going to get very long, I’m afraid. As much as I’d like to forget about this experience and move on with my life, I need to articulate the pain it has caused. Consider it an exorcism of sorts.
If I am ever asked why contemporary YA is leaving me weary, this book and everything it stands for will be my answer. It encapsulates just about everything wrong with the genre, and is more a collection of fads that are apparently supposed to relate to ‘what the kids are into these days’ than a semi-decent story.
Firstlife is so blatantly unapologetic about its desire to appeal to trends that it reads like Mad Libs for the Hip Teen Reader:
This is our Cool Heroine™ [Random Object as Name]. She lives in a Dystopian World™ where [Simplistic Gimmick That Isn’t Properly Explained]. Unlike everyone else, however, she isn’t afraid to Be Different™, because [Basic Opposing Action]. But she is Special™, and when Generic White Men #1 and #2™ — [Cool, Edgy Name], the [Adjectives for Nice Guy with Inner Pain™]; and [Cool, Edgy Name], an [Adjectives for Bad Boy with Tragic Past™] — enter her life, everything changes. Now, she must not only Fight the System™, but also choose between the boys whom she Can’t Help But Love™.
[Vague Truism as Tagline].
If we fill this in, we get the following:
This is our Cool Heroine™ [Ten]. She lives in a Dystopian World™ where [there are two afterlives — Troika and Myriad — that one can spend their days in once they die on Earth. Each is at war with the other (for no reason other than some banal, unclear light/dark dichotomy), and actively works to recruit the living to its side with promises of riches and glory]. Unlike everyone else, however, she isn’t afraid to Be Different™, because [she refuses to choose one or the other]. But she is Special™, and when Generic White Men #1 and #2™ — [Archer], the [concerned and selflessly helpful representative of Troika]; and [Killian], a [rebellious and dangerous agent from Myriad] — enter her life, everything changes. Now, she must not only Fight the System™, but also choose between the boys whom she Can’t Help But Love™.
[One choice. Two realms.].
You’ve read this book before. I’ve read this book before. We’ve all read this book several times over already, only with a half-dozen different names and semi-interesting covers slapped over the top of it.
Firstlife embodies the Eight Deadly Words trope. It lives it. It breathes it. It exfoliates nightly with it and Deader Than Disco to achieve its blank-faced, empty stare. There is absolutely no reason to care about any of these unpleasant, uninteresting, copy-and-pasted jumbles of stereotypes that are passed off as “characters.” They are lip-service epitomes of what ‘young adult fiction’ is these days, there to tick off the boxes that list what’s needed for any cheap Twilight/Hunger Games knockoff that wants to coast off of those series’ success. I want to restrain myself from using any more trademark symbols, but that’s essentially what this book is: one giant, transparent attempt at using yesteryear’s Next Big Thing™ to become this year’s Next Big Thing™.
“Ten tears fall, and I call. Nine hundred trees, but only one is for me. Eight times eight times eight they fly, whatever you do, don’t stay dry. Seven ladies dancing, ignore their sweet romancing. Six seconds to hide, up, up, and you’ll survive. Five times four times three, and that is where he’ll be. Two I’ll save, I’ll be brave, brave, brave. The one I adore, I’ll come back for.”
Let’s take a look at our main cast, shall we? We have:
Tenley ‘Ten’ Lockwood. Our heroine. Our narrator. Our one-of-a-kind, one-in-a-million savior who is different and unique and unreplaceable (and is therefore dime-a-dozen), because reasons. I can’t stand her. She can’t decide if she’s going to be the cold-hearted killer who will do whatever it takes to survive on her own, or the kind-hearted ‘bigger person’ who is willing to forgive and forget, and perhaps find love (thank goodness!) with her gallant protectors along the way. Which is a shame, because I like the former version of her much, much more than I do the latter. There’s no reason why a person can’t be both of these things, of course, but Ten is written so haphazardly that these two sides aren’t integrated together at all. She doesn’t resemble a human being with an amorphous, multifaceted personality. No, she resembles two cliched ideas of what a Heroine™ is apparently supposed to be (the Bitch and the Damsel, respectively), and awkwardly jumps between the two personas whenever one will best pander to a certain trope.
Is Ten being attacked? I’d guess we’d better break out Bad Girl Ten, and have her coolly murder the man. But, wait, is one of her love interests with her? Then we’d better switch to Innocent Ten and leave her paralyzed with remorse while her hunky guy friend protects her. Now she’s being pressured to choose a faction? Back to Bad Girl Ten so that she can deliver another speech about it being her life and her decision. We’ll even throw in some genuine doubt on her part as she wonders if these good-looking agents are really just there to manipulate and use her. But she’s alone with Guy #1/#2, so let’s smash-cut to Innocent Ten and have her describe his eyelashes while wondering if he really, truly does care about her.
It’s exhausting, really. I like Ten when she’s self-aware, when she’s willing to call out other people for their lies and their wrongdoings. When she’s ready to have autonomy and make decisions for herself only (which, she assures us every other page, is what she’s apparently doing, even if the evidence for that is murky at best). But every single moment of self-realization and empowerment is immediately trampled by some sudden bout of insecurity and/or hormones, so none of it really matters in the end.
Ten barely seems to be able to do much of anything aside from waffle about her decision and dating prospects, but nonetheless takes paragraph after paragraph to assure us of how hard and damaged she is. Because she didn’t agree to join her parents’ faction, they’ve shipped her off to an asylum/correctional facility until she does. Here, it’s apparently perfectly legal (in a wondrous bit of worldbuilding) for a teenage girl to be locked in a cell, physically beaten, preyed upon by orderlies, and otherwise tortured until she gives in to her family’s demands. Thankfully, this gives her the credentials necessary to be a genuine Badass™ and wax poetically about how ‘the old Ten is dead,’ because she once had to kill a man and felt no remorse , and has a personal calendar made out of her own blood . So edgy.
Her narration is also horrific, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Archer. Love Interest #1. He’s the lesser evil of the two, but he’s still a pain. As Troika’s representative, he’s all about community and the good of the many. So, naturally, he’s a righteous beacon of selfless concern and forgiveness who spouts platitudes about “absolute right” and duty. He also spends the first several chapters inhabiting a synthetic woman’s body so that he can watch Ten, which lends itself to several unpleasant implications of voyeurism and objectification. Here’s one of his first lines:
“She cups her breasts in a mimic of me and beams. ‘Boobs are awesome, yea? Literal fun-bags. I don’t know what you girls are always complaining about. [. . .] Dude. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the equipment and getting a little some-some of my own goods and services. I mean, I’m so hot even I want a piece of me.'”
What a card. I’m rooting for him already.
In all seriousness, though, I loathe the ‘lovable pervert’ shtick: ‘He’s sexist as hell and likes to grope women, but it’s all good and fine, because he’s funny.’ Naturally, Archer gets a pass when his deception is discovered, partly because of the ‘selfless’ thing and mostly because he has nice biceps and stunning eyes.
Killian. Love Interest #2. I hate him. Archer is bad, but Killian is worse. He’s the dangerous outlier who does whatever it takes to sign his charges to Myriad when he isn’t killing people with his bare hands. Since Myriad is all about emotion and independence, though, this just demonstrates his fiery and passionate personality. And surprise: his charges are always women. Double surprise: he usually romantically pursues them and promises a future together if they agree to join him. Triple surprise: he promptly abandons them once they do. Here’s how we’re introduced to him in the prologue:
“‘Hot and crazy, just the way I like ’em. Consider Lockwood bagged and tagged.'”
The ideal guy, really. Isn’t he swell?
His penchant for violence and misogyny is totally fine, though, because he has a terrible past. Go ahead and guess what it involves. Your choices are:
1. He has no family to call his own.
2. The woman he loved died.
3. He was betrayed by his closest friend, who was practically his brother. (Take a wild stab at who that may be. Go on. Guess.)
Which did you choose? It’s actually a bit of a trick question, because all three are correct.
Plus, like Archer, he has great arm muscles and beautiful eyes. Prepare yourself for a seemingly endless number of passages describing his beauty, his Irish accent (he likes to call Ten ‘lass,’ because of course he does), and the mysterious connection that immediately draws the pair together, because he’s never met a girl like Ten . God forbid we get a romance that doesn’t involve inhumanly defined jawlines and magical feelings that immediately turn two people into lifelong soulmates. Who needs genuine chemistry or realistic relationship development when you can just throw in phrases like “scorching gaze” and “sparks throughout my body” and call it a day? Ten, like with everything else, can’t decide if she trusts him or not, and likes to switch as often as she can between calling him out (good) and considering herself the problem for not being more considerate of his precious feelings (bad). To nobody’s great shock, I’m sure, the second mindset is the one that usually wins out, but it’s still contradicted by the first often enough that once the pair starts talking about much they care for one another (and/or want to make out) during the last third of the story, it comes out of nowhere.
Sloan is the only character whom I don’t mind. She is the (sigh) oh-so-pretty blonde inmate who unsurprisingly doesn’t get along with Ten. Why would she? She’s lovely, but also mean . And unlike the pure and virginal Ten (the Innocent one, you may remember), she’s slept with/been raped by men in the asylum (because gritty storytelling always requires women to be subjected to sexual violence), so she’s clearly a terrible, terrible person.
Initially, she’s fun because her tearing into Ten is the only source of joy one can find in this book. Later, the two actually develop a semi-likable friendship that acts as the only escape from the insufferable romance(s). Does it last? I’m sure you can accurately guess if it does.
“I will choose my path. Me alone. My choice will affect no eternal future but my own.”
Now, let’s discuss the plot.
Actually, let’s not bother, because it isn’t interesting. Every one of Firstlife‘s nearly 500 pages is a prologue to The Big Choice™, which Ten literally makes on the very last line. Sure, there are plenty of other things happening in the meantime — interdimensional wars to procure Ten’s decision, scheming parents, a pointless past romance between Ten and some guard from the asylum that doesn’t lead to anything, some trips to a third realm that involve Ten literally dying several times, and a dramatic rescue mission that is crammed into the last few dozen pages — but it’s all just buildup. The ‘why’ of Ten being so important to the realms is a minor subplot that gets ignored for the sake of dewy-eyed ship teasing and yet more reminders of how sad her life is.
In short: it’s filler to get you to read the sequel. That’s all this book is: a promise of there being ‘more’ once you buy the next one. More of what, exactly? Who the hell knows. So long as you’re willing to hand over the money, it doesn’t matter.
“I throw myself on my bed and peer up at the ceiling, wishing I lived in a time before the realms existed. Not that there was such a time. There is and always has been a Firstking. He created both Myriad and Troika, a realm to give each of his sons. Then he created the Land of the Harvest and humans. Subjects to inhabit the kingdoms — after they picked a kingdom.”
Finally, let’s talk about the writing, which is a chore to sit through for a number of reasons:
1. It suffers from the tried-and-true falsity that comes from an adult author attempting to write ‘genuine’ teenagers. Which, since the book uses the first person, includes both the narration and the dialogue. Expect to see words like ‘dude,’ ‘crap,’ ‘duh,’ and ‘so’ a lot, along with choppy sentence structures filled with periods for the sake of emphasis.
2. Like Shatter Me, the protagonist has an awful gimmick that’s supposed to make her voice ‘unique,’ and in practice does nothing but test the reader’s patience. In Ten’s case, it’s numbers. Whenever a count of something is given, she’ll spew out lists of things that contain twelve of this or six of that. “The trip will take about three hours,” some character will say, which is Ten’s queue to launch into a ridiculous aside for no apparent reason: “Three. The number of books in a trilogy, like the one that my author is going to churn out for easy money. The number of sides to the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Religion is deep, right? I’m going to include a reference or two to make me seem deep. What else comes in three? Hmm…”
I’m unsure if this is meant to be a cute quirk or an attempt at a narrator with a mental illness. It fails either way, because it’s too irritating to work as the former and isn’t explained enough to be explicitly understood as the latter. Ten also has the unfortunate tendency to use ‘zero’ (get it?) as a catch-all swear, which means it shows up on just about every page. Every. Single. One. It will haunt you for days once you’ve finished. I know that I’ve known no peace.
3. As you can tell from the above quote, info-dumping abounds. Ten spells just about everything out for you during the first few chapters, and any holes she leaves are promptly filled in by the other characters a bit later.
4. It suffers from the tried-and-true falsity that comes from an adult author attempting to write ‘genuine’ teenagers. You’ll notice that I’m listing this twice, and that would be because it’s such an overwhelming issue that I feel the need to really drive the point home, and I’m not sure if the above quotes are enough to do so (though they’re a good start). These kids sound like they’re twelve. Take a look at some additional lines (no prizes if you can spot the blatant sex-shaming and heteronormativity), and you’ll understand why:
“‘If your lady balls are so big, why don’t they call you Hairy Cherries? Or Furry Meatballs?’ She taps her chin. ‘Well, duh. Because neither name describes your explosive temper. Oh! I know. I’ll call you Sperm Bank! It covers the balls and the explosions.'”
“I’ve never had sex and my first time won’t be a freaking business transaction. In my old life, some of my friends had often hit-it-and-quit-it, and it hadn’t taken me long to notice most grumbled with disappointment while only a rare few sighed dreamily. The loss of my virginity is a memory I’m going to carry into my Secondlife and dang it, I’m going to be one of the ones who sighs dreamily.”
“My gaze lands on a boy I’ve never before seen and oh, wow. Okay. He. Is. Gorgeous. Not that I care about a pretty face. Pretty can hide a monster. But I’m not overhyping when I say he’s a living ad for every dream-boy fantasy every girl in the universe has ever had.”
“‘Or you can call her Nutter,’ Sloan says, helpful as always. ‘Everyone else does.’
His gaze rakes over me. ‘For the size of your balls, or the nutty goodness of your taste?'”
“The fog is clearly a whore galore, and I decide to teach her a lesson by stepping back…into my chair. Oops!”
“‘Good. He’s hot,’ Sloan says in a stage whisper. Hoping he’ll hear and respond? Then she gives up all pretense of timidity and makes grabby hands. ‘Yummy yum yum, give baby some sugar.'”
“Cake? ‘Gimme!’ Yeah, I’m that easy.
I rush over, only to skid to a stop when he adds, ‘Elena ate it while I was out. So you get fruit.’
Bitch gonna get cut!”
“A romantic gesture? Barf. He’s romanterexic.”
“‘And you…wow. Only three words are good enough. Delicious man meat.'”
I don’t know. I just don’t know. But let’s move on and wrap this up, because I’ve spent too long on this.
So… Should I Read It?
For Firstlife, I leave only this song as a parting gift. Thank you, Sara Bareilles, for your wise words.
I wash my hands of this nonsense.