Tuesday, August 9, 2011

On Gypsies: A Review of Touch of Frost by Jennifer Estep

Touch of Frost by Jennifer Estep is this month's book club pick over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. I just finished it last night, with mixed feelings. Primarily I liked the book. But the issues I have with it are many, although all very minor.

The book is told in first person narrative with Gwen as the narrator. Gwen is the new girl at Mythos Academy, a school for teens descended from the gods and champions of classic mythology. Most of the teens are warriors from rich families, and grew up knowing their heritage and their purpose. Gwen, however, has no warrior abilities to speak of and knows nothing about her mythological origins. She does possess a "gyspy gift"--psychometry--the ability to touch objects and people and get information about them (images, thoughts, emotions). When a girl is brutally murdered in the school library where Gwen works, she tries to use her gift to solve the mystery.

I thought that the initial ideas within the book--the use of mythology, the setting, the characters--were pretty fantastic. I had really high hopes early on when the book introduces Valkyries, Spartans, Amazons, etc, that it was going to build into an epic and detailed story. Estep uses Gwen as the fish out of water type character who doesn't really know anything about the mythological world, and thus has to have everything explained to her. This is generally a good world building strategy. The problem with it in this case is that it kept the story small. We are limited to Gwen's point of view and Gwen's knowledge of events. So instead of an epic story about gods and goddesses, you mostly get a murder mystery with a paranormal touch. It's almost entirely exposition, with a lot of pages devoted to building up to future books. It's a good story, but I thought there was a lot of unrealized potential.

The narrative gets a bit repetitive. The author seems compelled to remind readers of important details over and over, and in my opinion it makes for a lot of wasted space.

I liked that the characters had actual personalities. I've been noticing in my YA reading that protagonists are often given minimal character traits, as though authors are afraid that by giving them real personalities they might make them impossible to relate to. Not so here. Gwen is full of sarcasm, curiosity, and a touch of geekiness. It's unfortunate that, due to grief over her recently deceased mother and not really fitting in at Mythos, she spends most of the book friendless and isolated. Because of that, it took me almost the entire book to get a handle on her character, but at least she isn't flat and boring. And her development is fulfilling. She comes out of her shell, learns a lot about herself, and helps to save the day.

I had one problem with Gwen: I didn't really buy her skepticism regarding the fantastical elements of the story. I've had this complaint with other books. If you personally have a magical power that you've lived with your whole life, why would you be surprised or in denial about other powers existing?
Now imagine theses girls had super powers. Scary, right?

The social scene at the school was pretty intriguing. Mostly we learn about the Valkyries, who are the most popular girls. As you might expect, their mean and catty to one another and everyone else. Pretty accurate to what I remember from high school (minus the super powers, of course). Many of the other kids behave more like typical college students--lots of drinking and sex. None of which Gwen actually experiences, being isolated as she is, but she tells us about it repeatedly.

That brings me to Logan, the "love interest" of the book. He's a cool character, a Spartan with a lot of warrior skill, but he's under-utilized. There isn't really any romance to speak of, only a mutual attraction between he and Gwen that doesn't go anywhere. To be fair, I only expected romance because of the source of the recommendation. To my knowledge this is mostly being marketed as YA fantasy. And I'm sure we'll see more of Logan in future books.

This book is a nice meld of classic mythology elements and a few modern paranormal elements. If you like that sort of thing, and especially if your looking for a decent young adult book, I'd recommend this. I have high hopes for this series. 3.5 stars

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