Book Review: Unearthly by Cynthia Hand

This book was loaned to me by a beta reader who is in middle school. She told me she really enjoyed it and can’t wait to read the second one, so I was eager to read it. My reaction in short is that I probably would have loved the book in middle school, but as an adult reader, I find that the story needed more depth to truly captivate me.

The premise of the book is that main character Clara is one-quarter Angel-blood, and as such she is given one task, or purpose, that she is set on Earth to accomplish. She learns through visions that her task involves saving someone from a forest fire—far away from the California home she has come to love. Her mother is half-Angel-blood, and therefore understands the importance of Clara’s purpose. She moves the family away from everything to help Clara with her task.

The first half of the book was slower than I had hoped, but the second half really picks up, driving the main conflict: In her new life, Clara is torn between two crushes—one, the boy she is supposed to save—the other, the brother of her best friend. Aside from the teenage romance / love triangle, Clara has many other issues to deal with. She is trying to learn how to control her wings and learn how to fly while controlling/hiding her frighteningly-heavenly appearance that intensifies as she gets closer to her assigned task. All the while, her mother is being secretive about what she knows about the lives of Angels on Earth, telling Clara that she needs to discover it all for herself. I won’t reveal too much about what Clara discovers. This is the first in a series, so the ending is a cliffhanger. I’ll leave it at that.

While I really enjoyed the premise of the story, the number one thing I wish were different is the tense. The story is written in first-person present tense. Each time I picked up the book again, it took me a few pages to forget I was reading in present tense. It wasn’t that the writing was flawed; I just find present tense especially tiring for some reason—as if I’m listening to a teenager telling a story to her friend in the hallways at school (which, I sort of am, as the protagonist is 16-17 and writing in a conversational style). I would have preferred past tense—I find it faster to read.

The other thing that kept me from becoming totally infatuated with the story was the same thing that caused Twilight to be so successful: the use of first-person point of view. The narrator provides just enough details to give us the idea of the characters (including the protagonist) without going into too much depth. In Twilight, Bella was someone a reader could relate to and impose one’s own personality traits on. In Unearthly, it’s the same thing. The character was designed so that teenagers could impose their own preferences and prejudices on the character, making her relatable to a reader. This works well for works for teenagers, but as an adult reader, I wanted more. I wanted to know the character more and go into more depth. There were some scenes where the first-person point of view was just too limiting to give me an in-depth look at the protagonist or any of the other characters.

There is one point in the book where Clara has to decide whether to do what fate/God/heaven has tasked her, or follow her own heart. This act of possible rebellion resonated with me of Milton’s Paradise Lost and all the Biblical and archetypal issues of fate versus free will. Yet it was simply glossed over in this book. The one character who could have provided perspective on this, Clara’s mother, was largely silent for the last part of the book (as Clara chose to keep many things secret from her, and she conveniently went out of town for weeks at a time). A little more from Clara’s mother could have given me the depth I craved.

Still, all in all it was a fun read. I would recommend it highly to teenage readers (mostly females). For adults, it would be a good beach read, and for parents of teenagers, it would be a good reminder of the types of things your children think about and obsess over—it did remind me of my priorities as a teenager (and made me realize how thankful I am to be beyond that awkward stage of my life!).

Even with my criticism, if time allows, I would give the second book a try. The plot is compelling enough to make up for narration issues.