This book was sent to me by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It’s being published in February 2017; RRP $16.99.
I have to say first off that I think the title is naff. It doesn’t tell you anything and it also doesn’t relate to anything in the story. So that’s my whinge.
The promo material for this book suggests 12+. I would say 14+, personally; I can’t think of a 12 year old I would deliberately give this. Some 12 year olds would take it for themselves and cope quite nicely, I suspect, but that’s a different issue.
Zoe’s father died a few months ago; her brother goes out in a snowstorm and she has to rescue him; she meets a stranger with tattoos and apparently some sort of extraordinary power. He has no name; she calls him X. He’s a bounty hunter; things of course do not go well for him or for Zoe and her family.
It’s not the most original-sounding narrative, but there are some remarkable aspects to the book. Slight spoiler: X is from what would be best described as hell, but the Lowlands are quite different from any other incarnation of hell that I’ve come across in fiction. It’s an intriguing vision of the place and of how it might be used. There’s no explanation of the Lowlands and how it operates; instead the focus of the narrative is on relationships, and the work of bounty hunters… it’s all about the vibe of the thing. And overall that worked. Certainly there are a myriad of unanswered questions about the mechanics, but they don’t really matter for the story itself.
The human world and especially Zoe’s family are beautifully realised. The different expressions of grief are portrayed sensitively and realistically. Jonah, Zoe’s brother, has ADHD; it’s just a fact of life and oh my goodness he’s a cute terror, as little brothers usually are. Mum is vegan and a bit nuts and fierce and has always struggled to hold the family together: I adored her so much. Zoe’s friends Val and Dallas are a delight (Val made a Tumblr of her girlfriend’s feet) and although I thought it was going to veer into dodgy love triangle territory Giles avoids that neatly. Dad… well, he was a struggler, and the way mum slowly revealed a bit more about what he was like to Zoe over the course of the book was heart-breaking and, again, intensely realistic.
Into this human world comes X, quite accidentally, and in some ways – although a third or more of the book is from his perspective – he’s the most opaque of all of them I think. Partly this is because he almost has no personality, thanks to how he has grown up; he really only starts to live after meeting Zoe. I was reminded of those suggestions of how Matt Smith’s Doctor ‘imprinted’ on young Amelia Pond, as I watched X and Zoe together. I was initially a bit squeaked by their budding romance because I thought he was much older than her; turns out he’s maybe 20 to her 16 (which is still a bit squick for me). The intensity of their attitude towards one another, especially his for her, was the main eye-rolly bit for me. It all seemed a bit too intense too fast.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing is that this is the start of a series. It felt to me like the sort of intense story and relationship that ought to be encapsulated in just one, say 450-page, book. I don’t know how it could have been resolved but I definitely would have preferred that.
Overall this is a well-paced and intense book that I read in the course of one day. I enjoyed most of the relationships and I was genuinely surprised by a couple of the revelations. I’m not sure whether I want the sequel because I’m afraid it will lose the intensity, but that’s a problem I’ll just have to deal with.