The Goddess Test

For everyone out there who thinks that all paranormal young adult fiction is flighty and completely monopolized by simple romances, I submit The Goddess Test as evidence to the contrary. At the heart of this novel is a girl struggling to cope with her mother's terminal illness -- including the practical ramifications of caring for her, the emotional challenges of saying goodbye, and the daunting confrontation of a future where the daughter is now totally alone. Classic young adult literature has a tradition of focusing on young people growing up and coming in to their own -- so in many ways, Aimee Carter's The Goddess Test seems to be melding the old with the new: the paranormal romance craze coming together with deeper, realistic conflict (which does not rest entirely with a romantic relationship). The combination doesn't always run smoothly, but I still believe The Goddess Test is definitely one of the more emotionally complicated and interesting supernatural YA reads of this year so far.

An upfront word of warning: Greek mythology purists will probably sputter and spew a bit at the liberties taken by Aimee Carter. It isn't as though she totally disregards classic mythology or anything so dreadful, but she does take creative license a bit beyond, say, the Percy Jackson series (which left the actual, older mythology relatively intact). Some of the reasoning behind these alterations are obvious given her plot requirements and most it gets explained with firm ties in to the general storyline. In her defense, Carter can easily call upon the innate malleability of mythology to make some small (and large) adjustments, but even I frowned once or twice before shrugging and moving on. It is, after all, her fiction. Purists of any sort have a tough time surviving the YA genre, so perhaps they'll have developed enough tolerance to accept that some things might never sit well, but that's no reason to disregard a novel and ignore its other, numerous benefits.

Kate's been living in the shadow of death for a long time now. Four years ago, Kate's mother was given six months to live... and has held on for all this additional time. It's only ever been the two of them together, without any additional family support, so coping with all of this is left entirely to Kate. Now, it appears the end is finally near and all her mother wants to do is die in the town where she grew up. So eighteen-year-old Kate drives them from Manhattan to Eden, Michigan and enrolls in the senior high school class at the local public high school, though with her attention always drifting back to her mother, school is not exactly topping Kate's priority list. Kate considers herself lucky to even make one friend (named James), though she doesn't quite endear herself to the school's queen bee, Ava, when Ava's boyfriend stares a little too lingeringly at the new girl. Given her general distraction, perhaps it's not surprising that Kate doesn't notice how odd things are around town... that is until a prank goes wrong and Kate tells a stranger that she'd do anything to bring back the dead Ava that five minutes earlier had been cruelly stranding her... even exchanging Kate's own freedom for half the year.

If you haven't figured it out yet, The Goddess Test is a story that builds upon the Persephone myth. The mysterious stranger offers a deal to Kate: in exchange for bringing Ava back to life, Kate must commit herself to living six months in the home of this tall, dark, and brooding individual. Ava regains consciousness, the bloodied head wound now gone, and Kate is severely spooked. At first, she refuses to believe any of it -- though Ava clearly reveres Kate for this action and now shadows her like James was already doing. When the stranger (who calls himself Henry) appears on her doorstep on the appointed date and Kate refuses -- Ava dies again, but this time with a much larger audience. This sends her running back to Henry to undo the action -- which cannot be undone, but he offers her an alternative... the opportunity to have more time with her mother until Kate is ready to say goodbye.

Kate spends her dreaming hours with her mother but her waking ones are far more complicated as she stays confined to the mansion that is Henry's home and the gate to the Underworld. The stakes of this little six month experiment turn out to be far higher for Henry than they are for Kate -- Henry, whose somewhat indifferent wife, Persephone, left him ages ago for a chance at real love, and who now rules the Underworld alone. Henry, whose godly brothers and sisters insist must find a wife who measures up to their expectations so as to deserve the prize of immortality, or else he will fade away and another take his place. If Kate fails the tests the gods and goddesses set forth, then she will walk away with her memory wiped, but Henry... and Kate finds that she cares more and more about what will happen to Henry, particularly as he himself does not seem very optimistic.

The Goddess Test features incredibly deep emotions -- and manages to convey this to the reader without too much over-kill. Eighteen-year-old Kate is managing to deal far better than expected with circumstances out of her control, but this novel still begins with a young person shouldering a burden far too large for her limited resources. Young adult literature found its roots in conveying messages of strength and courage, and so this story's roots are firmly planted in this tradition. Even if the reader were to miss the dedication to Carter's own mother, who has passed on, it's obvious that Carter is using the supernatural storyline to highlight what every grieving child might want -- more time with their loved one and more time to come to terms with what will inevitably be. The fact that the novel really rests upon the mother-daughter relationship is a welcome and fresh focus; and so it was somewhat disappointingly predictable that the romantic storyline tended to monopolize the second half of the novel. The mother-daughter relationship was not abandoned by any means, and the benefit of the shift of focus comes with knowing Kate is preparing herself for a life where her mother is no longer the focal point of her existence, but I was still frustrated with the shift (and equally so with any "resolution" to the experience of losing a parent, even if it's easy to foresee the ultimate ending here). As far as the Kate-Henry romance (for in =today's YA, a romantic relationship is practically required), readers will find the very complicated romantic storyline between them to be compelling. Personally, I also found it a little co-dependently twisted, but that didn't make it any less interesting. Henry, still somewhat broken over rejection from Persephone (who, he's quick to point out, he did not kidnap in this story's framework) is not very communicative even if he is outwardly pleasant and accommodating. There's a delicate balance to his representation that indicates he only takes pains to be polite and hospitable towards Kate and yet he can still come off as quietly tortured. Dark and brooding, he lurks about with far less power and might than one might expect from the lord of the Underworld -- there's only one moment in the story where the air seems to crackle with a hint of his power and it would have made for a sexier Bronte-esque hero if Henry were a bit more dangerous instead of being quite so sad and tender. (One can be all these things if one is a god, I think, for it would make for a nice volatile mix that would have fit well with the scene.) Kate herself obviously has hidden reserves of strength, but there's a strong reliance on others that doesn't seem quite right for a girl who seems to have absolutely no connections to anyone other than her mother when the story opens. That said, her own strong desire to fight for others once they do become important to her is very realistic and touching, particularly when she starts being convinced that her own interest in Henry has exceeded his own in her. James as sidekick and not-quite-really-a-rival-love-interest complicates things a little, but I was pleased Carter resisted the urge to make him a more prominent conflict than he already was. Ava's self-centered actions that were in no way malicious but only signaled a lack of thought for others were a rather refreshing addition to spice up the story when things were too moody. There's a whole host of additional characters, most of which serve a purpose and are somewhat transparent in their intentions, but the immediate supporting cast (particularly Ava and James) are nice, strong secondary characters.

Aimee Carter's debut work shows extreme promise for this fascinating new voice in the YA genre and even if I wasn't always pleased with her decisions, I was glued this book from beginning to end -- I devoured it in a single day and spent a good week with the story prominently swirling in my mind. There are some issues with predestination here that I'm still not reconciled to, but hey, we're dealing with the gods and goddesses so it's hardly uncommon for such a sentiment to be threaded through a story. The novel's impressive emotional depths owe a great deal to their status as tribute to Carter's feelings of loss for her own mother, but I hope that future Carter works are able to be just as fascinating without such personal ties fueling the story. Evidently this book is poised as the first in a series -- and I'm not quite sure how I feel about that, even if I was delighted with this, for I'm not sure where the story can possibly go that would be so compelling a place as this. The book stands on its own, I feel, and while there might be elements of discord, I appreciate the lack of a tidy bow. That said, I'll certainly be reading the next one and I urge you all to check out and mull over this auspicious new talent in the supernatural YA scene.

Please note that I received an advanced review copy of this novel courtesy of NetGalley for the purpose of review.

1 comment:

Maya said...

Wow, this looks so interesting! I'm putting it on my to-read list. Thanks for the thorough and honest review!