The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Thoughts Unheard and Words Unspoken (Review of Untold by Sarah Rees Brennan)

Sarah Rees Brennan
Simon and Schuster 2013

Sorry-in-the-Vale is in a rather sorry state.  Since the life and perspective changing events of Unspoken, Kami Glass finds herself living in a town where sorcery looms large, led by a power-hungry man and his creepily besotted sister-in-law.  Not only is Kami facing events beyond her admittedly vivid imagination but she is facing them alone. While surrounded by her group of Merry Men (and women), she has lost the voice-in-her-head-turned-real-boy, Jared, and is quietly sad and unsure of herself. Not that she lets it show... not when there are mysteries to be solved, fights to be fought and wisecracked to be, er, cracked, even as lost-voice himself, Jared, remains tantalisingly near yet far.

Kami, in many ways, is a much more accessible character than first encountered in Unspoken.  Her heretofore devil may care attitude is more clearly a mask for an altogether more emotionally multi-faceted personality. In large part, Kami's seemingly endless peppiness and confidence (by no means bad things, but her previous, turned up to eleven attitude was a little wearing) was hugely bolstered by having someone who constantly supported here. Yes, that person was, for a long time, a voice in her head - but a very supportive one.  To have that voice become a person who then outright told her that she was "nothing special" (a line breathtaking in its harsh cruelty) has affected Kami deeply and her struggle with this new reality , on in which she has to figure out who she is without Jared despite the fact that he's right there, is interesting and sometimes just awfully sad.

Jared himself remains, for much of Untold, as enigmatic as ever.  Sarah Rees Brennan does a good job of imbuing him with a sense of menace and while it is clear that a lot of what he says hides a lot of inner turmoil, he remains pleasingly unpredictable.  His utter glee at the prospect of any sort of danger is alarmingly endearing and all his tough guy stuff and bluster can't hide a few mushy spots here and there.  If this were Supernatural, then Jared would absolutely be Dean.  He also looks like Dean in my head.  Which is nice.  And while the plot line and characters are absolutely unique, gorgeous Ash does rather play the Sam to Jared's Dean - in that he tosses his pretty hair and whines a lot.  It's not that Ash is unlikable per se, he's just so busy feeling sorry for himself that it's hard to see past it.  He's probably a nice guy but his understandable inner torment tends to surface as moping whereas Jared's surfaces as punching.

As with Rees Brennan's previous work, supporting characters are all extremely well-written and interesting.  Rob Lynburn is a pleasing villain; Kami's mother, Claire, a believably conflicted mother who contrasts beautifully with ice queen, Lillian Lynburn who is another women trying to protect her family.  Sort of.  Jon Glass also comes into focus as a man realising that he's been lied to pretty extensively. The Merry Band of Wo/Men round out with Angela, Holly and Rusty.  Firstly, mad props to the author for her subtle handling of Angela's prior confession, particularly in the way she contrasts it with an emergent secret on Holly's part.  Rusty plays a bigger role in Untold, which is most welcome.  His charming, sleepy persona is expanded upon and he emerges as a loyal friend and one with impressive backbone.

Plot-wise, Untold is compelling and quite a bit darker than Unspoken.  The mystery behind Kami and Jared's link is answered satisfyingly while other interesting questions are raised.  Rees Brennan riffs on themes of self-worth, identity and the ties that bind, and the interpersonal aspects of Untold are handled with great skill.  It is, ultimately, the darker tone that makes Untold a much better book than Unspoken.  While there is still a healthy dose of humour, Rees Brennan has had to scale down the witticisms in order to focus on murkier aspects of her tale.  This instantly raises the book a few notches because, as with Unspoken, when her otherwise fully three-dimensional characters start wise-cracking they all sound exactly the same in that they sound just like the author herself (you can discover this at her rather brilliant blog).  While this aspect detracted from Unspoken (as discussed with the Lady YAckers), it provides a welcome respite here.  If Sarah Rees Brennan could provide more distinctive voices for the lighter moments (as she does so well in with all the other dialogue) then she would be well on her way to surpassing her excellent Demon's Lexicon.

All in all, Untold is a hugely enjoyable read.  It's original, fun and more than a little creepy.  It ends on the mother of all heart-breaking cliffhangers - one which will have readers eager for the series finale, out later this year.  For fans of urban fantasy, myth and magic, all of Rees Brennan's books are highly recommend and for all the minor flaws, her Lynburn Legacy is shaping up to be a different and eerie addition to the genre.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird who strongly recommends that you track down Sarah Rees Brennan's blog - particularly her re-cap of The Hobbit in which she exhibits an admirable shine to Richard Armitage. Untold is available now.
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