Firstlife by Gena Showalter
“I’ve been told history is written by survivors, but I know that isn’t always true. My name is Tenley Lockwood and very soon, I’ll be dead.”
I wanted to like this book. I really wanted to like this book. The concept is so incredibly unique and distinct that I was immediately drawn to it. While there are many YA books that focus on the afterlife, there are none that approach it in the same manner that Firstlife does.
Tenley “Ten” Lockwood has spent the past thirteen months locked in an asylum, per her parents’ request as she refuses to allow them to choose where she will live after she dies. In this world, your Firstlife is meaningless – your real life (or Secondlife) really begins when you die. In the Everlife, there are two realms in power and constantly at war with each other: Troika and Myriad. Both realms will do anything to recruit Ten as they both believe she will tip the favours of a particular realm’s side and win the war once and for all. Both realms send Laborers to lure her to their side and Ten soon finds herself on the run, caught between two realms who will do anything to win her soul – including killing her, so the other side doesn’t get her. The only problem is Ten doesn’t know which realm she should trust with her soul, or which Laborer she is falling in love with.
(warning: spoilers below)
The plot was the main reason I picked up this novel, and I eagerly sat down to devour it. The beginning of the book was quite interesting and intriguing. We are introduced to Ten, who I immediately liked, and shown her life in Prynne Asylum, where her parents abandoned her because she would not choose the realm they wanted: Myriad. Ten is abused and tortured by Vans, the man in charge of Prynne who is on a massive power trip. While inside, two Laborers, Archer and Killian, secretly infiltrate the asylum in order to convince Ten to join their respective realms. But then, everything seems to go downhill from here.
The prisoners stage a riot and manage to escape from Prynne and into the mountains where the asylum is located. Ten is accompanied by her arch-enemy Sloan, and the girls slowly grow closer together until they form a strange friendship. Both Killian and Archer attempt to protect Ten, who keeps sending them away, then calling them back, then sending them away … this pretty much continually happens throughout the remainder of the novel and it got dry very quickly.
While in the mountains, Ten’s personality suddenly contradicts the person introduced to us at the beginning of the novel. In Prynne, Ten was a loner who refused to form any emotional bonds with her fellow inmates because she had already lost two friends and she didn’t want anyone to be used by Vans to manipulate her into signing with Myriad. Then all of a sudden, she is protecting every one she comes across: Sloan, Clay, the other kids on the mountain. It didn’t make sense because she had clearly stated her aversion to helping people. I know some people might consider this character development, but it certainly wasn’t. Her growing relationships with Archer and Killian did not change her in any way, as she still fought against them, severely distrusted them and even physically hit them in anger. (Which is not ok, by the way, just because they are guys).
Very quickly, I began to get annoyed by Ten, and pretty much hated her by the end of the novel. Her personality changes so frequently throughout the novel, I was left reeling. Ten went from being an interesting and fierce protagonist to a teenie one. Let me expand on what I mean when I say ‘teenie’: a ‘teenie’ protagonist is the type that wonders if a boy likes her or like-likes her when she is in the middle of a war, her life is endangered every few chapters and she certainly has more important things to worry about. It was characters like this that made me stop reading YA fiction years ago. They gave a bad name to female characters everywhere and reek of that special-snowflake-perfection.
Ten is a super-genius, a poet, and a badass at fighting despite having no training. To me, Ten was not brave, strong or heroic – she reminded me of a 13 year old girl, as opposed to a 17 year old one who had spent over a year suffering abuse she constantly claimed made her stronger.
“My gaze lands on a boy I’ve never before seen and oh, wow. Okay. He. Is. Gorgeous. Not that I care about a pretty face. Pretty can hide a monster. But I’m not overhyping when I say he’s a living ad for every dream-boy fantasy every girl in the universe has ever had.”
(Girl, you have been tortured within an inch of your life for over a year and all you can think about is a boy?!?!)
(Quick nit-pick: it really annoyed me how Ten would say ‘zero’ instead of ‘fuck.’ Please grow up. I mean, there was a spirit in the body of a four year old boy asking for a hand job, but the main character couldn’t say ‘fuck’? Come on.)
Another character I detested was Sloan. Like Ten, at the beginning of the novel I quite liked her. I liked the antagonism between her and Ten. Very suddenly, they are best friends who would literally die to protect one another. Sloan and Ten’s relationship from enemies to friends did not develop properly and so felt incredibly rushed. I also got the feeling that Sloan was meant to be the comic relief, but her so called ‘quips’ were terrible and I honestly just felt embarrassed for her. Usually I enjoy crass humour, but it was so poorly executed here. She made so many comments about men she’d like to sleep with and was continually hitting on every man in the novel. As someone who spent an interminable amount of time being used and possibly raped by Vans, Sloan did not sound like a strong survivor of sexual abuse to me.
“‘He’s hot,’ Sloan says … Then she gives up all pretense of timidity and makes grabby hands. ‘Yummy yum yum, give baby some sugar.'”
I had a love/hate relationship with the male romantic interests, Archer and Killian. Archer, too, had a very immature personality, while Killian was just a mess. From his personality at the beginning of the novel, we are lead to believe Killian is a man-whore who doesn’t care about anyone or anything, except finding his mother. He is heartless. Until, of course, he meets Ten and he starts to feel things he’s never felt for another girl before, even though she has the personality of a wet mop. His treatment of other women was despicable; his Irish accent disappeared and reappeared at random; and if I had to read one more description of what a manly man he is, I was going to hurl.
(Quick nit-pick: the immaturity of the interactions between Killian and his boss and Archer and his boss which serve as the opening of the novel. Here is a quote, said by an actual Leader of an army: “Permission Gr….Denied! (Admit it. Your little-girl heart skipped a beat.)” In what world would a high-ranking General actually phrase an email like that?)
The world of Firstlife was very fascinating, and, as I stated, was the reason I decided to read the novel in the first place. But there was absolutely no world-building. I love YA fantasy, especially those with complex universes, but Showalter’s world did not develop. 200 pages in and I frequently found myself rereading paragraphs as I did not understand what was being said. Myriad and Troika were very confusing, and I did not really understand the differences between the two realms. Let me expand on this through Archer’s character. Archer is the son of the King of Myriad who defected to Troika when he came of age – but, how is that possible? The King of Myriad is dead, right? He has to be in order to rule an Everlife realm. So, how was Archer born? Was he born a spirit? Or did he die, somehow, and ascend to Myriad? Not to mention that Killian grew up right beside Archer. Was Killian born in Myriad, too? How is that possible if Earth is the Land of Harvest and all the souls in both Myriad and Troika derive from there? In fact, why are the two realms at war in the first place? As it is explained, they are life-long enemies and have been at war for centuries, but the reader is never told why. Incredibly confusing. Showalter also used a lot of jargon, such as, ‘jellyair,’ ‘shell,’ ‘conduit,’ and ‘fused,’ which were difficult to wrap my head around and I found myself constantly flipping back to the beginning of the novel to read the passages that explained the jargon.
Perhaps my biggest peeve with the novel is that fact that Ten never really offers a reason for her refusal to side with either realm. She just doesn’t like the realms and the reader is supposed to accept that, despite the fact that she clearly belongs in Myriad. Ten’s indecision is the central tension of the novel, and the main reason she goes on the run and constantly has her life threatened. I, for one, would like an adequate reason. Ten actually dies three times in the novel and her soul travels to the Land of Many Ends, a type of hell where the souls who haven’t chosen either side go. It was horrendous, with acid rain and gorilla/spider creatures. Ten is resuscitated and returns to life – you’d think after seeing with her own eyes what awaits her if she doesn’t choose a side she would, you know, choose a side. Nope. That would be too rational.
“‘I just want the freedom to make my own choice without interference. That’s all.’
‘You have freedom. You have freedom right now. You had freedom yesterday, and the day before and the day before that. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, you have freedom of choice.'”
The writing was almost unreadable. The sentences were very short, the descriptions brief and we are told almost everything as opposed to allowing the reader to get there themselves. Most of the exchanges took place in Ten’s head, which was confusing and disruptive. I felt like I was inside of a teen girl’s head, listening to her thoughts, instead of reading a book. Almost all of the lines were cheesy, the phrasing was awkward and it reminded me somewhat of Ana from Fifty Shades of Grey and the mentions of her ‘inner goddess.’ I can’t help but wonder if Showalter believes all teenagers talk, think and act like this.
These are all sentences that take place in Ten’s head, not actually spoken to someone:
“Confusion bombards me, my mind spinning all over again. I don’t … How … Why?”
“Forget confusion. Hello, rage. I’ll cut first and ask my questions later.”
“Ugh! I do throw up in my mouth. I also throw a dirty sock at him.”
“I’m not one of those girls who can’t accept a gift. Gimme!”
And one more:
“Zero! I don’t want to like him. Not after everything that’s happened. But I do. He’s a good guy, and maybe … maybe he truly cares about me, not just my decision. Or maybe I’m deluded. How am I ever to know?”
Essentially, this was a very promising story in which too much happens, nothing is explained properly, and paired with a boring protagonist who behaved like a child and changed her mind every page. The story relied too heavily on worn-out YA clichés of special snowflake protagonist; the love-triangle in which two hunky white guys are fighting over her attention; one is a good guy, the other is a brooding bad boy; they instantly fall in love with the protagonist; and, to top it all off, it’s up to the underqualified protagonist to save the day, despite the fact that there are probably hundreds of people who would be better suited than her.
Will I be reading the next book in this series? No. While there is a part of me that wants to know what happens, I will not be subjecting my brain to reading that drivel again. Even flipping through Firstlife trying to find quotes was hard enough. If anything, I might Wikipedia the next book.
Buy the book here.