Unearthly by Cynthia Hand
Published: 2011, HarperTeen
Series: Unearthly, #1
Genre: Young Adult Paranormal
Source: Library book
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I decide to take the whole purpose thing more seriously. No more playing at being a normal girl. I'm not. I'm an angel-blood. I have a job to do. I need to quit whining, quit stalling, quit questioning everything. I need to do it.
Unlike what seems to be the norm among readers these days (especially young adult readers), I do not actively dislike angel stories. In fact, I think those types of stories have so much potential. Potential that, for some reason, rarely seems to be reached. I started Unearthly because it seems to be a rare YA angel book that has garnered a lot of praise. And while there are aspects that are interesting, what I ultimately discovered was a light and fun read. It's a decent book, but not a great one.
Two years ago Clara Gardner received life-altering news: she is part angel. The child of a human father and a half-angel mother (called a Dimidius), that makes Clara and her younger brother Jeffrey quarter-angels, or Quartarius. Clara knows that being part angel makes her physically superior to humans, but not much else. And then she starts seeing the same vision over and over again: a forest fire, a grey truck, a boy facing away from her. Clara discovers that this vision is related to her purpose, that God has ostensibly given each angel-blood a specific task to complete while on Earth. Clara's purpose is important enough that her mom uproots their life in California and moves the family to Wyoming, where Clara's visions take place. Although her purpose is God-given, its completion is anything but easy. Clara must struggle with a new school, unfamiliar surroundings, and strengthening angel powers as she strives to prepare herself for her purpose.
I did enjoy the angel lore that Hand created. Although Clara learned of her true heritage two years ago, her mother has only provided her with the bare basics, which enables readers to learn more about angels right alongside Clara. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that angels are much more complex than simply God's players, but creatures also caught up in personal and societal challenges. By the end of the book, however, there's still a sense that the knowledge explained about angels barely scrapes the tip of the iceberg. The same sentiment can be applied to the novel's use of religion and God. It's not easy to disassociate angels from God and the Judeo-Christian tradition, and Hand doesn't even attempt to offer an alternate explanation for the creation and presence of her angels. That's well and good, but for a book centered on some of the most powerful Biblical beings, not a lot of attention is paid to God or religion. As with the angel lore in general, some of the lack of explanation is presumably due to Clara's ignorance of her heritage and history. But it was certainly a strange reading experience to read about angels and have religion and God strangely absent. And for the most part, that absence was not even noted; it was just nonexistent. Its absence was a bit frustrating and I hope that's something that Hand expands upon in her future installments.
A large portion of the book is devoted to Clara's feelings and romantic relationships. This is normally something that completely turns me off from reading so many paranormal books (there's a good reason why they're typically called paranormal romances, after all), but I didn't mind Hand's use of romance as much as I expected I would. The romance is unconventional in the sense that the female and protagonist is the paranormal creature, while her love interests are human. The love triangle between Clara, Christian (the boy of her visions), and Tucker (a typical Wyoming boy) is heavy-handed and angst-ridden at times. But what Clara's romantic entanglements really come to represent are nothing less than the battle between free will and destiny. Because her family's decision to move to Wyoming was based entirely on her visions, because Clara's mother believes that Christian is part of her purpose, because all angel-bloods must complete their purposes given by God, does that mean Clara has no say in any other aspects of her life that just may be placed in conflict with her purpose? It is an interesting dilemma for sure.
One disadvantage of reading a story created for teenagers is that sometimes the story feels like...it's written for teenagers. Nothing is technically wrong with Unearthly; Hand writes well, has created an interesting story, and has strong characterizations. None of this stopped the story from feeling young, however. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that; I feel that if I was the intended age range for this story (I'd say tween to early teenager) I'd have ended up really enjoying it. But now I do read stories differently and expect a little more out of them, which Unearthly does not quite deliver.
I will say, however, that Hand does deserve major props for the ending. Much of the story, if not quite predictable, is at least easily justifiable and presented in a way that the most non-observant reader could understand. In a way, the entire book serves as a buildup to the climax, where Clara is finally put face-to-face with her purpose. And it is at the ending where the book begins to shine.
I have no problem giving Unearthly the credit I believe it's due; it was the perfect fluff read after reading a number of heavier contemporaries in a row. I enjoyed being transported to Clara's world, learning about angels and their purposes and the Wyoming setting. It is something I'd recommend to younger readers, but I would only recommend it to older readers of YA, both older teens and adults alike, if they were looking for something quick and absorbing that can easily be read at face value, with little analysis or interpretation necessary.
Rating: 3 stars