Hey, remember when this blog was about reading through a list of fantasy novels? Man, those were the days.
Anyway, I realize that “bad Twilight rip offs are bad” is a sentiment that has been expressed many times in the last few years. But it hasn’t been expressed by me yet, so a while back I asked on twitter if there were any YA books where the magical boyfriend is Satan. I received the following reply:
Now I think we can all agree that this raises obvious questions, such as “why would someone ever be named Sin?”, “how exactly does one spank someone to orgasm, and why do it in a cornfield?” and “what the flying fuck?”. Luckily Bear Bergslien was able to hook me up with a PDF copy of the book in question, Swoon by one Nina Malkin. In order to better help me explore the mysteries of this book I’ve crafted a YA cliche bingo card which I will be referring back to at the end of each post:
Purple squares represent cover design cliches. Let’s see how Swoon fares, will we?
Swoon’s cover fits right in with the tidal wave of paranormal romance novels currently taking over your local bookstore- title consists of a single verb, dark blue or purple colour scheme, gloomy and vaguely sinister imagery, swirling smoke effects that don’t seem to be coming from anywhere in particular, and a photo of a model who doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the book’s plot. Unfortunately Swoon falls just short of hitting all four cover cliches since we can’t see if the model is wearing an elaborate evening gown.
Our personality-free heroine this time around is Candice, a spoiled upper-class teenager who moves with her spoiled upper-class parents to the small Connecticut town of Swoon (yes, really) after some sort of vaguely-hinted at event in in her home city of New York. In a plot contrivance that seems to have been inserted into the book solely to allow the main love interest to be named Sin, all of the (spoiled white upper class) teenagers in Swoon use monosyllabic nicknames for no apparent reason. Therefore Candice becomes “Dice” and her air-headed cousin Penny refers to herself as “Pen”. The book opens with Dice and Pen sitting around getting stoned and talking about boning, which is a good indicator of what 80% of their dialogue is going to consist of. On one level I have to commend Malkin for not sanitizing her teenage characters like so many of these books do, but on the other hand there’s the fact that Swoon’s characters are all eye-gougingly annoying. Dice, Pen and their friends are vapid air heads and the teenage boys they interact with are thick-necked muscle-headed jock stereotypes. It’s like Malkin marathoned a few seasons of My Super Sweet 16 for research then jammed in references to weed and underage drinking to gritty it up a bit.
This extends to the writing style, which is clearly going for a sort of slangy conversational style but comes out more like a 40 year old trying to impersonate a 16 year old girl. Dice peppers her narration with irritating faux-teenagerisms- her parents are referred to as “Momster” and “Daddy” constantly- that made me want to set my eReader on fire after the first few pages. Unfortunately Malkin has pretensions toward being literary as well, which means we get plenty of tortured metaphors and quasi-stream of consciousness bullshit like this:
My dark curls, if ever blown out into taut obeisance, would rebel at the slightest hint of humidity with an audible boing! Between those unruly ringlets and my
moon-cast pallor, not to mention a tush with the acreage ofWyoming , I was a sore thumb in Swoon
Anyway, Pen decides to go and climb a tree because weed, then falls off and cracks her head against the ground. This causes her to be possessed by the ghost of a dude named Sinclair who was hung from the tree back in colonial days. Dice knows this because she has psychic visions that supposedly let her see the future but only ever seem to manifest in-story as the ability to see dead people. I should mention at this point that Malkin is really god-awful at writing anything approaching an action scene, with the result that I frequently had trouble figuring out what was going on anytime supernatural shenanigans started up. For example it turns out that if Pen is touched by Dice she physically transforms into Sinclair, however the first few scenes where this happens are written in such a haphazard way that I couldn’t tell whether this was supposed to be a vision or if Pen was actually turning into Sinclair. The logistics of this, such as whether Pen blacks out or how Dice explains the missing time, are never addressed. At one point Pen transforms into Sinclair in the middle of a party and he and Dice suddenly teleport to a distant location, presumably to explain why no one at the party freaks out about it:
And, in a flash, we were running.
The world responded, activity in overdrive again. Clouds pursued us, cloaking the three-quarter moon
and then setting it free. A chorus of crickets provided the soundtrack. Where we were going? I had no
clue; I only knew we had to be alone. Ultimately, the where became obvious. The Williamses’ house, a
historic landmark, is “in town,” a scant quarter mile from the village green. Which was deserted and dimly
lit by gas lamps when we got there. By the tree—that tall and ancient ash—it was even murkier. The
clouds engulfed the moon once more, and the darkness was complete.
This scene leads on to the first full conversation between Dice and Sinclair. Sinclair’s dialogue is written like this:
That threw him—the way his head tilted, eyes darkening further—but he played it off. “Indeed?” His
tone formal, the civility seeming to war with a savage kinesis that scared but also stirred me.
“Extraordinary. You are quite the witch, my lady.”
In other words, completely modern speech with “my lady” thrown in every now and then. This guy is supposed to be from the 18th century, he should be almost unintelligible. People back then didn’t just toss a few thees and thoughs into their speech every so often, they pronounced words radically differently. It goes without saying that he also never displays the slightest bit of culture shock or difficulty adjusting to living in the body of a 17 year old girl all of a sudden. And yes, the book establishes that he can see everything Pen sees, which is going to get a whole lot creepier soon.
Anyway, despite only having met Sinclair two minutes ago Dice sits in a field with him while he launches into a massive infodump about his tragic past. It turns out he was the illegitimate son of a rich landowner and a native American woman from the Mohegan tribe and I should mention here that the Dice’s narration uses the phrase “half-breed” to describe him several times. His mother sent him down the river in a basket (really) in the hopes of saving him from being murdered by his father and he was subsequently rescued by a blacksmith and his wife. Remember how people back then were totally cool with native Americans and would have been deeply concerned with the plight of an orphaned native child?
OH NO WAIT
Anyway, Sinclair eventually grew up to become a blacksmith and got married to a well to-do woman in the town. I’m not going to claim to be an expert on the time period or anything, but later events in the book indicate that Sinclair was definitely under 18 when he died. It seems a bit far fetched that he’d be married and have his own blacksmith business set up away from home at the age of 16, but maybe that was normal back then. Regardless, we’re told that people weren’t happy with the two marrying because Star Crossed Lovers and so someone murdered Sinclair’s wife and the townspeople blamed him for it and lynched him.
There are several ways Dice could react to this. The most obvious would be “what are you doing in my cousin’s body” but I could also go with “are you going to stop possessing her?” and “no seriously get out”. But she doesn’t do any of those things because as we’ll see later she has no empathy and doesn’t give a shit about anyone else’s problems even when they’re unquestioningly greater than her own. Instead her reaction is the predictable THERE WAS SOMETHING SO BEGUILING ABOUT HIM I MUST SEE HIM AGAIN. Absolutely no concern for the fact that she’s hijacking her cousin’s body to be with her ghost boyfriend because Dice is a selfish idiot.
What follows from this is 70+ pages of tedious bullshit in which Dice and Pen go to parties, get drunk and stoned and talk about fucking more. Occasionally Sinclair starts trolling Pen into making everyone around her super-horny like that really annoying villain in True Blood you probably got sick of halfway through season 2. At one point Pen announces out of the blue to Dice that she masturbated for the first time the previous night (just don’t ask) and the implication is that Sinclair motivated her to do it which is super creepy but of course Dice doesn’t comment on it. I don’t know how the hell Sinclair can do all of this by the way, and the book never explains it. Apparently being dead gives you magic sex powers or something.
Sinclair’s influence starts driving Pen to do mildly irresponsible things that have absolutely no negative consequences at all but which are for some reason treated like some sort of crisis. After Sinclair’s infodump in the field Pen and Dice get home late from the party and Pen’s mom sort-of grounds her except not really and then she blames Dice for the whole thing but doesn’t really get too worked up over it so I guess everything is cool. Later on Sinclair makes Pen go cheer-leading with no underwear on which is once more super creepy. As it turns out the school and Pen’s apparently extremely laid back parents don’t really consider it a big deal and so the book proceeds to have no plot.
During this period of the story, which I will refer to as “The Wasteland”, there are a total of two scenes that come close to being interesting. One is when Dice talks to the ghost of her dead friend Ruby in her bedroom (remember how Dice’s ability was supposed to be precognition?). They start eating chocolates together, then this happens:
“Here,” she said, and fed me. Only the candy had changed from chocolate to something that wasn’t quite candy. It was sweet, still, very sweet, and
very…squishy. I chewed. I swallowed. It took effort. The lump was large.
“Have another piece, baby-girl.”
I opened. She fed. This one was still alive when it spurted against the cavern of my mouth. It was still
alive, alive and kicking, as it slid down my throat.
A drop of sanguine fluid escaped the corner of her mouth. “Oh…Dice?” she said, licking it, “in case you
were wondering, it’s better this way, really. I’m good, you know? Nothing hurts anymore.”
It’s legitimately creepy and atmospheric. On the other hand though I think Ruby is supposed to be Hispanic based on her surname, and she talks like this:
“Where I’m at, baby, I can get anything I want, any time I want. Chocolate at every meal, and check me out, I’m not fat or nothing.”
In other words it’s time for the sassy ethnic best friend trope. This isn’t a YA exclusive thing so I didn’t put it on the bingo card, but I wanted to call attention to it anyway.
The other interesting scene is when Dice and Pen go to visit their friend Marsh to see a newborn foal at her family’s ranch. It turns out Marsh’s dad is a domineering asshole who’s implied to be physically (at least) abusive, which she passes off as him being “strict”. Even though it only lasts a few pages this sequence very effectively sets up an atmosphere of dread and tension, something the rest of the book made me seriously doubt Malkin would be capable of. Of course it also helps that this is an actual dramatic premises for a story instead of wangsty melodramatic bullshit. Unfortunately its only purpose is to set up another confusing Sinclair magic show:
She cocked her head. She smiled broadly. “You are so smart, Mr. Marshall,” she said, walking toward him, that hip-swishing walk on those endless legs. “You really know people.”
His hand slinked off my shoulder, and as Pen passed me, I could finally pivot. Briefly, our eyes met. Hers, black as the foal’s, held a different species of glimmer.
“And you call them like you see them,” Pen said with corrosive sweetness. “That’s one of the things I admire about you.”
As Pen kept coming, I could only imagine the menace in her face that made Mr. Marshall’s snip of wire tighten, then slacken. She laid a hand on the man’s chest. He took a stumbling step back. She held him at arm’s length for a moment, her head at that amused angle. Mr. Marshall made a sound, the garble of confusion, objection, and submission. Sort of a groan. Kind of a plea. And Pen took another step forward. And another. All the while she kept up the toxic flattery, smattering him like pinpricks, until the grotesque tango moved them into the stall across from the nursing mare. A loud, agitated noise came from in there, and the stomping of hooves. Marsh was next to me; she breathed the name, “Black Jack!” Together we closed in to see the massive stallion buck and rear. Mr.Marshall bleated frustration and fear. He was trapped—wood slat walls, a kicking horse to his left, and something maybe more dangerous still coming toward him.
“It appears to me as though you’re as good with horses as you are with people, Douglas Marshall,” Pen declared. And all at once it came to me when I’d last smelled horses. With one neatly manicured finger, she poked the contemptuous bigot, and he staggered back against the stall, hands in front of his face. His Patriots’ cap was knocked askew. “I know little of the beasts myself,” the person inside Pen seethed facetiously. “But I do get the impression that this one is rather agitated. It might be best if you stayed very still, and very quiet, until he comes to calm.” Then she turned on her heel and sashayed from the stall.
“You know how many visits we’ve had from the county social worker and children’s services and all those other bureaucratic departments of bull dookie that added up to squat? Well, my dad’s been a cotton ball since you guys left.”
Did you catch that? Apparently Marsh’s dad was so bad they’ve had to call child protective services several times, but almost being made to stand uncomfortably close to a horse magically cured him. I would have thought something like this would just set him off more, but then I don’t have magic ghost sex powers so what do I know.
Needless to say Dice doesn’t show the slightest bit of sympathy or worry for Marsh throughout this.
(And wait, if they keep having to call protective services on him why haven’t Marsh and her sisters been taken away by now? Does Connecticut let you get away with child abuse if you just keep promising not to do it again?)
All of these shenanigans convince Dice that Sinclair has to return to the darkness of the void or whatever, which is a tragedy because she loves him. Oh yeah, she loves him now, forgot to mention that. Even though they’ve only spoken to each other like three times. Anyway, she informs Sinclair about this and to her surprise he agrees completely! In a genuinely selfless gesture he nobly decides to sacrifice his life in order to restore Dice’s beloved cousin to no I’m just kidding, he’s totally screwing them over.
Luckily he just happens to have access to an exorcism ritual that he learned from a Mohegan shaman. Yes, really. And it involves drawing a pentagram for some reason. Did I mention that Dice learns everything she needs to know about ghost possession by googling it?
The main component of the ritual involves creating a life-sized clay doll. If you can see where this is going you’re smarter than Dice (not that that would be a great achievement). Actually now that I think about it, why does Sinclair lie about what the ritual is going to do? He knows Dice wants to jump his bones so having him in corporeal form while also freeing Pen from his influence would be the best possible outcome. And while it does later turn out that Sinclair has some fairly villainous motivations for wanting to be alive again, there’s no reason he would have had to tell her about that part. Keep in mind “I have to get rid of Sinclair but I love him so much” is essentially the only conflict in the first 89 pages of the book, and it’s completely pointless window dressing to build false suspense.
Anyway they do the ritual and Dice has freaky hallucinations where the moon grows really huge and Pen floats into the air and it’s actually surprisingly creepy and atmospheric. Then she gets raped by tree roots.
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Let’s see how that bingo card is doing.