Review: “Reawakened” by Colleen Houck

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Reawakened by Colleen Houck
Published by Random House Children's Books on August 2nd 2016
Genres: Young Adult, Historical
Pages: 416

A New York Times Bestseller!    From Colleen Houck, New York Times bestselling author of The Tiger's Curse, comes an epic Egyptian-inspired adventure about two star-crossed teens who must battle mythical forces and ancient curses on a journey with more twists and turns than the Nile itself!      When seventeen-year-old Lilliana Young enters the Metropolitan Museum of Art one morning during spring break, the last thing she expects to find is a live Egyptian prince with godlike powers, who has been reawakened after a thousand years of mummification.    
And she really can't imagine being chosen to aid him in an epic quest that will lead them across the globe.    But fate has taken hold of Lily, and she, along with her sun prince, Amon, must travel to the Valley of the Kings, raise his brothers, and stop an evil, shape-shifting god named Seth from taking over the world.
And don't miss new adventures with Lily in the rest of the Reawakened series: Recreated and Reunited!   Praise for the Reawakened Series:
"[A] must-read for thrill-seekers and fans of alternate worlds."--RT Book Reviews
"Rick Riordan fans who are looking for another series will delight in this fantasy."--SLJ
"Wonderfully written and...the heart-pounding adventures are topped only by the heart-melting romance."--The Deseret News   "A sparkling new novel with a fully imagined world and mythos, and crackling romance! Egyptian mythology has never been this riveting!"--Aprilynne Pike, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Wings series, on Reawakened, book one in the series

Our wonderful and infinitely patient friend Vanessa reviews the latest from Tiger’s Curse author Colleen Houck. Her strength is greatly admired. Follow her on Twitter to share your sympathies.

Okay, guys. Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.

A teenage girl who believes herself to be plain and yet ‘not like the other girls’, is whisked off on a far-flung adventure with a mysterious, “exotic” prince who has found his way to America, with whom she has a cosmic connection in the pre-destined, soulmate kind of way. This girl is the only person in the whole world who is able to break the curse that has been placed upon our princely love interest, who has been trapped in a hellish limbo where for centuries he has not been able to communicate nor fight his way out of his predicament. Whilst in this new location, she meets a scholarly older man who explains a lot of the mythology/historical interest sites, and is generally receptive to multiple call-and-response dialogue sections where one character asks a question, and another explains. Also, lots of attention is paid to detail on food and temple interiors and while you might feel from time to time that you’re in a temple, you certainly don’t feel as if you’re visiting the particular country that the writer had in mind.

Yeah. I just described Tigers Curse, didn’t I?

The boilerplate for Reawakened is the exact same thing as Tigers Curse. Except this time, we’re swapping India for Egypt, and Lilliana, our stand-in for Kelsey actually has parents who are still alive. Not a huge divergence, but hey, I’ll take anything I can get so long as I never have to spend another moment inside the cotton wool bud-stuffed cavity that is Kelsey Hayes’ mind ever again.

To be fair, there is a decent little bit of character development, in that Lilliana decides to break loose from the stifling conformity of her stupendously rich parents’ expectations and actually have fun and do something for herself for a change. Houck has also toned down the ridiculously overwrought sentimentality from her previous series, meaning that Lilliana is a lot more subtle about her issues, rather than hammering on about them every time there’s a slight gap in the narrative and our author couldn’t figure out quite what to put there, besides exposition.

The plot is this: Lilliana Young gets swept up onto this grand, magical quest during a routine visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The Egyptian wing is currently playing host to a resurrected Ancient Egyptian guy named Amon, who is an avatar/demigod/whatever of the Kemetic sun god. Except that Amon is a stranger in a strange land, his bald head and shendyt clashing with local fashion sensibilities, and he doesn’t understand technology or English until he literally pulls a Pocahontas-style Listen With Your Heart hand-wave of a spell out of his backside in an effort to keep the story trundling along. Through some awkward, clunky set-up, Amon accidentally forges a magical bond with Lilliana, meaning that she is literally chained to him, her health deteriorates without him, and she has absolutely no choice in the matter of getting caught up in all this nonsense. Imagine that. A heroine in a Colleen Houck book with agency.

Okay, that’s not entirely fair, considering that Lilliana is independent and feisty, despite cracking awful jokes (not awful as in – “grandpa made that pun and it was so bad I had to laugh,” no – so bad as in cringing every time Lilliana decides to crack a stupid and contextually-inappropriate joke) and making pop cultural references that are about thirty years out of date. Amon dances at one point, and she describes him as a fusion between Elvis Presley and the Chippendales.’ Like Kelsey, Lilliana’s frames of reference for foreign cultures tends to be referring to whatever is the closest equivalent in American pop culture, as opposed to learning about the culture or the native mythology. Houck’s attention to detail is almost always focused on the wrong thing entirely. Amon makes a few classical time-traveller-in-the-future quips, like thinking a smartphone is a magic box and calling a taxi a ‘golden chariot’, but then forgets about this aspect of his character entirely. He gets on a plane with Lilliana, no fuss, no muss, and merrily chats with the hostesses and watches mummy movies with Lilliana like… eh? Shouldn’t you be amazed or, more likely, terrified at the prospect of how we future-dwellers have the technology to fly over an ocean?

But yes, it turns out that Amon has seriously amazing magical powers. He can conjure up sandy whirlwinds that transport him and others to different locations, he moves sand around to create solid walls and blocks, he’s absolutely masterful at hypnosis and he can shape shift to some extent. It also doesn’t help that he’s incredibly good looking and has some kind of regal/godly presence that makes people want to do anything for him. All it takes is one or two conversations for him and Lilliana to head off to the airport and somehow get through security (through the power of hypnotism) and off towards Cairo.

Ah, yes, Cairo. A focal point of the Arab Spring in 2011. The capital city of Egypt, a country which has undergone much in the way of political turmoil for several years. The president was ousted and replaced and groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood became quite prominent in the aftermath of these protests. But, even though this story is set in modern times, Egypt just seems perfectly fine and dandy. The only places really visited are a penthouse hotel room and a stereotypical, tourist-y depiction of the Valley of the Kings. It’s the same exact thing from Tigers Curse — you only ever see Kelsey living it large in hotels and mansions, with the brief interlude trekking through the jungle and exploring a temple that remains booby-trapped despite booby-trapped temples never having existed. (For both historical and logical reasons, I assure you.) This basically means we have a book set in Egypt which never feels like you’re actually there in the country. Sure, Houck describes some sights and smells, but honestly, the scenery painted for us is yet another series of bland caricatures that do not serve to immerse you in the world of the story. I never felt like I was in Egypt — not because I didn’t see hide nor hair of the fallout of the Arab Spring, but because the author simply couldn’t be bothered to write more characters or research more deeply into what makes the country so unique and how its people grow up in the society. You can swap Lilliana and Amon’s penthouse apartment for one in Portugal or Thailand. It doesn’t matter.

Speaking of the lacking sense of place, however… I sort of buddy-read this book with Ashleigh Paige of The YA Kitten. We discovered a pretty prominent plot hole about 30 pages in, where Amon says he was living after the Pharaonic times that Ancient Egypt is famous for. This means he was born after the end of the Ptolemaic/Hellenic dynasty, after the famed Cleopatra VII and her successor Ptolemy XV Caesarion. (This era ended pretty much because the Roman Empire swooped in on Egypt on its last legs. Go figure.) Except that Amon later claims to not know of Tutankhamen, claiming that he must have been ‘sleeping’ (read: in his death-like state) when the pharaoh was on the throne. Which makes no sense, because if he was born after the Pharaohs, well… King Tut died roughly over a thousand years before Cleopatra took up rulership of Egypt. For some reason, I tried to justify this in my head, and I couldn’t — each stab at the ground of these plot-holes just wound up digging me further and further until I was nearly reaching the Earth’s core. If Amon was born after pharaonic Egypt, then worship of the Ancient Egyptian pantheon wouldn’t be amazingly widespread, and he would at least be aware of the rise of monotheistic religions like Islam and Christianity. For him to not be aware of King Tut, he must have been sleeping throughout the Middle/New Kingdom and their Intermediary periods. Meaning he was born during the time of the Pharaohs. Ashleigh even researched Itjawy, Amon’s ancestral home — and yeah, that was founded during the time of the pharaohs.

Oprah Truth

 

Sure, it could just be a mistake or something that slipped through editing, but these kinds of research flubs are so, so common in the books by this author. (Anubis is not the god of death/mummification, just so you know. That’s Osiris. But Anubis shows up so much in his in that role that you’d assume his uncle had posted up an OUT TO LUNCH sign and left little Anubis in charge.) The mythology is sometimes correct, if flavourless and watered down, but in terms of real world stuff… it’s clearly taken from Google and Wikipedia. Not bad sources to start with, and yes, we are both aware that Houck is writing fiction and not non-fiction, but there comes a point where you can’t glean any sort of credibility out of this novel whatsoever, despite the ‘claims’ of it being well researched. It’s incredibly easy to just start skim-reading halfway through the book, and not really miss out on anything. Houck’s characters are still fond of taking enormous exposition dumps all over the pages in regards to mythology or the role they are playing in this particular version of the story, etc. Which is sad, because if anything, the writing should have improved by now.

Which it has. In dribs and drabs, if I’m going to be really nice for a moment. Houck is now signed to a bigger publisher, and the editing is a whole lot tighter than it was back in the days of Tigers Curse. Lilliana has moments of really good character development and Amon isn’t a pathetic spoiled brat who throws tables when he doesn’t get his own way (à la Ren from Tigers Curse).  But, unfortunately, Houck’s storytelling suffers from narrative convenience to the point of seriously straining plausibility. Isn’t it awfully convenient that Amon can alter time/people’s perception’s of time/whatever, so that Lilliana will appear to have been spending a day in her bedroom in New York rather than diving down tombs in Giza? That he can hypnotise people into letting him and Lilliana live lavishly without any money whatsoever? That one can just hop in a taxi cab to JFK and grab a trans-Atlantic flight without bothering with security or passports or visas or airport duty because yay hypnotism? There’s no real obstacles or stakes for our characters, because everything can just be hand-waved away for the sake of quickly getting our characters to their destinations and doing that cool thing they’re meant to do.

There’s no difficulty whatsoever for Amon, no guilt over having forced Lilliana into becoming his companion on this journey, and absolutely no tension as to completing this quest of his to retrieve his canopic jars and restore his life force so he and his brothers can stop Set from rising again and wreaking havoc on the world. The quest is so seldom mentioned that the plot simply becomes a series of getting our characters from point A to B, rather than their actions having some meaning or bringing some closure to the story at large, tying up plot threads and all that good stuff that is supposed to happen if you actually have the ability to tell a decent story.

Houck’s issues with pacing crop up again in this novel. To the degree where one is almost three quarters of the way through the story before there’s any sort of plan regarding what to do with the Big Bad. The novel ends so hastily, too. The ending just goes absolutely nowhere, with boring, overwrought details about the Kemetic afterlife that could easily be gleaned from a Dorling Kindersley children’s guide to mythology.

The characters are bland. At least in Tigers Curse, the brothers and the small handful of other characters have distinct personalities. Amon and his brothers have nothing going for them, and it’s a shame — you’d expect more from resurrected personifications of Egyptian gods, but nope. They just fulfil their narrative purpose, and then they’re gone. The focus remains – myopically – on our two main leads, and since there are no stakes to their story, we have absolutely no reason to care.

There’s no real reason as to why Set rising again would cause any sort of calamity in the world. When you finally meet him, over 80% into the novel, you’ll find that… he’s just a scary monster who says cliché scary monster things. Yawn. There’s no foreshadowing, no real build-up… The novel is over five hundred pages, but could be pruned down to maybe four or three hundred, if only Houck were to take a break from writing trite romantic scenes that have little bearing on the plot and are more suited for Harlequin/Mills & Boon romance than young adult historical fantasy. I have never come across a writer who’s clearly visited by the Fairy of Awesome Story Ideas (which totally exists) but has no writerly ability to pull them off.

Look. I don’t want to be unkind, I really don’t. But this is yet another dreadful, culturally-appropriative book which gets quite a few of its facts – both historical and mythological – so indelibly wrong, and strings along our characters on such convenient narrative pathways that there’s not much of a reason to want to follow them through their adventures. If you’re a die-hard fan of Ancient Egypt and Kemetic mythology, this might be best avoided. And avoid if you happen to enjoy good storytelling at all.

1 COMMENT

  1. What a glorious review! Once upon a time I tried to read Tiger’s Curse but I couldn’t even finish it (I’m sure I don’t have to explain myself). It’s such a shame because the premise of her books and the exploration of Indian or Egypt cultures sounds so promising. I wish there was an author who did this well. Some books should get remakes years after being published, like movies.

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