Book review: The Name of the Star, Maureen Johnson

The Name of the StarRory Deveaux has two near-death experiences in about as many months: the first comes when she nearly chokes on dinner soon after quitting her native Louisiana for London – where she enrols at Wexford, a posh boarding school smack in the middle of Jack the Ripper’s old stomping ground.

The location is important, because Rory’s arrival coincides with the start of a series of murders that mirror the Ripper’s infamous, gruesome killings. Is it a copycat at work, or something even more nightmarish?

As Rippermania grips London, Rory encounters a mysterious man who her (adorably English) roommate Jazza can’t see. He’s a ghost, and Rory’s rare ability to see him grants her entry into a team that hunts London’s “shades”… which ultimately leads to her second near-death experience at the climax of the book, as the Ripper’s killings come to a head.

The Name of the Star has some great ingredients: English boarding school hijinks, murders, young people with implausibly awesome jobs with the police. But something about it is all a bit unsatisfying: I wanted the story to be more sinister, more romantic, more London. Johnson only captures flickering senses of the city and the sensational dread of the Ripper’s return, and the plot twists are often contrived; when the villain’s motives were revealed (via monlogue), my reaction was pretty much, “Why would anyone go to all the effort of X just to achieve Y?” And many of the supporting characters fall flat, though others are terrifically vivid – especially Rory’s oft-mentioned, never-seen American relatives.

I really wanted to enjoy this but I just wanted more; it’s less than the sum of its parts. Johnson is a lively, funny writer but The Name of the Star feels like it’s going through the motions of setting up a new supernatural YA series, rather than transporting us to spooky and mysterious London.


Book review: Zombies vs Unicorns, edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier

A book with the title Zombies vs Unicorns is pretty much guaranteed to be made of awesome, and this is indeed made of awesome: not only because of its subject matter, but also because it’s edited and written by some of the foremost members of the YA mafia.

So the premise is basically that Justine Larbalestier prefers zombies while Holly Black prefers unicorns (Team Zombie FTW, btw), and they’ve each gathered writers to their cause to prove, once and for all, that one supernatural beastie reigns supreme over the other.

I reckon Team Zombie has the edge here: there are some fantastic (in both senses of the word) stories by Cassandra Clare, Scott Westerfeld, Maureen Johnson, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Carrie Ryan and Libba Bray, who writes ‘Prom Night’, perhaps the best entry in the whole book (though it’s a tight race).

That said I have newfound respect for Team Unicorn thanks to the stories of Margo Lanagan, Naomi Novik and Meg Cabot.

Unusually for a short story collection, there aren’t any stinkers in Zombies vs Unicorns – though some entries waver on the lengthy side, the majority of the twisted tales are haunting or funny or both.

Not to be forgotten is the bold, brillmazing cover art by Josh Cochran: it depicts a gory, bloody, deliciously cartoony scene of zombies and unicorns locked in a battle to the death (or the afterdeath, or whatever it’s called when you kill the living dead). It kinda reminds me of a really violent Where’s Wally scene. I’d happily buy a print and put it up on my wall. (It turns out you can buy a print at Cochran’s website. Hmm. So tempting…)

There must be a sequel. Pirates vs Robots, perhaps?