Review: Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan

Review: Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan

 Kami had never wanted to do anything but these two things: discover truth and change the world.

Until I picked up Team Human for book club last month, I’d never read a Sarah Rees Brennan novel. Clearly this was a grave oversight on my part.

Unspoken is a wonderfully unique gothic young adult novel (that’s also—arg!—the first in a series) centered around Kami Glass and her friends in the English village of Sorry-in-the-Vale as they attempt to unravel the mystery behind the Lynburn family, who has recently return after years abroad.

As long as Kami can remember she’s had an imaginary friend, Jared, who she hears in her head. Except it turns out he’s very real. 

I will admit, I was nervous about the premise behind Unspoken—I’m not a fan of the soulmates/deep, unexplained connection trope, especially in YA.

But Brennan takes that concept, the inexplicable connection, and turns it into something fresh. Jarden and Kami’s connection means that they are intimately a part of one another, but that doesn’t mean it’s not awkward and that awkwardness is heightened when they connect in real life. Jared is also an angry teenage boy. His life has been difficult, so being his friend in real-life isn’t that easy for Kami. 

In fact, Kami and Jared’s connection, and the challenges in negotiating having one another literally each other’s heads, is the most fascinating aspect of Unspoken. Their relationship is different from anything I’ve read in a YA novel. There’s really not any romance to speak of in this book, despite some of the blurbs that mention it being romantic-slash-swoony. It’s more complex than romance, and oddly closer. Kami, who tries her best to plan and be a smart girl, sees their connection as intrusive, yet at times also comforting. Jared, on the other hand, views Kami’s voice in his head as a lifeline out of his troubled family.

And, the contrast between the two makes this all the more interesting. Jared is a bit of a disaster, sort of emotionally stupid and oddly shy. Then we’ve got Kami, who’s all full of confidence and sass and though she’s not the most emotionally intelligent person, she’s pretty good at keeping it all together as well as a teenage girl who fancies herself a hard-hitting investigative journalist can. 

A serious journalist should probably not make so many jokes, but whenever Kami sat down to the computer it was as if the jokes were already there, hiding behind the keys, waiting to spring out at her. 

On top of the Jared-Kami relationship, the friendships and family dynamics also shine. 

It’s hard to talk about Unspoken with comparing it to other, similarly-themed YA novels, because Sarah Rees Brennan just does so many things right with this novel that, in others, frequently misses the mark. 

Kami’s family, while not perfect (whose is?) is actually present and accounted for. Siblings and parental relationships are actually developed and vibrant. I have a soft spot for Kami’s dad, who’s good natured humor is a nice balance to Kami’s mother, who’s a bit darker and knows about the secrets of Sorry-in-the-Vale. Even her little brothers have actual personalities. How often does that happen?

The same is true with Kami’s friends. Unlike in so many YA paranormal-ish/urban fantasy-ish novels, Kami’s friends remain a part of her life after the complication of the Lynburn boys’ arrival in town. 

“Boys. Listen up. We are going out for a girls’ night, where there will be dancing.” Kami did an illustrative shimmy. Angela looked resigned.

Jared looked amused. “What was that?”

“You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watching, Jared,” Kami informed him.

“Have you considered that perhaps nobody’s watching because they’re too embarrassed for you?”

“Fine,” said Kami, grinning at him. “Be a hater of dances. Be a hater of joy. I don’t care. You’re not invited!” She clapped her hands. “You have plans.”

Remarkable, right? Even more amazing, Angela—Kami’s best friend who hates people and loves naps—is also a three-dimensional character who remains an important part of the story throughout Unspoken, never fading into the background as Kami becomes more entertwined the the Lynburns’ return. 

And, of course, Kami herself is quite a memorable character. 

“I have a serious girls’ night question for you,” said Kami. “I know you’re new to this, but I will require an answer quickly. Are you prepared to eat at least five éclairs tonight?”

Loyal, funny and driven, she’s the sort of female characters YA needs more of. Sure, I love an angsty grief novel as much as the next person, but Kami is a breath of fresh air. Her humor is self-depricating, but not self-loathing, which as a reader is almost thrilling to read in a paranormal-ish YA novel. 

“I knew you were upset. Taking you out was meant to be about cheering you up, not getting all offended and making you feel worse.”

“Well, you’re far too nice, and I’m still sorry for inflicting the worst date you’ve ever had on you.”

“Oh no,” said Ash. “It wasn’t the worst date I’ve ever had. The worst date I’ve ever had was with a girl who had a pet fire extinguisher.”

Kami blinked up at him.

“I found it puzzling myself,” said Ash. “So you see.”

“I could take on the pet-fire-extinguisher girl,” Kami considered. “I’ve done some very strange things.” 

Humor permeates most of Unspoken.

(Though the novel’s intense, serious conclusion dampens the humor and fun quite a bit.) When I was going through my Kindle notes before writing this review, I realized that every single highlight was a clever passage—many of which made me laugh out loud like a crazy person. 

“Plumbing got backed up, all the toilets exploded!” Kami yelled. “Go use a different bathroom.”

A voice said suspiciously, “Kami Glass, is this your idea of a joke?”

Angela kicked the door. “Go away or I’ll kick you in the head.”

“We’re so stealth,” Kami said. “It’s what I admire most about us.”

(My dog may or may not have given me the stink eye for waking her up when I was reading Unspoken in bed and burst out laughing at that passage.) I love that this book is full of humor, without it overtaking the book. It’s a natural part of the characters and actual made me feel as if there was more emotional authenticity to the characters’ experiences.

About that ending…

I’ve noticed that a lot of folks (including my wonderful co-bloggers Laura and Renegade) are pretty aggravated with the ending. It’s funny, because while this is definitely the first book in a series, the intense ending didn’t bother me. And, honestly, I didn’t read it as terribly cliffhangerish, but this may be because I’m more or less desensitized to cliffhangers.

Big things that happen in the last chapters which impact the main storyline in a way that I imagine will carry over into the rest of the installments of the series. There are big things said and done that kind of gut-punched me, but I didn’t find the ending as irritating as I have other series, such as in Catching Fire (arg!) or the endings of the first two books of Maggie Stiefvater’s Wolves of Mercy Falls (arg!) series. But nevertheless, if you have a low tolerance for unresolved endings, you may want to wait until the series is finished before you pick up Unspoken. 

After I finished Unspoken I bought the first book in the Demon’s Lexicon series, because I think between this novel and Team Human, I’m pretty much hooked on Sarah Rees Brennan’s writing. And—bonus—that series is finished. 

FNL Character Rating: Tami Taylor’s dogged persistence. 

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