Only a Monster, Vanessa Len (Harper Teen 978-0-06-302466-3, $18.99, hc, 416pp) February 2022.
The cover for Vanessa Len’s Only a Monster includes this great teaser: ‘‘In every story there is a hero and a monster. She is not the hero.’’ It is quickly clear who ‘‘she’’ is: the novel’s protagonist, Joan, whose very normal life is upended in the book’s opening pages when she learns she, like all the members of her family, is a time-stealing monster. Before she has time to consider what that means, or get over her initial shock at this knowledge, she learns there are other monster families in London and that the boy she has been crushing on is not at all who she thought he was. Then she witnesses a massacre and must run through time with an enemy in order to save her own life. It is only then, hidden in the past and wrestling with the ramifications of what she has done to get there, that Joan begins to consider what it means to be a monster and also, just as importantly, exactly what it is that makes a hero.
Only a Monster is a fast-paced thriller that pulls readers along as Joan’s world is transformed. The family revelations are one thing, but as she rushes into the past, the things she learns about the other monster families and the deadly hero keep the pages turning. Sometimes the action can be too fast, which is particularly true of the early pages when readers barely have time to meet Joan’s extended family before they all become targets. While she is soon devastated by loss, readers might still be trying to figure who is who as some of the supporting characters barely make an impression before they are gone. This is unfortunate, as the characters who show up later are richly drawn and soon add many more layers to the story.
The author really excels at her portrayal of London however, from the Holland House ‘‘living museum,’’ where Joan and her potential boyfriend Nick both volunteer, to the city streets in the past and present where she hides from the hero, and mostly to the Monster Court, where secrets are kept that yet again, change everything. Holland House in particular is an interesting location, especially as events in the past wreak massive changes on its present state. Len pays the same attention to the intricate world-building necessary to explain monster society and the various families. These are likely passages that readers will linger over, even though the threat of what comes next keeps the plot racing.
Fair warning here, the final pages of Only a Monster pack an incredible gut punch, but this is the opening title in a series, so don’t worry that it is truly the end. (Len would not do that to us!) There are many questions to be answered, about Joan and Nick’s romance, about her relationships with both her own family and possible allies in other families and, more than anything, about how the hero came to be made. Len’s world is so compelling that she should have little trouble keeping readers or drawing them ever deeper into her dangerous new world.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the May 2022 issue of Locus.
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