Books for Young People: Unhooked

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Author: Kyla Sterling


I’m an aspiring writer. (Well, some people say there’s no such thing; as long as you write, you’re a writer.) Anyway, I try to write a little each day, but it doesn’t always work. Whether I write it down or not, though, I almost always have a dozen or so projects rattling around in my head at any given time. One of those projects is a series of “fractured fairy tales,” where I take familiar stories and tell them in a new way, with a bit of a twist. And one of those stories is Peter Pan.

Thus, when I saw Unhooked, by Lisa Maxwell, come across my desk, I pulled it immediately. Someone else had done a retelling? With dangerous, don’t-make-any-bargains fey? Avoiding racist caricatures of Native Americans? Oooh, and a rakish young Hook? Yes, thank you, I am here for Colin O’Donoghue as a sultry pirate captain.

Alas, my excitement was soon over. Sure, the premise was cool, but the execution…not so much. Even in the first chapter, the book fell into the pattern of the “aloof teenage girl protagonist who doesn’t fit in because of her mysterious past.” Gwendolyn has been moved from place to place her entire life because her mother is afraid of things that go bump in the night, and now she’s been uprooted from the only place she ever made a single friend to go live in London. Luckily, her only friend – Olivia – has come with her to help her settle in.

And of course, the things that go bump in the night come to get them the second Gwen finally feels like she’s had enough of her mom’s crazy and breaks one of her silly rules about keeping the baddies away. She finds herself in Neverland, aboard the ship of a dark, mysterious, abrasive, and dangerous though somehow undeniably attractive boy who calls himself Captain. (To keep the YA fantasy tropes going, his real name is Rowan. Rowan, Gwendolyn, and Olivia, surrounded by other characters called Will, Sam, Michael, etc.)

So Gwen has to figure out how to find Olivia and get both of them back to modern London while Captain Rowan and Pan fight over her while each of them tries to cement their rule over Neverland. And boy, do things get weird. Neverland is a toxic climate that slowly kills non-Fey who live there. It also makes you almost instantly forget everything about your former life, unless you happen to magically be Gwen. (There is a reason for this, but…meh.) Gwen’s own backstory is revealed in snippets – and it changes repeatedly, as more is revealed. It’s complicated. Every chapter starts with a flashback to the story of two brothers in World War I – and eventually you figure out whose story *that* is. (Well, I sort of figured it out partway through. It was less cool than I wanted it to be.)

There are good things happening, but unfortunately they get overshadowed by Maxwell’s attempt to keep the mysterious aura around her characters, and her efforts at making both Rowan and Pan seem simultaneously dangerous and alluring. As a result, I just kind of wanted to yell at Gwen the whole time because she’s spending so much time being dazzled by the boys instead of figuring out the practicalities of her problem. To her credit, she does at least remember she wants to rescue Olivia and leave throughout most of the book. But BOYS.

I had to force myself to finish the book. I stopped caring what happened a little over halfway through, but I’d already committed to this review, so I kept going. And going. And going. Even the ending made me mad, because….well, if you *do* read the book, you’ll see. If you want to know how it ends, but don’t want to slog through the book to get there, send me a PM.

Things to Know: Weird and creepy things abound in this book. It gets violent, since this Neverland is a savage place. Young boys die, violently, onscreen. The oldest is probably around sixteen, and the youngest ones are probably around eleven. Things get very weird with Olivia, and there’s one scene that’s uncomfortably sexual and uncomfortably non-consensual. There are also some implied threats made by the pirates to Gwen along the same lines. The plotline with the Fey Queen gets very dark, and there’s also a part where Gwen has to slice open her own arm and dig around in the wound for something. There may be some adult language as well, but I don’t actually remember it.

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