Today I bring you a review of a very interesting little book that I read recently - SISTER ASSASSIN (titled MIND GAMES in the U.S.) by bestselling author Kiersten White.
She never chose her deadly gift but now she’s forced to use it. How far would you go to protect the only family you have left?
Annie is beset by fleeting strange visions and a guilty conscience. Blind and orphaned, she struggles to care for her feisty younger sister Fia, but things look up when both sisters are offered a place at Kessler School for Exceptional Girls.
Born with flawless intuition, Fia immediately knows that something’s wrong, but bites her tongue… until it’s too late. For Fia is the perfect weapon to carry out criminal plans and there are those at Kessler who will do anything to ensure her co-operation.
With Annie trapped in Kessler’s sinister clutches, instincts keep Fia from killing an innocent guy and everything unravels. Is manipulative James the key to the sisters’ freedom or an even darker prison? And how can Fia atone for the blood on her hands
This book took me completely by surprise. I'd started the first book of the author's bestselling trilogy (PARANORMALCY) with a lot of excitement, but some quality in the writing simply didn't gel for me, and I ended up skimming through most of it and then skipping to the end. I've never picked up any of the others.
However, having read Ms. White's stories on her blog about how this book ripped itself out of her in just nine days, I was intrigued. The blurb mentioned that this was a 'stunning departure' for the writer - her PARANORMALCY trilogy is, judging by the first book, extremely light and cutesy in tone, like a sort of junior-Buffy, with some of the humour but not much darkness - and you guys know I love it when an author tries something really different. Plus, both editions of the book have great covers:
|UK Cover: is that Christina Ricci, or is it just me?|
|U.S. Cover: pretty colours!|
Fia's sections in this book (she shares POV duties with her older sister Annie, who I'll get to later) are written in a broken present-tense which reads almost like stream of consciousness at times, and which very cleverly introduces you to the frantic, agonised place that is Fia's head. The book starts in the present - the moment when Fia does snap, but in the sense of being unable to follow her murderous orders any longer - and then utlises a non-linear structure of extended flashbacks which jump from Fia's childhood to various horrific episodes from her growing up years.
Fia is a strong personality, a smart and resourceful child who has a perfect intuition. In any situation she will not only know exactly what action she and every other person present should take in order to serve her best interest, she will also have a sense of the consequences of every other action they could take, both short and long term. This is completely natural to her, a sort of 'knowing' that flashes sensory warnings in her brain a little like synesthesia. Unfortunately, convincing others - like her older sister, Annie - to take her 'feelings' seriously is pretty hard for a kid. This means Fia is constantly forced into situations where everything inside her is screaming NO, and yet she has no choice but to go along with other people's (flawed) choices.
This would be tough enough for any kid. But, left to herself, Fia would clearly have grown up into a responsible and highly successful adult - one of those golden girls who somehow land on their feet in every situation and end up owning half the free world. Sadly for Fia, after her parents are killed in a car crash, one of Annie's decisions places both of them in the Kessler School for Gifted Girls. And it all goes downhill from there, as Kessler are less a school and more a boot camp for psychics, where they are trained to suppress their consciences, follow orders, and accept the 'perks' of using their powers to ruin other people's lives for Kessler's gain.
Kessler are initially after Annie's ability. Annie is blind - although there's no medical reason for this - but she is a seer, tormented by splintered visions of possible futures. Her prediction of her parent's deaths lead to an article in a newspaper which drew Kessler's attention. Annie - struggling in her local school, which doesn't have the budget to provide her with the advanced learning aids she wants - and under the indifferent guardianship of the girls aunt, falls under the spell of the Kessler representative who promises her that if she becomes a boarding student at the school she will have every high-tech gadget and every possible assistance to overcome her disability.
Fia knows instinctively that trusting Kessler is the absolute worst thing Annie can do. She begs her sister not to go - and when the representative realises just how and why she is reacting this way, Kessler's attention snaps onto her, and they offer her a place alongside her sister. Annie, determined to leave the custody of her aunt, and the school that she doesn't feel is helping her, not only ignores Fia's warnings but also persuades Fia to accept the place and come with her.
And this is the start of Fia's nightmare. Within a very short time the little girl is being beaten bloody, slashed up with knives, electrocuted - all to test and strengthen her unique ability. With the constant training in every possible martial art and method of killing the fragile child becomes an almost unstoppable killer - in any fight she knows exactly where to move, how to duck, block, slash, run or turn in order to preserve her own life. The fight scenes were heart-wrenching and eerie to read; watching a little girl shatter emotionally even as she's forced to hurt others. It's not that Fia can't get hurt herself. She does, repeatedly. But if she wants you dead - needs you dead - it's basically impossible for her not to kill you. That is her terrible gift.
Kessler soon decide that Annie's talents are mediocre - but at first they carefully shield her from this knowledge because they realise that as long as they hold her in their facility, Fia will be forced not only to stay and to follow their orders, but also to resist her talent's call to destroy them all.
So far, so fantastic. This set-up is vaguely reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones' HEXWOOD, and I loved it. But something kept me from fully embracing this book and dubbing it a new favourite. And that something was Annie herself.
I can see why Annie was given POV duties here. The narrative isn't quite shared 50/50, but Annie's sections are weighty because they're written in a much clearer and more straightforward style, provide subtle yet much needed exposition which stitches the flashbacks into a cohesive whole, and offer insight into Fia from the outside. They offer a break from the distinctive, frenetic pace of Fia's mind.
What they also do, unfortunately, is to distance us from Fia's world and her story just a little too much. While Fia is fracturing, killing, dying, Annie is sitting in her very comfortable home, drinking herbal tea, and worrying. Throwing tantrums at other people who she believes (rightly!) don't care about her sister. Worrying some more. She's the classic princess, trapped in the tower, waiting for rescue to come. Even at the very end of the story when everything is swirling through Fia's brain like an insane kaleidoscope and everything was changing, Annie's sections remained static and dull. What's more, for me Annie was also extremely unlikeable.
Nine out of ten people may disagree with me here, as Annie was clearly written to be sympathetic. She's sweeter and kinder and saner than Fia, wracked with guilt over everything that Fia has gone through and desperate to help her sister in some way. But... she doesn't. Ever. In fact, everything Annie does seems to make Fia's life worse. Annie's refusal to listen to Fia in the beginning when Fia warns her about Kessler, and the emotional blackmail that forced Fia to go to the school too, came from a strange sense of privilege within the narrative. Poor Annie can't help it. Annie's soft and weak. Annie's blind. She needs to be looked after - even if that means her younger sister has to beat someone to death with a chair and then have a nervous breakdown.
For a very long time Annie remained wilfully ignorant of the extreme abuse being heaped on her sister. Fia was limping around covered in stab wounds and bruises and electrical burns, barely talking, never attending lessons other than ones in killing, hardly eating, but Annie's POV asks us to believe that Annie just didn't know. Because she couldn't *see* Fia - and Fia didn't come out and tell her.
I don't care if Annie couldn't physically see that Fia was being tortured; not noticing that your sister has gone from a strong, clever, funny little girl to suicidal zombie-creature who spends her days fighting for her life while longing for death is a bit of a stretch. Annie says she knew her sister wasn't happy but was so caught up in her own academic advancements that she didn't understand how deep that unhappiness went. But - as I'm sure the husbands, children, girlfriends and co-workers of the thousands of blind people who live full, active lives all over the world today could attest - being blind doesn't magically make it impossible to tell the difference between a sulky kid who isn't fitting in at boarding school and a child who has been abused to the point where her sanity has fractured.
This disconnect between what the narrative clearly wants us to feel about poor, sad, blind Annie who just can't help herself or anyone else, and what I actually felt - that if Annie had a single fibre of backbone she would have thrown herself out of the nearest window and set Fia free - made it tough to like the book as much as I would have otherwise, because Annie was always there, meebling and moaning and failing to do anything. I could understand why Fia didn't march into the nearest Police Station and tell all. But Annie was allowed to go shopping with 'friends' from inside Kessler. Why didn't she stop in the middle of a department store and scream until someone called the authorities and they took her away? Even if they hadn't believed her, that brief window might have been enough for Fia to escape. It seemed as if Annie's blindness was the excuse - a sort of unacknowledged, nebulous sense that someone with a disability can't be expected to actually be active or useful. That was very problematic for me.
Despite this issue, however, I did like SISTER ASSASSIN a lot. It was a surprising, daring and unexpected book that offered me one of the most compelling characters I've met in years - Fia - and which didn't shy away from the darkest implications of the story events it had set up. The book ends with a quite satisfying resolution, but there are a lot of loose ends still whipping about and plenty of exciting places that Ms. White could take Fia and her new partner in crime (not telling! Spoilers!) in the next volume, which the author's website says will be out next year (2014). Unlike with the author's earlier books I will be pouncing on it eagerly the moment it hits shelves.
If you see SISTER ASSASSIN in your local bookshop, give it a try.