published: 5th November 2019
spoilers? yes, but not relating to plot
10 Years. 3 Gangs. 1 Girl’s Epic Quest…
Valerie Simons knows the city’s gang wars are dangerous—her own brother was killed by the Boars two years ago. But nothing will sway her from joining the elite and beautiful Herons to avenge his death—a death she feels responsible for.
But when Valerie is recruited by the mysterious Stags, their charismatic and volatile leader Jax promises to help her get revenge. Torn between old love and new loyalty, Valerie fights to stay alive as she races across the streets of San Francisco to finish the mission that got her into the gangs.
Galley provided by publisher
CWs: self harm (graphic), ptsd, gun violence, gang violence, suicidal ideation and attempted suicide (side character), alcohol abuse, drug abuse, abusive relationship (not condemned, maybe even romanticised)
A few months back, I read Beth O’Leary’s The Flatmate and, in that, there’s an emotionally abusive ex boyfriend. Throughout a good chunk of the second half of the book, I had this constant sense of unease that he was about to do something awful to the MC (which he subsequently did). That sense of unease is very much the same feeling I had reading this book, although I’m not entirely sure it was intentional in this case.
To give you a summary of the plot: for some (to be later explained) reason, there are gang wars in the city. Also for some reason (not explained), the gangs go around picking up new recruits who have to commit to the gang for at least a year (like some kind of messed-up national service). Val’s brother was killed by the gang wars a few years back and she’s determined to find out who did it, even if it means joining the gangs herself. Only, instead of joining the Herons as she expected, she gets picked up by the Stags. And their (as the blurb states) “charismatic and volatile” leader (who just so happens to be the hottest guy Val has ever seen and you can probably hear me rolling my eyes at this point).
I won’t pretend like I was enjoying this book at the start. It opened with a number of things that made me roll my eyes (again). Like the fact that you know there’s going to be a love triangle from the moment Val meets Jax, that her ex is in a rival gang so it’s going to be all cliched Romeo & Juliet, the fact that I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be a dystopia or a contemporary or what. And also the fact that, from the start, Jax treated Val like shit and I thought oh here we go again, another dickhead LI who’s going to be excused with a tragic backstory.
Only, Jax is more than just a dickhead LI. You know there’s your common or garden dickhead LI, who is basically just rude to the MC, but ultimately not much more. But then there’s the actually abusive dickhead LI, and Jax fell squarely into that category.
I think I first started to feel uncomfortable about Jax when he pushed Val into a wall and threatened her, all because she didn’t follow an order. And that’s within the first quarter of the book, easily.
But it didn’t end there.
When the Stags take Val, they ostensibly save her from an attack by the Boars, who point a gun to her head, threatening to kill her. However (and there are spoilers here), it’s later revealed that they weren’t the Boars, but the Stags. And that the attack was all staged by Jax. To which, Val has a very reasonable response.
“You’re insane,” I say. A flood of worry hits me and I tack on a “sorry”.
That she feels the need to apologise to him for this, for having an actually pretty understated response to being attacked by him, because she worries he might snap. The red flags are coming out, folks.
But that’s not all because, a few chapters later, there’s this:
I think Jax may actually kill me if he finds out I’ve left again.
This isn’t a reasonable reaction to someone disobeying orders unless you’re some kind of dictator. Especially not in a “gang war”, which is starting to look more and more like just kids running around the streets because they’re bored.
But, you guessed it, there’s still more! Firstly, now whenever Val disobeys an order from Jax and he finds out, she goes to him, expecting to be punished and babbling excuse and then is grateful when she’s not punished. Because Jax has a pattern in this book. Punishment followed by piecemeal affection. He lashes out by breaking things, he hits someone who even thinks about leaving the gang, they worry about ruining his good moods, always apologise first even when he’s in the wrong, and yet, because he’s nice to Val once in a blue moon, he’s not a villain.
Tell me how I’m supposed to view this as anything but textbook abusive behaviour.
The thing is, part of me wants to believe that this was actually all intentional, that Jax was always meant to be read as abusive. But there’s no condemnation of his behaviour. Yeah, so it’s not romanticised really, but it’s also not condemned in the narrative. So even if the intention was there, it hasn’t translated onto the page that well (I mean, death of the author and all that). (There are more quotes in the twitter thread I made.)
So, the prevailing reason for how much I disliked this book was Jax. Take Jax out, and maybe I would have liked it more. But there were also the issues I had with the worldbuilding and plot more generally. Firstly, it never feels like there are any stakes to this world. Someone gets shot, and I still didn’t feel like there were stakes. I think part of that was because of the backstory for how the gang wars started. This book is comped to The Iliad and The Outsiders but it feels a whole lot more like Romeo & Juliet from the other characters’ POV. And that could have been good! But combine that with the various reasons why people are fighting, particularly Jax’s (can I say bored rich kid?), and it just doesn’t have any impetus to it. (And don’t get me started on how all the Stags seem to do is use social media to start protests. Another thing that could have been good but ended up flopping.)
Secondly, the book’s ostensibly about Val’s quest to avenge her brother’s death, but from the point where Jax tells her he knows who did it, but he’s not gonna say until she’s earned his trust (yet more evidence of him being abusive, no?), she just seems to accept that and never bothers trying to find out herself. Which leads me to question what this book is actually about. It’s almost like it’s trying to be too many things at once and not doing any of them in enough depth.
Ultimately, then, this book ended up disappointing me. Despite how good it sounded, it never lived up to all that.