Please excuse the form letter. But seriously… Despite everything I put on my blog (here), you sent a review request for your YA dystopian masterpiece. Okay sure—if I’ve read your other books, or if I’m bored, or if it’s late and I can’t sleep, I’ll look at what you’ve sent because I’m a sucker for a good YA fantasy. But since I’m going to turn down most of your review requests anyway, it might be useful to list a few guidelines to save time for both of us.
[“Hunger Games Commercial” Written/Performed by Melinda Taub. Directed and edited by Adam Sacks for Funny Or Die]
So, dear review-requester, if your heroine’s actions include three or more of the following (or number 9), I will be sending your book back with a suggestion that there might be other
twelve-year-olds reviewers out there without a life of their own better suited to slogging through the 100-thousand words of your story only to find a f**king cliffhanger at the end reviewing your book. (Unless I really like it, or it has a cute dog, or were-badgers. Definitely taking all the ones with were-badgers.)
Does your heroine say—
- I’m a completely ordinary looking girl with long straight (probably red) hair, enormous (probably green) eyes, and a slim athletic build but my boobs are too small and my legs are too long and I’m too slender and…where was I? Oh, yeah. Ordinary.
- I have no actual responsible adults in my life, as I am either an orphan or handling all the family duties for my irresponsible/dead/mysteriously vanished parent(s).
- We live simply and humbly next to the wilderness that apparently has no roads or anything in it even though people have lived there ever since the [insert craptastic event] Before Time. But for some completely inexplicable reason, although we hunt with bows, wear anachronistic long tunics and dresses, and get places on horseback, there is fabulous technology that allows the [insert evil Overlord] a terrific internet connection, world dominance, and some really awesome costume designers.
- When I reach puberty, I will face [the Test/College entrance exams/sorting hat] which will randomly assign my role in life. Plus maybe a death match or two.
- I am the Chosen One foretold by The Prophecy to take down the Evil Overlord and save the world but I’m conflicted about it. I’d much rather go back to my little family hovel and wear neutral-colored clothing.
- I can’t go back to my little family hovel because I have to rescue my [insert name of loved one/sibling/pet] from the Evil Overlord. To do that I will acquire astonishing mastery of [insert weapon/nick-of-time-new-superpower] in an unrealistically short time. (Of course, I will not actually apply the astonishing mastery when it counts, and will probably need to be rescued myself. Lots.) But Loved One’s actual rescue will take several film sequels/book series volumes/TV seasons, and—although eventually successful—will still result in Loved One’s death or severe maiming because that’s irony, baby.
- I have assembled a (snarky, possibly LGBTQ, undoubtedly racially-diverse) posse to help me save the world. Although teenagers, none of us ever thinks about school. Bad news for them, though, is that they’ll probably mostly die.
- Although I’m only a teenager and I’ve only spoken to one boy in my life so far, I’ve found my true love! Actually, I’ve found two of them and they are each incredibly handsome! What are the odds? I can’t believe they would be interested in me because I’m so ordinary. How will I decide which one to spend the rest of my life with once I’m done saving the world? It’s so hard to be ordinary-me.
- I’m paranoid that you might not want to read the next book in my series, so I will end this one on a cliffhanger. But don’t worry—I should have that next book out right away. Or next year. Or someday. ***(Remember when Thanos snaps his fingers in Avengers Infinity War? Half the Marvel universe disappears, but we have to wait another year to find out what happens next? Okay, we totally DID wait. But Dear Author—unless you’re Stan Lee, Joss Whedon, or J. K. Rowling, you might want to give some serious thought to wrapping up your story arc, and counting on your audience being invested enough in your characters to buy that next book instead of holding the end of your story hostage.
***My Cliffhanger Book PTSD epiphany was the show finale…
My daughters and I watched vampire-slaying Buffy and then her spinoff, Angel, for years. We knew the last episode of Angel was about to air, and speculated on what it might resolve. When I had to do a call with colleagues on the other side of the globe during the broadcast, I made my daughters watch with headphones, and swear not to reveal spoilers.
Halfway through my meeting, the screaming started. “NOOOOOOO!”
My colleagues in Japan and England made worried noises.
My New York coworker just laughed. “Angel finale?”
“Oh yeah.” More sounds of anguish drifted up from the family room.
“Do you have to go?”
I made embarrassed noises, until he said, “DO NOT tell me. I’m recording it.”
When I finally saw the episode, I yelled too. No loose ends tied up. Nothing resolved. Just… A giant cliffhanger.
So, Dear Author, that’s why I won’t review your book. Unless, of course, you use every single trope to write an absolutely entertaining, fast, fun, rollercoaster tale. Without a cliffhanger. Just like one of my favorite writers, the consistently entertaining Shelley Wilson, does in her new release, The Phantom’s Curse.
BLURB: The Phantom’s Curse by Shelley Wilson
An old evil threatens to rise from the depths of the warded city…
Sixteen-year-old Marianne lives a simple life as a healer in the Link, looking after her younger brother since their parents’ exile. Little does she know how everything will change after attending the blessing in the city of Obanac. After her brother is wrongfully imprisoned, Marianne seeks his release from Crawford Reign, the Lord of Obanac. But she’s faced with an impossible choice—the lord wants her in exchange. To save her brother she turns to the daring outlaw Robbie and his friends for help. Along with the help of Theo, the holy man’s son, a daring rescue soon uncovers rumors of an old sorcerer who may still live and whispers of the phantom’s curse—an evil that requires a host and seeks to destroy the world—threatening to resurface.
With the threat of an old evil rising in Obanac and the attacks of the Black Riders throughout the realm, nowhere seems safe. To save the people of the land and everyone she cares about, Marianne must unlock the secret to who she really is and embrace the mage magic that stirs within her.
My theory is that Shelley Wilson made a bet that she could use every single YA dystopian fantasy trope and produce a do-not-interrupt-until-I’m-done epic. She nailed it.
Consider the facts.
- Looks: From her “long, fiery red hair” and “eyes as green as the meadow”, Marianne looks the part of a mage. She knows, however, that she’s actually a completely ordinary sixteen-year-old introvert. “I sew, hunt, and make up healing tinctures; I don’t face an evil lord, his psycho sorcerer and an undead army…”
- Everybody’s an Orphan: Marianne’s parents have been sent to opposite ends of the land, although nobody seems to know why. Although a teenager, she’s left to care for her young brother. Together, they live in their tiny, primitive hut at the edge of the wilderness outside the locked gates of Obanac, and to eke out a living by working as a healer and hunting with her bow.
- Blessing and Target. After travelling to the city for a luxurious Blessing ceremony that excluded the other teens from her village, Marianne is stunned when her young brother Newt is falsely accused and imprisoned. An impassioned plea to Crawford, the city’s young ruler, only results in a demand that she offer herself in exchange.
- But Do You LIKE Me Like Me? Marianne assembles a posse of outlaw teens to rescue her brother and defeat Lord Crawford, his evil sorcerer, and a demonic army—taking time out only to acquire new magic powers in the nick of time. And to daydream about the boys she’s met and that all-important Love’s First Kiss.
So yes. The Phantom’s Curse channels every YA dystopian trope going back to the original with the King’s heir spirited away to be raised in secret, aided by magic to pass a magical test (sword pulled from a stone anyone?) before defeating enemies to assume their rightful position. And that’s the thing about the best tropes. When wielded by a talented writer and infused with energy and humor, they just work.
In this case, author Shelley Wilson gives us a feisty heroine who is willing to face almost certain death to help those she loves, and to fight evil. She’s got plenty of self-doubt, is (it must be said) not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but steps up to get the job done.
The world-building is cohesive, the action nonstop, and the plot satisfactorily builds up from a slow start to a full gallop. In fact, although I almost never say this, my only real criticism is that it goes too quickly. I would have liked to get more glimpses of this world, know more about Marianne’s friends, and find out more about how Crawford turned down his own dark path. Also, I would have jettisoned the prologue. It was an entire epic in its own right, requiring too much tell in too short a time. Either make that a separate book, or better still, reveal it during the narrative in tantalizing glimpses.
But overall, The Phantom’s Curse is an entertaining, exciting read. I recommend it for lovers of young adult fantasy.
Book Title: The Phantom’s Curse
Author: Shelley Wilson
Genre: YA dystopian fantasy
Length: 242 pages
Release Date: BHC Press (11 Jun. 2020)