Author: Jodi Meadows
Publisher: Harper Teen
Series: Incarnate #1
Other Reviews for This Author: None
My first impression of Incarnate was thanks to the plethora of online buzz about this book. Big book buzz inevitably leads to misconceptions about what the book is about plot-wise and what it intends to do. Incarnate initially seemed to be another novel riding the coattails of the dystopian trend. The book came buzzed with titles like Under the Never Sky (which fits the dystopian tag more accurately), and I truthfully did not learn much more about it until I picked it up. Further reading gave me an entirely different impression of the novel. Incarnate is a scrumptious blend of light fantasy and romance that will grab readers who never thought they'd want to read about magical cities and dragons. While not the epic that is The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Incarnate is a satisfying novel that blends the idea of reincarnation with fantasy elements and an intense romance.
Range is a world that has trouble welcoming new things. Years and years have passed as the world as grown and its inhabitants have matured. The city of Heart is its crowning achievement - a place that has stood since the beginning of time it seems, providing a shelter from Range's magical dangers. The origins of Heart are unknown. Originally thought to be the gift of the gods, its purpose has long been brought into question. Spiritualism has fallen out of favor. Range's inhabitants have been reincarnated century after century with no real answers to life's greater mysteries in sight, and the only change they've seen is the change that they've created through their own advancement.
This is what makes Ana so unique...and so threatening. Ana was born into the world as a new soul. Her parents expected her to be a specific soul at birth, yet she was identified as one entirely foreign to them. She goes against everything the people of Range have come to understand after centuries upon centuries of the same thing, and she scares them. Her birth parents have no affection for her. Her father left and her mother hates her for what she is. Ana has never grown up believing that she is worthy. After becoming of age, she gets set off into the wilds of Range with nothing of value to her name and a goal: to make it to the city of Heart and discover her origins.
Having been released into the wilds, Ana comes to understand the beginnings of Range's more frightening side. She encounters deadly sylphs and hears the rumblings of dragons. Surviving on her own is practically impossible. Lost to the wilds of Range, Ana has almost no likelihood of ever making it out. Sam changes everything. He saves Ana from dying before she can learn about her past. He offers to take her to Heart and introduce her to the cultural epicenter of Range. There, she discovers just how reviled she is by some of its oldest residents - and how interested some others are in seeing what her new soul means for the rest of their society. Ana steps into a world that is entirely new to her. A world with edges darkened by corruption. She has no idea if Heart will truly have a place for her, or if someone will attempt to eliminate her before she ever has the chance to find out.
Ana really shouldn't have been a heroine I connected to so quickly. Most seasoned YA readers have read her character before. She's extremely special and unusual in her world and has been ostracized from most of society as a result. Her home life is awful. She's also ignorant to the ways of the world and can't really protect herself because of it. Something about Ana kept me from disliking all of these common YA heroine qualities, however. Maybe it was the scenario that she was put in - for Ana was raised completely outside of the traditional culture of the city of Heart and wasn't able to learn how to stand up for herself. Everything about her past made it clear that she would find it hard to stand up for herself. In many ways, Meadows makes it clear that Ana's growth as a strong female will take a lot of time - time that Incarnate uses to begin the transformation of Ana. Really, Incarnate is as much a reformation of Ana as a person as it is about the mystery behind her existence in the first place. Meadows aims to make this first book in the series one of discovery, and Ana just begins to scratch the surface of her true self as she learns bits and pieces about the various possible reasons behind the appearance of her new soul years before. Ana grows superficially as she learns to dance, play an instrument, and other useful skills. The growth allows Meadows to show other sides to Ana - mainly the artistic side, which predominates the text as the novel goes on. Ana's artistry in particular made her appeal to me above a lot of her initial issues. She gets what it means to be a musician and to appreciate music. In turn, Ana's intelligence shows in the pages as she learns and becomes a better artist. Intelligence is something that I admire, and Ana really does have it. Her confusion and hesitancy to start standing up for herself lead to some less-than-fabulous decisions, but ultimately Meadows allows this all to feel purposeful in Ana's character. The strong development endeared the parts of her that I would have otherwise disliked, and that was a great surprise.
To provide narrative tension and a helluva twist, Ana's love interest is Sam. Unlike Ana, Sam is one of Heart's original residents. He's been reincarnated in various guises - male and female - over the centuries. He has the knowledge of time and memory at his side; memory for people like him goes back to the beginning of time. This poses an initial confusion for the narration, because it once again puts together a very inexperienced girl with a guy who is theoretically hundreds of years old (even if it's just in memory). It's getting harder and harder to make a relationship like this believable without squicking out some readers, and there are definitely readers that won't like this one because of the setup alone. Sam manages to be a character that makes it work, though. He's very understanding and gentle. The reincarnation distinction he has from Ana is a touchy subject that both characters find awkward and initially hard to deal with. The physical attraction felt between them is undeniable, but Sam knows that he puts Ana in one heck of an awkward position because of it. Sam is also an extremely accomplished musician - the most musical soul found in Heart, always genius in any reincarnation - and Ana is just a budding talent. The scenes where the two hash out music together are really quite beautiful. The frustration as Ana learns how to take criticism and understands that artistic perfection is an impossibility ends up being a huge boon to both characters. It makes them feel dynamic, and their relationship felt really organic as a result of this shared artistic appreciation. The other characters were not as deep, which didn't concern me too much because of the use of the novel as a sequel. A few come across as villains, but the motivations were fairly understandable and not entirely obvious. A lot of the novel's external conflict involves someone's attempts at killing Ana to get rid of her for good, and the resulting characters that show themselves to be behind that were interesting enough, but not very memorable. Sam and Ana are really the stars of Incarnate, mainly due to how most characters keep a distance from Ana. So, while the reader gets a strong romantic arc, there isn't a lot there otherwise - and with how interesting Incarnate's world was to me, it was a bit of a disappointment.
The world of Incarnate is where regular fantasy readers will pause. Incarnate is a novel that engrosses the reader emotionally with the romance and the unique take on reincarnation - namely that the memories from past lives are accessible and make the people almost immortal, except that their physical bodies still pass away. This focuses more on the idea of spiritualism in the culture and whether or not the memories of past lives make the characters grow as people. There's so much focus on this particular aspect that the other fantasy aspects of the book are developed in a minimalistic way. Part of it is the author's writing style in general - hence why a lot of the fantasy portions are simplified for poetic effect. The city's name is Heart, after all. Everything is pretty straight-forward in terms of concept and naming, and the world building is put to the side at times in order to focus on the relationship/plot development. Readers who enjoy fantasy with more detail in the world and the general exposition will find the novel's style to be on the sparse side. Meadows still uses a lot of interesting concepts, and the way she tackled reincarnation was worth the read alone. On many levels it allows the mainstream YA audience to access the book - it does matter a great deal with the romantic dynamic between Ana and Sam, after all. Yet there are a lot of other questions that Meadows raises in Incarnate as well. The people of Range can only inhabit a small portion of it and are in danger in many other non-fortified places. The residents of Heart in particular are secluded in their own tight-knit community that is hostile towards change. Despite obvious signs of some higher or mysterious power, such as their initial discovery of the city of Heart and the way their souls reincarnate instead of passing on to another plane of existence, the residents have trouble truly believing in spiritual beings. Ana becomes an anomaly that makes them question again, and her disturbance to the community causes people to question their way of life. The community dynamic in conjunction with the spiritual dynamic is what really interested me about the fantasy - although the world of Range holds a lot of promise outside of Heart's walls, especially in the sylph and dragon attack scenes that Meadows features in Incarnate. She writes them well and shows off a very different - possibly more interesting - version of her world.
Style-wise, Incarnate has something about it that will appeal to a variety of readers. Meadows is an author that is both poetic and simplistic, and it allows the concepts and characters to shine through the text more than anything. Some passages are gorgeous and make the reading experience a joy. Others focus on pacing and leave the exposition to suffer a bit as a result. The main two/three characters are pulled off well and are complicated enough to warrant the strong focus on their personal relationships, but the side characters felt like they were being prepared for future books instead of being amplified in this one - and as several of them are introduced in the novel, the reader doesn't get attached to many of them. Incarnate is a novel that attempts to say a lot and succeeds when it comes to its emotional and spiritual complexities, but it has its stumbling points that prevent it from being a perfect reading experience. I look forward to the sequel, as Meadows sets things up in such a way that the reader really feels promise in the world's future.
Cover: This cover is just gorgeous. Yes, it's another female model, but the butterfly is a major symbol in the novel...so I can let it slide. Plus, it reminds me of a fabulous masquerade scene in it...
Rating: 4.0 Stars
Copy: Received from publisher/publicist for review (Thank you, Heather and Harper Collins!)