Title: The Gathering
Author: Kelley Armstrong
Publisher: Harper Collins
Series: Darkness Rising #1
Other Reviews for This Author: The Awakening ; The Reckoning ; Enthralled
Kelley Armstrong is an author that I constantly enjoy even though I don't love love her books. There's a big difference between a consistently entertaining author like Armstrong and one that makes my entire universe shift with the right book (or two...or three...). Armstrong's Chloe Saunders trilogy was one of my first forays into YA paranormal romance/urban fantasy reading, and one of the first series that I picked up blindly in the bookstore prior to blogging. The series ended with little resolution to the larger plotline going on - and even some trilogy-specific subplots that never got fully resolved except in a few random short stories. The Gathering starts another trilogy set in the same world, but it features different protagonists and a different setting. It follows some of the same faults and strengths of Armstrong's first YA trilogy, yet I have to say that, as a reader, this was probably my favorite YA book of hers to date.
There are few things that effect a small community quite like the death of someone young and in the prime of their life. Maya's best friend Serena was everything - a talented swimmer, a girl known for her personality and kindness, and a girl with one of the most devoted guys on the planet. Nothing about Serena's life, at her age, was ready to be snuffed out. When Maya, Serena, and Daniel (Serena's beau) went swimming at a local lake, they never anticipated any problems, having done it thousands of times before. Swimming in the lake had never seemed dangerous, yet something happened with Serena that changed that. It seemed to be the worst type of irony that the strongest swimmer was the one that got pulled underneath the dark waters of the lake, drowning and disappearing for several days.
The aftermath is what changed their small research town. Suddenly, Maya and Daniel were left without a best friend and a girlfriend respectively. Months passed without either of them getting over Serena's death. Maya has since tried to get to a better place in her life. Her friendship with Daniel has continued, although she can't help but label him as a perpetual boyfriend-in-mourning because of his attitude and the tragedy of the situation. She tries to think about simpler goals - getting her pawprint-shaped birthmark tattooed into a more permanant icon on her skin and getting through her life in the practically secluded Canadian wilderness, using the time to hone her skills in communicating and taking care of injured animals that come out of the wildlife reserve. Maya, despite the grief, has continued to thrive.
A new boy in town shakes up her life - and the life of all of the other 250-some residents, too. People rarely move in or out. Almost every family in residence is employeed by a research company that pays big bucks for scientists to research top-secret projects in the medical field. Maya, her father a game warden hired on a few years after the project started, knows what Rafe is going through as an outsider, yet she can't find too much sympathy for him because of his womanizing reputation. Rafe shows interest in Maya that goes well beyond that of a flirt. Not only does he challenge her, making her show him just how strong she is underneath her pretty exterior, but he seems to show a great deal of interest in her birthmark, her past, and her strange ability with animals. Rafe's appearance is only the beginning of what proves to be a very intricate and deadly mystery, all revolving around Maya's tattoo and the real research going on in town.
Maya is both like Armstrong's first YA heroine, Chloe, and very different. Maya has Chloe's snark and her tendency towards curiosity despite the consequences that could be involved with it, as well as Chloe's bad habit of getting into tough situations involving romance. Their basic stories are similar in this general sense, but Maya proved to be a much stronger and smarter version of her predecessor. Chloe's story had a tendency to feel drawn out in all of the wrong ways, with her making occasionally impulsive decisions related to her emotions that just landed her group of friends in hot water time and time again. Maya's...better. Not in a crazy Mary Sue way, but in a way that shows she's more aware of the world around her. Everything Maya does has more thought and purpose behind it. Her strength, confidence, and attitude suggest that she has the strength of character that Chloe lacked in the early parts of her timeline. Seeing a girl like Maya win contests against the boys and blatantly show off her physical strength is awesome. Her ability to work with animals also serves as a good way to soften her image with some sensitivity without making her seem weak - not to mention acting as a solid tool for foreshadowing and some scary plot events. Everything about Maya just screams "engaging" as a protagonist, and she's much easier to like because she constantly feels like an active participant in the stuff going on around her. She's also less receptive with her romance. It's more of a struggle for her character to accept, and it's not a love tried-and-true love triangle that is extremely unbalanced, which was the case of Chloe's romance with the two very attractive supernatural brothers that loved her. Readers who love strong heroines - or ones that liked Chloe's voice in Armstrong's previous books but wanted something a bit more - will find Maya to be a great protagonist to get in the mind of.
Armstrong's other characters are all fun in their own way, yet she has particular types that turn up frequently. It's more than just the attractive male companions, too. Armstrong likes her parental/adult figures to be suspicious and layered in their motivations, and she likes her teen characters to be able to engage in realistically snarky dialogue exchanges. Maya's friends and family fit into these traits pretty well, but that's not a bad thing. Daniel is - amazingly - a solid friend for Maya to lean on. He's definitely a friend to her, not someone she's physically attracted to. The attentiveness and protectiveness focused on a friendship helped, as it made Maya and Daniel seem more realistic in their complex relationship. Their dynamic regarding Serena was great, too, as it gave them some depth and ongoing threads to explore throughout the book within their friendship. Rafe was more on the traditional side with his brooding hotness, yet it was so fun to see Armstrong write a male hero that had to really work to get the heroine's attention. Rafe works, works, and works to get a chance to be with Maya. He loses her trust and gains it back time and time again. Unlike the Derek/Chloe relationship (which I did love, but in a different way), the Rafe/Maya relationship has much more of a balance to it. Maya's definitely the one in control despite Rafe's suave exterior, and I like that as a reader. Armstrong also made a point to show Maya's parents as being very present and understanding of her teen life when at all possible. She had the independence of a teen who was trusted, strong, and living in a small town, but her parents were always in the background during key scenes in a realistic way. Armstrong gave them a relationship of understanding and love, which is a rare thing for teens these days, but a great thing to show teen readers. Maya's core group of friends was interesting as well. The secondary/side characters provided a good balance between entertaining personality and plot, and it never felt like they were merely created just to provide conflict for Maya and her friends. It will be interesting to see if Armstrong continues to show some of these secondary/side characters in the future books in the series.
As for the plotting and writing...there is good and bad news here. The good news is that there is a reason that The Gathering was, in my opinion, Armstrong's best YA novel. The bad news is that she still has some plotting quibbles that make me find it to be a less-than-perfect endeavor. Armstrong as a YA writer loves her plots to expand over three books. This is really a third of the story. The primary concern is characterization and set-up. The supernatural elements are built up slowly in order to make the world realistic. Armstrong has a good sense of what it takes to make the story realistic, but the downside is that her plotting is, at best, slow. The good news is that The Gathering uses this quality of her plotting to its best abilities. The romance has a strong arc that the reader gets invested in during the plot-light portions of the narrative, and it's hard to realize just how slow the plot progression is throughout the book. It wasn't until the end of The Gathering that I realized that Armstrong had really been writing a set-up novel, and I was more than ready to dive into the second book. Her ability to watch her pacing has improved so much, and she has also gotten better in this installment with regards to avoiding filler content such as repetitive teenage angst or chase scenes. Because of the plot structure, not much more can be said about the plot without spoiling it. As always, Armstrong ends the story on a major cliffhanger, so the need for having the second book around for impatient readers is strong. The connective threads between this series opener and the Chloe Saunders trilogy are strong, and Armstrong adds in just enough to make readers of this previous series anxious for the future installments.
The Gathering was my favorite Armstrong reading experience so far. She has a way of telling stories that always engages me, even when the technical aspects of her stories give me issue. She has yet to write a story that has made me forget of her technical aspects, yet The Gathering comes close with Maya's tough-as-nails attitude, her romance, and the beginnings of a delicious new plot of paranormal action and intrigue. Kelley Armstrong is back on track, and I can't wait to see where this trilogy of hers ends up - based on this first book, it seems like it could be a very good place.
Cover: I like the accented piece of jewelry and the dynamic pose of the model, but other readers are right in their assessment of how the coloring and lighting hide the fact that she is part-Native, which is severely disappointing from a marketing and moral perspective.
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Copy: Received from publisher/publicist. (Thank you, Heather and Harper Collins!)