Title: The Soulkeepers
Series: The Soulkeepers #1
Other Reviews for This Author: None
Kindle freebies allowed me to discover this self-published YA novel. I downloaded a ton of them, and The Soulkeepers sounded intriguing enough to warrant a try. I loved the concept of a male protagonist being focused on for once, and the idea of being a soulkeeper sounded interesting to me. Like many self-published books I read recently, The Soulkeepers seemed to be hitting the mark until I thought more about my reading experience. For the price point, the novel is more than enjoyable, but it shares some problems that many other self-published YA novels have, and its problems cause its benefits to neutralize. The Soulkeepers will be worth the time for some readers, but it will depend on how well they can handle some of the issues the book presents.
Jacob Lau has gotten into a car accident. His mother has gone missing and no one seems able to find her, though she was with him that night. His father's been dead. Stranded at the hospital, Jacob is seemingly alone in the world. His perception of who he is shatters when a strange man visits him in the hospital and claims to be his uncle on his father's side. The idea seems preposterous. How could his father never speak of a brother? Everything seems confusing and out of place, and it only gets worse when Jacob is told that he will be going to live with his uncle until his mother returns.
It's bad enough that Jacob's mother may not be found, but having him restart his life at a new school just seems like torture. Jacob has lived most of his life on Hawaii, and his half-Chinese race has never been an issue there. In small town America, however, people seem to take a lot of issue with it. Jacob finds himself being subjected to bullying and name calling from many students at the school. Even his cousin gets in on it. The world seems to be against Jacob, and the rage that results from it is too much to bear. The only person that keeps him sane is Mailini, an Indian girl who understands what Jacob is going through and becomes a true friend to him in the process.
Jacob soon learns that there is more to this town than pain, though. The secrets of his father's life start to unearth themselves as Jacob becomes closer with his uncle. A next-door neighbor takes on Jacob as a worker of sorts after he smashes one of her picture windows in. The ensuing relationship with the world-renowned botanist becomes more than as simple tutor/student one following an incident that involves Jacob's deepest curiosities and her private greenhouse situated in the back of her property. Jacob uncovers countless secrets, and in those secrets he learns things about himself and his apparent supernatural gifts that will change his life forever.
I've not read a protagonist like Jacob Lau in YA for a while, and it was quite a change from the usual strong (or pseudo-strong) female lead characters. Jacob is strong, true, but he's also a male perspective. Ching uses third-person, so Jacob's maleness isn't as overt as it would be in first person, but the masculinity of the narrative rings surprisingly strong throughout the novel. Jacob is a boy that is struggling with everything life is handing to him. His mother is missing. His father is gone. A new side of his family that he never knew existed appeared out of nowhere just recently. On top of that, he's now living in a place that's prejudiced and so much smaller in scope. I could easily identify with some of those feelings, and Jacob's extreme aggression at times was understandable. Jacob's temper occasionally goes too far, though, and it's hard as a reader to be completely sympathetic with just how far it goes. The narrative doesn't justify it as being overboard, but it makes getting to know and like Jacob harder as things go along. Jacob also has some viewpoints that he struggles to accept that readers will find fairly accessible, such as his his distaste of religion because of his life's hardships. Jacob struggles with a lot of viewpoints and iffyness that teen readers will understand, but the narrative tends to speak them in the most blatant black-and-white terms, and it made me dislike his voice in some parts as a result. Religion in particular seemed to go from this gray-matter subject to being something to put in simplistic, dumbed-down terms. Those passages felt like they were over-simplified to attract the reader to later plot points, and Jacob's character seemed to suffer from the over-simplification. Jacob's character growth also faltered after the plot took the full focus, and the transition was not strong in shifting the focus.
Other characters felt similar to Jacob. There were times that I felt they really did well in terms of the narrative. There's the harsh reality of Jacob's relationship with his cousin, who can be flat-out awful despite the fact that Jacob is her newly discovered kin. Jacob's uncle has some surprising depth to him, and Jacob's relationship with him is arguably the most well-rounded of the relationships within The Soulkeepers. Ching writes Jacob's uncle as an understanding character that is dealing with a lot of issues regarding Jacob's place in his life - he wants Jacob to accept life and to work with him on starting it over, but he also has lingering feelings about how his brother left his life, which are feelings that ultimately change how he feels about his brother's son, Jacob. This relationship was actually one worthy of exploring in-depth, and the biggest problem regarding it was the lack of resolution with it on Jacob's part. Jacob holds almost no feelings of care towards his uncle at the end of the novel. He basically transitions from dislike to indifference, and it didn't ring true based on how much Jacob's uncle did for him when he was basically all alone in the world. Malini was a surprising addition - the book didn't read as one that would involve a romantic relationship, and I was delighted to find Malini to be a fairly strong and able character. Her romance with Jacob feels insta-love in nature - they say it about halfway through the novel, or at least Jacob does - and they mostly bond over being outcasts. Malini is a strong female, and I appreciated how she was knowledgeable and knew how to stand up for herself, especially when Jacob made her angry. However, their relationship goes stagnant after a while, and there wasn't enough romantic tension or growth in their relationship after a while to truly have me invested in it deeply.
Ching's world itself is very unique to YA in many ways. It is essentially an angel-story if it is looked at by its bare-bones concept, but in reality there is a lot of intricacy to the idea that doesn't involve the religious aspect. However, the execution is poorly done. Ching introduces a lot of elements such as location-traveling trees, exotic plant species that are beyond the beyond, and confusing mythologies about other-worlds and people that don't feel very well-crafted. The book's world building doesn't start until nearly midway through, and of it there are a lot of concepts that feel too easily accepted. Some of them also feel over-the-top and unnecessary. The biggest issue is that Ching attempts to connect all of this to religious concepts in Christianity, but it is tackled in such a way that things are far too cut and dry. One cannot simply introduce religion without either A) making it a complex part of the world building or B) making it clear that the world building from the religion doesn't mean that the religion has to be the only answer to spiritualism within the text. I'm sure for others it's different, but I am picky about how religions are handled, and most YA books dealing with angels tend to make religion more of a complex issue and focus on how Christian mythology relates to the world building - as opposed to the direct use of the religion. For instance, Malini becomes a source of specific Biblical passages and tries to get Jacob to understand them and accept Christianity as a religion. While the mythos of Christianity ties into the story, the info-dumping about it and how it directly connected to being someone a part of the religion seemed off to me. It's not just the angelic parts, but everything, and it just wasn't to my taste. This was in part due to how Jacob's struggles with it felt simplistic. Making a religious struggle simplistic and then basing the world building off of it? It doesn't ring true, and it's contradictory to how one wants to make the world seem complex and interesting to the reader.
Writing-wise, Ching has some nice stuff going on in this book. Ching has a solid voice that makes the novel enjoyable, and there were easily periods within this book where it was hard to put down. Some of the adventures are eye-catching, and Jacob does have sections where he is compelling as a protagonist for purposes beyond the plot of the novel. However, as with many self-published works published recently, there is a huge issue with pacing. The Soulkeepers has a giant trough in the middle of it that reflects that. The attempt to focus on characters without much character or plot depth in the first half made it quickly go sour. The read is obviously plot-focused, and the characterizations never got to a level deep enough to make the focus on characterization worth the effort. A lot of it became regurgitated conflicts and information, and the actual point behind soulkeepers wasn't made clear until many, many pages had been flipped. Not just that, but there wasn't a sufficient thread of subtle build-up to it. All in all, though, the mythology was made to be interesting. Ching's writing had a level of entertainment to it that allowed one to wave past the initial disappointment in how things were handled and move forward, and there were some interesting dynamics later on regarding good versus evil - they just weren't explored as much as one would like. Some of Ching's descriptions also got old, such as how Jacob's mother's eyes were always described as "almond eyes". It's a common description, but after it's said once I'd rather it not be said again - and again, stereotypical descriptions, especially in regards to racially diverse characters, feel regurgitated and old after some time. The writing in general was smooth enough, although those occasionally problematic descriptions and editing errors got the best of it in some situations. Pricing-wise, this book was still worth the time for the unique aspects, but only if you enjoy a more plot-focused read.
Initially, this review is extremely critical of how The Soulkeepers was handled. The novel in itself was entertaining, and getting it as a freebie meant that it didn't take much for me to feel satisfied with it as a piece of fiction. Jacob Lau was an interesting character, as was Malini, and I particularly enjoyed the diversity of their issues and how they were addressed in relation to living in a small town. However, the characters weren't developed as much as they could have been, and the plot was uneven, confusing, and hard to invest one's self in for some time due to the way things were simplified. The religion wasn't a huge bother until the execution felt lackluster, and on reflection I'm not sure that I'll bother picking up the second one. I may because of how I love to support diverse characters, but I would do so with reservation because of a worry that the second book will show similar issues.
Cover: This cover is nice and reflects the protagonist, but I've seen this general stock image a lot for YA books - self-published and not - and it thus feels rather non-unique.
Rating: 2.5 Stars - My initial reaction after reading was better, but after remembering it for a while I was less than happy with some of the lingering feelings.
Copy: Bought (Note - as a free download for Kindle)