“The most destructive or constructive actions begin with a single thought. And, ultimately, a single action can decide the direction our lives take. And our deaths.”
Firstlife by Gena Showalter is not what I expected it to be – in a good way. Admittedly, I was drawn in by the cover. It’s eye-catching! I knew the overall story arc dealt with the battle between good and evil, but with Gena Showalter being the author of steamy romances, I was caught off guard by the parallels the story drew to Biblical scriptures. For my non-religious friends, don’t let this turn you off from the book. It’s actually quite exciting, full of dark twists and turns, surprising light-hearted moments, and intelligent insights from the characters that will cause you to stop and reflect. If you enjoyed the Angelfall series by Susan Ee, or the Guards of the Shadowlands series by Sarah Fine, you will love Firstlife!
I had the privilege of being an early reader of Firslife, which debuts on February 23, 2016 from Harlequin Teen, so I will do my best to avoid spoilers and/or too much description in this review.
In the world of Firstlife, there exists a series of facts, composed of various numbers (and numbers play a big part in this book!) Each person living on earth (known as the Great Harvest) has two lives: their Firstlife, and then their Everlife. One is temporary, the other is eternal. (Are you starting to see the parallels?) Each individual has one choice to make for where they spend their Everlife: Troika, the land of sunshine and plenty, or Myriad, the land of moonlight and whispering forests.
“There has to be absolute right or there isn’t absolute wrong.”
Tenley Lockwood, or Ten for short, is at an impasse with her Myradian parents. They want her to pledge her Everlife to Myriad, but when she refuses to be forced into a decision, she is sent to a youth prison camp of sorts, where “worldly” or “undecided” youth are exposed to both torture and bribery in order to force them to do the bidding of their parents. There, she meets an interesting cast of characters, namely Archer and Killian, two boys who will change her life, and NOT because she’s torn between which one to kiss and which one to be with forever. That’s right, dear readers, there is NOT a love triangle in Firstlife! Both Archer and Killian want something from Tenley, and each is determined to sign her to their realm, but neither realize that there is something far more sinister happening between their respective realms than they could ever have imagined.
“I can’t allow a momentary pain to eclipse an eternal decision. Feelings are fleeting, no matter how earth-shattering they seem; they never last, always change. A covenant is forever.”
Ten is one of my favorite female characters in YA in recent months. She’s snarky, brave, intelligent, and compassionate. I admire her for wanting to make her own informed choice about where she spends eternity, and for understanding why others would choose one realm over another. For all the good traits Ten has, she also has some undesirable ones. She is can be childish, impulsive, and her indecision can seem rather drawn out at times. She also has a big “thing” for sweets, and cake in particular, which I think takes away from the impact and seriousness of certain scenes, but hey – no book or character is perfect!
The two boys, Killian and Archer, are sure to be hits with the ladies. Archer is the big brother/best friend every girl wishes she had. He’s funny, loyal, confident, and honest. I didn’t like cocky, tattooed Killian at first, though he did begin to grow on me towards the end. I need to see how he develops in the second book, because I continue to question his motivations in getting close to Ten. There’s a backstory with Killian, involving his missing mother, and that is another push for the reader to continue the series. One thing that grated on my nerves was Ten describing both Killian and Archer as, essentially, perfect. I remember what the boys around me looked like at 17 and 18, and pictures of perfection they were not! I don’t know why YA authors feel compelled to paint their characters as being unworldly beautiful, even in Fantasy. A couple of flaws –or freckles– would be nice!
Ten’s story is certainly compelling, and both her adventures and misadventures are nail-biting. The descriptions of her time spent in the youth prison/asylum practically make your body ache with pain. Her torturers are the perfect, cringe-worthy villains! While there is a bit of a Special Snowflake feel to the overall arc, in that Ten is the only person that has what each realm desperately needs, there are other aspects to the story that redeem it from washing up on Eyeroll Island. Between graphic descriptions of torture, shootouts, bloody hand-to-hand battles, and plane crashes, Firstlife is not a fluffy or light-hearted read. The action is serious here, and it keeps the pages turning.
The description of the two realms was confusing and not as fleshed out as I would like, so I did have to take notes, to which I referred while reading. What was perhaps the most memorable – and terrifying – realm of all is the Realm of Many Ends, which is where the Undecided go, upon leaving their Firstlife. The descriptions of the horrors and creatures that await those who end up there were eye-bulging! It made me think of the Biblical Hell, yet it seemed to be pushed more as a type of purgatory. It’s apparent that there is still much to be learned about the realms, which certainly makes the reader want to go on to the next book in the series!
“Just then I’m struck by a truth so real it might as well be a bolt of lightning: there is no greater evil than the one that cloaks itself in virtue.”
Overall, Firstlife is a thrilling read, full of unexpected twists and turns, a strong but flawed heroine, heart-warming friendships, villains you love to hate, a smoldering romance, heart-racing action, and surprisingly poignant reflections on the fleeting nature of life and all its intricacies. There is a cliff-hanger at the end, but if you hold on tight, I’m positive Gena Showalter will make it worth our while. If you were trying to determine whether to buy or borrow this book, dear reader, know that Firstlife has a proud place on my bookshelves as a book and a series I could read again and again.
Disclaimer: I received an e-ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All quotes in italics are from the e-ARC and may or may not represent the content of the final, published work.