I received this book for free on Netgalley for a review. I requested it because I thought the cover was *kisses fingertips* fantastically designed, and the summary sounded like the sort of thing I’d like.
I’m struggling to write and rate this properly. I sort of skimmed reviews when I was 25% into the book, and was surprised to see most pointing out a discrepancy between the beginning and the end of the book- but having read it, I agree. The start is a solid 5 stars, and the book declines in quality around 50%, with the very end being… below average quality.
Set in a slightly vague future, The Similars is centered on cloning- more specifically, a group of six illegally made clones who attend an elite boarding school, five of them doing so alongside the children they were cloned from. Cloning is illegal and prohibited in the United States, and they are not well liked by many of their peers (and the families who only just learned they existed)- this sets a stage of tension.
Beyond this, the clones (who have named themselves ‘The Similars’) are strange. Their whole existence was unknown until a few months ago, and they were raised on a private island, with no contact to the outside world. They already don’t fit in.
Technologically, I enjoyed the level the book was at. There was solid AI, self driving vehicles, hologram technology, nanobots- a lot of believable technological advancements, generally integrated well enough into the world. Of course, most of the book takes place on campus of the school, Darkwood, which is on a tech blackout. We don’t experience a lot of the future tech until late in the book, which makes it slightly jarring.
Darkwood. Dark Lake. Hades’ Point. Ah, YA. These are names right out of a cheesy paranormal-romance book, and my friend even suggested they might be placeholders. I kind of doubt it, but I found it a little silly.
Also, this book takes place in Vermont. As a Vermonter/super fan of the state, I will do a Vermont Review at the end of this review to let you know how vermont-true it was. Spoilers: I concluded pretty early on the author just chose it because it’s rural and has a lot of trees.
Setting wise, the book takes place mostly over a school year, but we get surprisingly little description of any of it. I have little idea how any of the buildings or grounds look, or even how big Darkwood is. The book has tension and atmosphere in the beginning, but this is all plot generated- it lacks environmental feeling. A lot of the words were just first person narration and character focused, and while that was well enough, I wanted a little more to feel grounded.
Especially since, as a Vermont-kid, I really was looking forward to like, one line about Vermont weather. Not even one mention of autumn leaves, huh?
There’s slightly too many characters for this book, or really, names I am meant to keep track of. There’s the main character and the Similars, of course. Then there’s the ‘popular kids’ clique, which overlaps with the kids the Similars are cloned from. This is already over ten names, which is, well, a lot.
It’s be more manageable if a lot of the story didn’t overlap with everyone’s parents- as in, nearly doubling the amount of key named characters in the book. I understood who the main names were, but was always thrown when Mean Girl Number Two’s Dad was referred to by first name, like I was meant to remember him.
The characters themselves are tricky for me. At first I didn’t think anything of them, but as the book went on, I started to realize many of them were one-note, and a few were quite interchangeable. It’s to make every character memorable, especially when there’s over six of them to introduce, but I found even among the ‘main-er’ cast I couldn’t really remember what separated them. Who was Sarah again? Was there anything notable about Tessa? Theodora just sort of came and went in having speaking lines, and then Maude near the end sounded just like her anyways, so…
It’s for sure hard to tackle that many characters, but most of them were relatively irrelevant, so I didn’t mind much. It’s the very one-note-ness of the minor characters which bothers me. The mean girl Madison? Yeah, she’s just exactly the same the entire book, a caricature of a rude mean girl with an evil streak. The villains all follow this pattern of being extremely evil and simple characters, with no depth or nuance. That just ain’t great.
Lastly, the main character. This is a first person narrative, and one that does the whole inner voice thing well enough. I rolled my eyes at Emma at first, but I liked her enough, and she was very motivated and action-taking as a protagonist. She said what was on her mind, and was determined to learn what she needed to know. That drive is good.
One thing that concerns me, however, is the portrayal of depression in this book. In the beginning I rolled my eyes but was secretly a little pleased to find Emma was extremely depressed at the beginning of the book, with suicidal thoughts. Weird sentence there, but as someone who has had depression since childhood and been suicidal plenty of times, I found some of the feelings and descriptions of Emma’s pain relatable.
The first line of the book is “I don’t actively want to die. Not all the time.” This is a very Big Mood, as the kids say, and a great first line. The trouble I have, however, with Emma’s depression is that is paints a very… anti-medication vibe.
Emma is very depressed and keeps popping ‘pharma’, which nulls her feelings. It’s extremely odd and nonsensical to me that any sort of SSRI would ever be distributed in pill form, as dosing and long term doses are the whole thing that makes them work. Anyways, Emma does this because she is depressed, but early on she dumps them all down the drain, and honestly not that long after that, she just stops really acting or sounding deeply depressed. The suicidal thoughts and jokes are over. I guess the plot got in the way, but again, I’m rather frustrated with this picture is that Emma essentially cures her depression by suddenly stopping her medication. Yes, whatever weirdo pill she was taking was not a proper SSRI, but it was prescribed to her by a psychiatrist, so we have to assume it’s equivalent, and proper medical practice.
Depression is not cured by simply stopping taking your meds. Medication is good. Stopping your medication makes you extremely nauseous and ill, and eventually will likely just send you back to where you begin again. There is this narrative you see sometimes, that medication is controlling people’s minds, and that if you just get off your pills and take yoga, you’ll realize this. Nope! Clinical depression is a disease like any other. You can recover from it, and get off your meds, but this is done through slowly lowering your dose, and lots of therapy. Trust me, I am excited to lower my meds, but they do not ‘change how I think’ or mess with me in any way- they keep me alive.
Ugh, I didn’t realize how much I cared about this until I wrote it out, but it has been bothering me. I’m on the maximum possible prozac prescription, and no, it has not turned me into an empty robot. It keeps me stable and helps my mind work like it is meant to.
Plot & romance & the second half
So, I don’t want to giveaway any spoilers as this is an ARC, so I’ll have to keep a number of things vague.
The love interest, Levi (predictable; not a spoiler) is a hate-to-love relationship for the narrator. I was wholly indifferent to them and their chemistry. Later on I liked him due to the personal and ethics issues his life and story brings up, but I didn’t see the connection with him and Emma, and I didn’t like it at all when they got down to kissing.
The beginning and introduction of the plot sets up a lot of questions, and this is luckily the sort of book that actually answers them. There’s mysteries and drama ahoy early on, making it a light, engaging read. I wanted answers, and I enjoyed trying to guess and figure out what was going on. The only out of place thing was the cartoonish-ness of some of the anti-clone stuff, which was surely meant to mirror civil rights things but instead felt hackey.
As we went on, however, things got weird.
Nothing was wholly out of place for the world, but some things just seemed to happen to raise questions, making parts of the book feel like a Series of Inexplicable Events. We learn some things about the Similars that are just silly- they already were silly enough, mind you, with their five languages and super smarts. It’s a blessing they aren’t also all inexplicably hot.
The climax was where things began to feel increasingly like a middle grade novel, or I guess a very cliche young adult movie for an unfamiliar book. The villain is cartoonishly evil, his motives bland and uninteresting. We have like two chapters of exposition in a row, and some silly dream sequence stuff. A lot of dream/unreality stuff, actually, which is pretty much always a don’t in holding my attention.
The book with one cliffhanger which I am fine with, but suggests another which I abhor: the dreaded ‘main character is somehow special’ trope. It’s far better to have a normal character caught up in things than have your main character be unique and wrapped right into everything. It makes the whole logic feel too deliberately planned and out of place.
This book was hittin’ me up at five stars in the beginning. It read well, but that wellness fell apart the further I got, deteriorating in a weak climax, boring villains, and uninteresting answers. The fact it’s a series doesn’t help, since I can’t quite imagine what the next book or two will be, and I’m not fully sure if I’m interested.
It was engaging, but it really just chipped away at me towards the end, so I’m settling with three stars.
The cover, since I mentioned it before, is wonderful. So pleasing to look at! So nice and aesthetic! I really enjoy the text and image editing that went into this.
Oh man!!!! When I read the first paragraph and saw this was set in Vermont, I freaked out. I laughed, I cried, I was happy, I was afraid. I felt every human emotion in the world. Vermont never shows up in media, especially book genres I actually read, so I had a lot of questions.
Has the author ever been to Vermont? Is she from here? Where in Vermont is this? Does she know anything at all about Vermont, its culture, and climate?
Gonna go with a high ‘nah’ on that. Vermont fans, turn your eyes: due to the lack of environmental atmosphere and description, this book has nothing that makes Darkwood feel placed in Vermont, and nothing Vermont about anything at all. Characters do not dress or act properly for the winter and fall, nor do I think there’s much about the summer heat. There is no mud season or leaf peeping season. There Is No Maple Syrup.
I don’t even think I remember snow being mentioned once, which is insane. We usually have snow from October to April, and a lot of it.
What was funniest to me (really funny, honestly), is the accidental oddness of the demographics of Darkwood. Look, it’s the future, but Vermont is insanely (97%) white. Northern Vermont is more white, and rural Vermont is the whitest. I understand the diversity, and it can be written off as this is just ‘the most elite school ever’ so people from all over attend, but it was really odd to note how non-white the population of 350 students was. My friend went to a school around that size (I think a little smaller), and there was maybe one PoC. My school was 2000 and there were like, six.
Vermont is very inclusive and liberal, but it just kept striking me as another very non-Vermont thing about the book. I guess the fact the school’s core motto was of ‘inclusion’- and the constant mentions of this- was true to the picture. I was once at a black lives matter parade where there were two black people. Vermont means well, but it’s mostly just like, trees and white democrats.
Anyways, Vermont rating:
NOT ENOUGH VERMONT