________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 12 . . . . February 6, 2009

cover Raven.

Allison van Diepen.
New York, NY: Simon & Schuster (Distributed in Canada by Simon & Schuster Canada), 2009.
278 pp., hardcover, $18.99.
ISBN 978-1-4169-7899-2.

Subject Headings:
Frienship fiction.
Love-fiction.
Magic-fiction.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Naomi Hamer.

** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.

excerpt:

It was a mistake. I never should have looked so closely into Zinís eyes. I never should have looked into my own soul. But I canít go back. I canít un-know what I know. Even the Jiang Shi, who have conquered life and death, canít go back in time. Sure, I needed Zin too much. Sure, he was my obsession, my fantasy. But he was my favourite person, the one who made life beautiful. Could he blame me for trying to fill the hole in my soul with him? Was it so wrong?

Allison van Diepenís third novel, Raven, is narrated by Nicole, a New York teen struggling with the impending end of high school, her parentsí turmoil over her drug-addict older brother Josh, and her unrequited love for her best friend, the elusive Zin, a fellow break-dancer and co-worker. As the situation with her brother worsens, Nicole begins to immerse herself entirely in the world of Evermore, a nightclub housed in a converted church where she works underage as a waitress and dances with a break-dancing group. As she grows closer to her mysterious boss Carlo and her eclectic friends at the club, Nicole finds herself the only human among a secret society of the Jiang Shi, immortal creatures from East Asian mythology who ďstay alive not through vampirical blood drinking, but by absorbing the souls of their victims.Ē The narrative primarily follows Nicoleís experience in first person as she deals with difficult questions about mortality, morality, love, fate, and free will.

     Released on the heels of teen vampire mania around Stephanie Myersí Twilight and its blockbuster film adaptation, Van Diepenís new novel will inevitably be compared to the popular vampire books. Although Raven also involves a romantic narrative with a mysterious immortal love interest, Nicole is a spunky, break-dancing urban heroine that is quite distinct from Bella in Twilight. The strongest parts of Raven are the moments when the first-person narration invites the reader inside Nicoleís internal reflections. Her character development is most clearly revealed through her first-person recollections of dreams: ďAnd sometimes I am not just watching the ravens, I am one, flying over cities and countryside, over years and centuries. As I soar through the air, I feel the wind sliding over my shining feathers, and I feel completely, gloriously free.Ē However, the novel tends to be quite plot-driven, and when the narrative moves, for example, from the raven dream to Nicoleís deciding to go to get a raven tattoo, the internal reflection is replaced with descriptions of action. I continually found myself wanting to hear more about Nicoleís internal struggles as she discovers her destiny.

     I found the greatest weakness in the novel is that the experience of break-dancing itself, particularly in terms of Nicoleís journey as a character, is not fully explored. The potential to explore how different characters deal with their personal traumas through their dance is only dabbled in as a narrative tool. The dance sequences are almost always described using detailed descriptions of specific moves and references to particular hip-hop artists: ďZin hits the floor, starting off with a few knee drops, then twisting into a headspin, after which he crabs around with Slide, weaving through his legs while Iím doing applejacks.Ē The dance Ďbattlesí introduced early in the book could have provided a way to develop relationships between characters, peer groups, and Zin and Nicole, but instead they merely act as an action sequence. In addition, the group of friends in her Toprocks break-dancing crew who are introduced in the first part of the novel seem to disappear as significant characters in the second half of the story, except when necessary for plot twists.

     Another weakness in the novel is the lack of character development outside of Nicole. I found it frustrating that the ethnic diversity of the characters in Raven are explicitly indicated in describing the characters initially but then never fulfil their potential for interesting, eclectic individuals. Carloís Italian, Zinís Arab and Chenís Chinese backgrounds seem more like superficial characteristics than true elements of their personalities. The book would also benefit from more showing and less telling in general. At times, the narrative felt as though it was reciting information from a website or history book about the Jiang Shi or 18th century Yemen, rather than describing the experiences of the characters themselves.

     Overall, the book at times feels like two stories from distinct genres, social realism and gothic fiction, that have been joined after the fact, instead of one fully integrated narrative of magical realism. That said, although I would recommend this book with reservations to a general readership, Raven may provide a fulfilling read for many Twilight fans and readers who enjoy coming-of-age dance films such as Step Up. With its combination of suspense, break-dancing, and immortal love, I would still recommend this novel to teen readers who gravitate towards action-oriented adventure and romance.

     Inspired by the young authorís experiences as a teacher in inner city public schools in Brooklyn, Allison Van Diepenís first two novels, Street Pharm (2006) and Snitch (2007), explore the edgy world of drugs and gangs. She now teaches in an alternative school in Ottawa, ON.

Recommended with reservations.

Naomi Hamer is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Research on Children, Youth and Media, Institute of Education, University of London, UK. She also has an MA in Children Literature from the University of British Columbia and has worked extensively as a drama and creative writing instructor with children and teens in schools, libraries and recreational programs.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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