Intriguing premise and fast-paced dystopian tale
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on April 17, 2015
Dystopian seems to be the new black. Ever since the whole "Hunger Games" craze, it's no surprise that there isn't ever a shortage of stories about rebellious teenagers who, against all odds, end up challenging - and ultimately overthrowing - a corrupt, controlling government. While the underlying premise of dystopian novels will inevitably sound similar to one another, you get a whole motley of different versions of it, from gun-toting angels to power-hungry kings and queens. And, like any genre, there are some hits and some misses. Amy Engel's "The Book of Ivy" almost certainly falls under the former category, delivering a fast-paced tale of warring loyalties, broken trust and self-discovery.
The premise of the novel is intriguing and exciting from the get-go. After a nuclear war that tore the country apart into two separate factions, the United States was decimated, ultimately falling under the power of the Lattimers. The Westfalls lost. Fifty years later, peace and control are maintained through the yearly ritual of arranged marriages between the sons and daughters of both sides. Ivy Westfall, the granddaughter of the original leader of the Westfall faction, has one mission: to kill the President's son she is about to marry. While the plot doesn't have anything completely crazy about it - no sadistic games to the death here - the intensity and injustice of the situation is very strongly present from the beginning. Admittedly, the premise also does set itself up to be a little predictable, at least in regard to how the novel develops, but Ms. Engel does an excellent job of creating an intriguing story with a believable post-apocalyptic world. In fact, the book had me hooked so thoroughly that I had a hard time putting the book down, with its fast-paced storyline and enthralling premise.
That being said, I do have to say I was a little disappointed with the characters, who seemed to fall short of being fully developed in complex and more interesting ways. Ivy, for example, doesn't entirely seem to stand out to be as a heroine. Sure, she's presented with a sticky situation, and she's strong and loyal, but I never really found her especially likable. That is to say, there's nothing particularly outstanding about her personality, and she ends up being a little bit of a flat character, with little development even as the book progresses. For example, Ivy's meant to be impulsive, like when she decided to attack a dog when she was a kid (sounds kind of stupid of her rather than rash, to me), but we don't see much of this aspect of her personality anywhere else. She speaks before she thinks, often leading to arguments with Bishop or Erin Lattimer, but these moments seemed a little forced and out-of-the-blue. I'd go so far as to say that if we stripped Ivy of the crazy intense situation she finds herself in, she'll end up as a pretty dull character. While Ivy is still a pretty decent protagonist to follow as the story progresses, for the most part, she ends up a little flat as a person.
The same can be said of a lot of the other characters in "The Book of Ivy." For instance, Bishop, the President's son and Ivy's arranged husband, is just flat out too nice from the beginning to the end. In fact, if there's one word to sum up his character, it'd just be "nice." There's little complexity to him, and what you see with Bishop is precisely what you get, as hunky of a guy he seems to be. If he were more interesting (green-eyed hotness aside), I feel like his relationship with Ivy would have induced a lot more squeals and sighs from me. Bishop aside, Erin Lattimer, the President's wife and Bishop's mother, at least has some potential to be more complex, and Ivy's father, and her sister, Callie, are definitely a couple of the more intriguing characters in this sense. I did certainly appreciate the other, more minor characters, like Mark and Victoria, who helped to flesh out the world of the novel and make things more dynamic.
As for the writing in the novel, I find myself with a mixed bag of feelings. On one hand, I found that Ivy's narration was a little stilted and awkward, creating a distance between Ivy and the reader. There were quite a few moments when she could've used contractions, so that the narration would've been more natural and conversational. Moreover, I felt like Ivy's voice was adulterated, in that she told us everything instead of showing them to us, which prevented the tension from developing to its fullest potential, and also hindered our developing a real connection with Ivy. On the other hand, the simplicity of the writing also helped to speed things along, creating a fast-paced story that had me flipping through the pages.
Overall, "The Book of Ivy" is a good read, with a killer premise that remains up and running in intensity until the end, which ultimately pulled up my impression of the book. While the characters aren't as engaging and developed as they could be, I can definitely see their potential being realized in the sequel, which I'm going to be keeping an eye out for, without a doubt!