Monday, July 25, 2011

Most People Just Say Hex

Hex Hall
~Hex Hall~
Hex Hall
Book 1
By Rachel Hawkins

Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

Life can be a real Witch sometimes. Well, at least that's what 16 year-old Sophie Mercer thinks after she gets the news about her latest mess-up.

It was supposed to be a simple love spell—nothing should have gone wrong. Of course, that's what Sophie thought all the other times she tried using her powers. You'd think that after three years and umpteen forced re-locations she'd have learned her lesson. Good thing there's a school for that.

Hectate Hall—a reform school for shapeshifter, witch, and faerie kids who don't know how to lay low (you know, since humans tend to be a bit jumpy around magic). And if reform school is as great as it sounds, Sophie's got a lot to look forward to. I mean, who wouldn't want three of the most powerful students as enemies, a creepy ghost as a stalker, or the most hated kid in school (who happens to be a vampire) as a roommate?

Let's hope there's a class on surviving reform school...

If I may, I'd like to start off by asking kind of a strange question... Does anyone else remember that Disney Channel movie series, Halloweentown that aired in the late 90's, early 00's? The main story was about Marnie Piper/Cromwell and her journey towards finding her magical powers while working to save this magical dimension (Halloweentown) and it's monster/mythical creature inhabitants. My favorites of the series were definitely the third and fourth movies:
Halloweentown High was about trying to integrate the Halloweentown teens (werewolves, trolls, fairies, etc.) with regular humans through an exchange student program. When the Knights of the Iron Dagger, a group dedicated to the elimination of monsters, resurfaces and threatens the teens, it's up to Marnie and her family to keep the students safe, or lose their magic.
Return to Halloweentown has Marnie choosing to attend Witch University, which for the first year is allowing non-witches/warlocks to attend. But the new admission policy doesn't exactly have everyone jumping for joy, and Marnie's soon caught up in a conspiracy that could change the inhabitants of Halloweentown forever.
Okay, I know what you're thinking... Why the huge explanation of this movie series in the middle of your Hex Hall review? Well, in reading Hex Hall, I couldn't help but compare it to these Halloweentown movies:
  • Main character is a teenage witch in the process of discovering her powers
  • She has a mysterious, magically powerful family member
  • There is a dangerous Order out to kill non-humans
  • She is attending a school specifically for witches and non-humans
  • Heroine takes it upon herself to solve the problem
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining about the similarities at all. I always liked the Halloweentown movies, but I always wanted more. More mystery, more drama, more danger, more character angst—and I was younger than the main character! With Hex Hall, I felt like it was a nostalgic trip back...but this time it was better!

The mythology of the book was amazing. It's always fun to get a new perspective on how supernatural beings might have come to exist, and this one was definitely unique. In this series, Prodigium, which is the umbrella term for all three species, originated from the angels who refused to take sides in the battle between God and Lucifer. After so many books, movies, and historical accounts having witches and the sort originating from deals with the devil, I found this idea fresh, and, in a sense, quite liberating. I'm sure the idea ruffles the feathers of some, but having these paranormals actually be creations of God rather than sinful abominations was a wonderful (and poignant) concept.

In addition to the Prodigium mythology, there was the introduction of those set to exterminate any and all non-humans. The Alliance, the Brannick family, and L'Occhio di Dio (The Eye of God) all have it out for Prodigium, which is the main reason why it's important to keep a low profile. Honestly, there was a lot of build-up for these groups, but for the majority of this book they weren't really there. The idea seems pretty cool, though, so I hope we'll see more of them in the future.

But now for the characters, whom I absolutely loved. Sophie was the epitome of a modern American teenager. Her insecurities, her sass, her fears, her humor, her language, everything felt completely natural and comfortable as we tagged-along in her head. And her roommate, Jenna, was fantastic. Even though my first thoughts were, "Oh no!" I must concede you can't judge a character by her cover—er, I mean color choice. The fiery, quirky, pink-loving vamp quickly turned into my 2nd favorite of the book.

All the characters felt real. Teachers or adults rarely get their fair due in YA fiction, yet I never doubted the competency of any of them at Hex Hall. Even the 'villains' of the story, the trio of dark witches who have it out for Sophie, received their fair share of fleshing out. I even sympathized with the "queen bee", Elodie, after a while. If my high school were populated with this crowd, I think I'd have fit right in.

Speaking of high school, I'd like to take a moment on the setting of the book. I know I'm way behind on the trends, but this was my first encounter with a boarding school setting (well, aside from Harry Potter), and I must say I've fallen in love. While you might think jamming a bunch of teenagers together under one roof would be crazy or impractical (and, after reading this book, you might still be justified), it's a fun type of crazy that makes for great reading. It's one thing to have a crush on a boy in your's another to have one on a boy living downstairs.

Yes, the heroine is a modern teenage girl going through high school—of course there's a romance! Now, this was one of those love/hate relationships that is so addicting to watch. The guy was one of those hunky, snarky smart-aleks who liked to run his mouth—kind of a teenage Mr. Darcy. In fact, I think Pride and Prejudice is a great comparison for their relationship. Well, you know, except for...oops, no spoilers here!

If I had to complain about anything, it'd be for taunting me with a cat on the cover. I was really excited for a Salem or a Faithful/Pounce type of companion. Instead there are absolutely no cats to be seen whatsoever. Not even a Hedwig as a replacement! What a letdown, right?

Oh, and I should warn you about the ending. The book ends at a good place—at the right place, I'd say—but the story is far from over. There are still early mysteries unsolved, and there's a huge bombshell dropped in the last few pages that trails off into a cliffhanger. I'm glad I have the sequel, Demonglass, sitting right here next to me so I can continue right away. I'd highly recommend reserving a copy ASAP if you find yourself liking this book, because if you're like me, you're not going to want to stop.

Overall, this was all I'd hoped it would be and more. Kick-ass characters, fantastical setting, and a twisty mystery combine to make this series opener one to remember. There is some mild language, teen romance, and a few depictions of violence, but I'm pretty comfortable with recommending this for middle school and above. As I explained above, there are some religious references and interpretations that might rub certain people the wrong way, but I think it's in the same league as Clare's Mortal Instruments series. So, if you like snarky heroines, intrigue, magic, and high school drama, then I'd definitely recommend you go out and find this book. Well, only if you can't magic one up at home...

Approximate Reading Time: 3.5 hours

Audiobook Review
Read by Cris Dukehart
Length: 7.1 Hours
Listened at 1.9x Speed

As far as audiobooks go, this one was probably middle of the road. It wasn't horrible in narration or deviation from the book, nor was it spectacular enough to turn a non-audiophile into a fanatic. But for someone who greatly enjoys audiobooks as a means of reading, or for a general reader wanting to give audiobooks a try, it was fine.

Ms. Dukehart was a great voice for our snarky narrator, and did a good job differentiating the numerous female characters without sounding too outrageous. I was especially impressed with how successful she was in all the Southern accents — from thick to slight — as well as the lone British accent. I will admit the accents might have gotten dropped a time or two on the shorter passages, but not distractingly so.

Really, my only peeve was the pronunciation of one of the Faerie's names. Nausicaa, which I've always imagined as Naw-sic-ca, was instead pronounced Naw-sicky-a. Now, the character is really only mentioned maybe four times in the whole book, but every time it came up I had to shake my head and wonder where that random i/y sound came from. If that's really the correct pronunciation, I retract this peeve, but if not...

Overall, a good read of a great story. I see the narrator is also cast in both sequels, so I do look forward to hearing more of her as Sophie and crew. I'll be especially interested in hearing all those new British accents in book two!