Friday, February 22, 2013

Thou Shalt Not Complain About Being Dead

There is a great legend of the guardian angel who traveled across time and space for the human girl he loved, slaying those who would threaten her with a gleaming sword made of heavenly light.

This is not that story.

Jerome Hancock is Heidi Devine's guardian angel. Sort of. He's more of an angel trainee, in heaven's soul-rehabilitation program for wayward teens. And he's just about to get kicked out for having too many absences and for violating too many of the Ten Commandments for the Dead.

Heidi, meanwhile, is a high school junior who dreams of being an artist, but has been drafted onto her basketball team because she's taller than many a grown man. For as long as she can remember, she's heard a voice in her head - one that sings Lynyrd Skynyrd, offers up bad advice, and yet is company during those hours she feels most alone.

When the unthinkable happens, these two lost souls must figure out where they went wrong and whether they can make things right before Heidi's time is up and her soul is lost forever.

This was a nice departure from the norm. Or at least my norm as of late.

When I hear a YA book will be about angels, I often expect that a book will be overly preachy about morals, heaven and hell, sex equals sin, man's (more often girl's) automatic tendency towards sex/sin, and the angel(s) being either holier than thou or threatened of "falling" because of love. Devine Intervention was nothing like that.

Here we have Jerome, a teen delinquent with an arrow through his forehead (wonder how he died?) who has been given guardian angel duty for a chance to redeem himself and graduate to heaven. Being a guardian angel, of course, comes with a whole bunch of rules. Too bad Jerome lost the manual a long time ago. About 17 years ago, actually, as his charge, Heidi, can attest to.

Heidi's lived all of her life with Jerome's voice inside her head. Of course, she doesn't know he's her guardian angel, so she's pretty sure she's insane. As if she didn't have enough wrong with her otherwise. Tall, gangly, misunderstood, shy, and prone to public displays of humiliation, it's almost a relief when the accident happens and she sees her body being taken away by the ambulance.


Now Jerome's eternal butt is really on the line unless he can figure out what went wrong, why Heidi isn't a typical dead guy, and how to fix things before Heidi vanishes for good. Heidi, meanwhile is confronted with a new perspective on life, death, and what is really important.

What I loved most about this teen angel story, is how there's absolutely nothing 'holier than thou' about any of the angels. All the angels we meet are in rehab, trying to earn their wings through guardian duty, and no one is perfect. In fact, most of them are just as flawed as when they were living. No one has all the answers. Even the guys in charge aren't completely omnipotent (though I'll come back to that later), so when things go wrong there's no deux ex machina swooping in to save the day. This is a journey for the angel as much as it is for the human.

And because of this, it's extremely easy to connect with our angel, Jerome. He's just some kid who is trying to get through (after)life as much as the next guy. He might seem the typical wrong-side-of-the-tracks kid, not answering to authority and slacking off whenever possible, but he's got a head and heart in the right place when it comes to the things that really matter. He knows when he's screwed up, and he genuinely feels sorry. Definitely not your typical YA angel.

Heidi was equally connectable for me, and I think a lot of teens. Even though we may not have voices in our heads, a lot of us have felt uncertain about what we really should be doing, especially when we're young. High school often seems, especially the later years, like it's all about preparing you to A) enter into the real world, or B) choose what to pursue for the rest of your life. And between teachers, counselors, and parents all pushing you down simultaneously different paths, the information can get confusing. Add in a social jungle that you've either mastered or you haven't, and I can totally see how an accidental death might seem like a relief.

So, Heidi's story is a lot like It's A Wonderful Life with a few significant changes. She does have a guardian angel, but Clarence he's not. Also, instead of seeing what life would have been like without her being born, she sees the reactions of those she's left behind, which is probably more relatable for a teen anyway. Finally, through her journey she eventually does realize what is most important and comes to value herself, flaws and all. There are a few more ties I could draw, but I don't want to get too spoilery. On the whole, I thought this was a nice update of the Christmas classic, even if it was unintended.

Another thing that might have been unintended was the weird romance that kinda sorta sprang up here and there. So here's the thing: Jerome was assigned to Heidi when she was an infant. He's been 17 for 17 years while she was growing up. And even though the relationship is mostly platonic or brotherly, there are still quite a few mentions of attraction both ways. Not as creepy as some other non-aging suitors, but still kinda creepy. And then there's a bit at the very end...which I'm not sure how to take at all. So would I classify this as a romance? No... Not in the strict sense. But it does have quite a bit of love in it, so take that however you like.

Also a bit confusing to me was the rehab system. As I mentioned earlier, I did enjoy the new take on angels and having them be normal, and even flawed in some aspects. But at the same time, I couldn't help but wonder why so much seemed to be flawed. Case in point, one of the other angels in rehab is a major creeper who is able to disable practically all of the security tech installed in him. I get the whole Free Will concept, but I don't understand why or how the guys in charge would let him go as far as he does. And on the matter of tracking Jerome's progress, it's revealed that they knew what he was doing practically the entire time, but with Heidi's soul on the line I thought surely they would have stepped in. I guess if the prize for passing the test is heaven, then the penalty for failing has to be just as far down the spectrum? Because if you ask me, being solely responsible for the destruction of a soul would be pretty damning.

And speaking of damning, the pacing at the end of the book was horrendous. Okay, maybe not that bad, but it was pretty bad. I knew essentially what was going to happen at page 195, and the book ended on 295. That entire time felt horribly padded with extraneous information, humorous side quests, and bizarre events that only detracted from the important stuff. We're supposed to be on the edge of our seats because Heidi's time is running out, but at the same time we can feel 50+ pages left under our fingers and we're reading about squirrels and paperwork and talking dogs and...I'm sorry, but it got a little ridiculous toward the end there.

Still, I can't help but applaud the author on all the inventive and witty stuff in here. The adventure might have taken one too many loops around the park, but I definitely can't say I knew what was going to happen next. And I also especially enjoyed The Ten Commandments for the Dead (of which the post title is one) which were revealed one by one at the beginning of pertinent chapters.

Overall, I enjoyed Devine Intervention a lot more than I have 99% of other YA angel books. It's moral without being religious, and has a lot of love without being a romance. I'd recommend it for those wanting an unconventional angel book, teens looking for a little perspective, or any fan of It's A Wonderful Life. Due to the ages of the characters and the specifics that they're dealing with, I'd probably recommend this more for high school and up, however there are maybe 2 swears (due to a strict heavenly language filter) and no violence or sex so I wouldn't advise much against younger readers. If you've only got 24 hours before your soul disperses into the cosmos, you might want to spend it doing something more important than read. Then again, why not go out on a happy note, and pick up Devine Intervention?

Approximate Reading Time: 4 Hours