Monday, December 23, 2013

Worrying About Ghosts Or—Shudder—High School

This review is for those who have read or are familiar with the previous books, Hex Hall, Demonglass, & especially Spell Bound or don't mind knowing some spoilers for them. School Spirits, however, will remain spoiler-free.

School Spirits
~School Spirits~
Hex Hall
Book 4
By Rachel Hawkins
Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

Izzy Brannick was trained to fight monsters.

For centuries, her family has hunted magical creatures—and fifteen-year-old Izzy is the last of her line. But when her older sister vanishes without a trace, Izzy's mom decides they need to take a break from the Brannick's age-old calling.

As Izzy and her mom move on to Ideal, Mississippi, however, they discover the town is not as normal as it appears. A series of hauntings has been plaguing the local high school, and Izzy is determined to prove her worth and investigate. But assuming the guise of an average teenager is easier said than done. First, her clothes are all wrong. Second, what are these things called "friends"? Third, there's a boy named Dex making her heart skip—but not in a bad, that's weird. For a tough girl who's always been on her own, it feels strange to suddenly be the center of attention.

Izzy's training taught her to never get attached, but she doesn't know if she can solve the case alone. Can she trust her new friends to find the secret behind the hauntings before more people get hurt?

After the disappointment I had with the last Hex Hall book, I admit that I was a bit reluctant to return. True, Hawkins had moved on to a new character, one with a completely different backstory, and there were no promises that this would be dragged out into its own trilogy, but I knew it was still a matter of whether the writing itself had changed or not.

Turns out that changes were made, and a lot of them were for the better.

Though School Spirits clearly takes place after Sophie's trilogy, I was pleased that it didn't draw too much from the other storyline. Actually, someone could pick this book up and read through it with very little trouble. Granted, it does have spoilers for Spell Bound, stating what happened to Sophie and her relation to Izzy, and there may be confusion from not explaining much about Prodigium, but I think the book holds its own surprisingly well.

Izzy Brannick was a fun main character to follow. I enjoy a good combination of snark and kickass, and Izzy's got both in spades. She's also got a lot going for her in terms of knowledge, skills, and physical abilities, but her confidence has taken a beating lately. So when a mission calls for the infiltration of a brand new environment, she may put up a strong front, but she's really just your typical awkward teen. Which, actually, fits perfectly with the environment: public high school!

While similar in storyline to the original Hex Hall, I found School Spirits to be a lot more believable. Both Izzy and Sophie go through the "new girl in school" storyline, but where Sophie was immediately singled out as both *strange* and *super-special-awesome-homecoming-queen*, Izzy reads as quirky and peculiar. She doesn't receive any special treatment, no hero worship or weird punishments, she acquires friends from shared classes and with similar interests, and she doesn't gain enemies or rivals at any point during her time there. Turns out, high school can actually be...normal!

Well, as normal as a school can be with a Paranormal Management Society. Speaking of which, I really liked all of Izzy's friends. They not only worked as great compliments to our MC, but they were also believable on their own. Romy was a great girlfriend: understanding, passionate, and so not catty. Anderson was a little underused, but still provided some good banter. And Dex, the love interest, was sweet, quirky, and a lot of fun. Though perhaps a bit too quirky for some, I'd love to get to know him more.

I'll admit, I did roll my eyes a couple times during the book, but looking back I have to say that the romance was fairly drama-free. No love-triangles, no Romeo/Juliet angst, no on-again, off-again shenanigans. There is one misunderstanding-caused break-up between the two, but it's nothing outside the range of real teen romance, so I give it a pass. Also I thought Izzy and Dex actually had a sweet relationship. I'm not sure how well it will last going forward, but it was nice to read within the confines of this story.

Another welcome change-of-pace from the original trilogy was the mystery aspect of the story. I'll grant you that the original Hex Hall had a slight mystery weaving through, but here it is the primary driving factor. First they have to figure out who the ghost is, then how to stop it, then who summoned it, and all before the next victim is hurt or killed. It gave a much-needed sense of urgency to the plot, and helped justify some of the speed at which characters or relationships moved.

Unfortunately, the most irksome part for me was the ending. When a book is written as a mystery, I feel like an important aspect of the genre is allowing the reader to develop their own theories about said mystery. Not only are we following the story of our protagonist(s), but we're also piecing together clues for ourselves. Thus, it would follow that there should be information laced throughout the story. However, with School Spirits it seemed like none of the actual information was revealed until the very end of the book.

Now, it's one thing to be completely engrossed with the protagonist, such that we don't see things because she doesn't see things. And that's bound to happen in 1st-person-perspective. Unfortunately, that means that when the surprising twist is actually revealed, the reader is assaulted by everything all at once. Not only are we receiving the Who and Why, but also the What, How, and When all in the span of a couple pages. The info-dump of a reveal felt both sloppy and rushed, not to mention completely out of left field. Frankly, I felt disappointed and deceived.

Would I read another one? Probably. I mean, it's not like I haven't found all of the Hex Hall endings rushed, or exposition-heavy. I really should have come to expect it by now. And I still enjoy Hawkins's snarky narrators with their wit and humor and kickassery. So, yes, if Izzy's book takes the unresolved plot threads and branches off into its own series, I'd probably read another one or two.

Overall, I enjoyed School Spirits more than I thought I would. It still had some eye-roll moments, but that's pretty much one of the staples of the series by now. I'd easily recommend it for those who like YA urban fantasy with a bit of romance in the mix, and I think both newbies and veterans of the Hex Hall series will find it enjoyable. No violence or language in the mix, plus PG-rated make-outs put this at a comfortable middle school level, though high school and up may enjoy the romantic bits a bit more. So if your shelf is lacking on snarky, ghost-hunting heroines, you may want to put School Spirits on your list.

Approximate Reading Time: 3.5 hours

Audiobook Review
Read by Cris Dukehart
Length: 6.9 Hours
Listened at 2x Speed

When I first realized that Ms. Dukehart was once again reading a Hex Hall novel, I was actually disappointed. I mean, I understand wanting continuity within a series, but Sophie's story was over and this was a completely new character. However, maybe it was the huge break between reading the books, maybe it was the character or story as a whole, or maybe I'm just in a more forgiving mood, because I actually think I enjoyed her reading Izzy better than Sophie.

Overall this was another solid production for the series. Voices were varied and distinct enough to differentiate one from another, emotions were well portrayed throughout, and pauses were minimal. I did notice one quirk in the changing of watching a movie on a TV to a laptop (but then they missed the change later in the chapter), but otherwise there weren't any glaring errors. An audio I would definitely recommend any audiophiles or casual listeners check out.