Sara Wilson Etienne
Plagued by waking visions and nightmares, inexplicably drawn to the bones of dead animals, Faye thinks she's going crazy. Fast. Her parents beleive Holbrook Academy might just be the solution. Dr. Mordoch tells her it's the only answer. But Faye knows that something's not quite right about Dr. Mordoch and her creepy, prisonlike school for disturbed teenagers.
What's wrong with Holbrook goes beyond the Takers, sadistic guards who threaten the student body with Tasers and pepper spray; or Nurse, who doles out pills at bedtime and doses of solitary confinement when kids step out of line; or Rita, the strange girl who delivers ominous messages to Faye that never seem to make any sense. What's wrong with Holbrook begins and ends with Faye's red hands; she and her newfound friends--her Holbrook "family"--wake up every morning with their hands stained the terrible brown of dried blood. Faye has no idea what it means but fears she may be the cause.
Because despite the strangeness of Holbrook and the island on which it sits, Faye feels oddly connected to the place; she feels especially linked to the handsome Kel, who helps her unravel the mystery. There's just one problem: Faye's certain Kel's trying to kill her--and maybe the rest of the world, too.
A rich and tautly told psychological thriller, Harbinger heralds the arrival of an exciting new voice in young adult fiction.
First three-fourths of the book: 5 stars, Last 80 pages: 3.5 stars
Harbinger was a thrilling page turner that had me entranced. I was totally engulfed by the mystery and read almost the whole book in one sitting. If not for a little too much vagueness at the end, this would have been a strong five star book. Etienne is an extremely talented writer.
The synopsis for Harbinger is ridiculously vague and not at all helpful, but it does convey the mysteriousness of the story. I would have a very hard time categorizing this one. Is it fantasy? Dystopian? A mystery? It's really all of those things. Although the reader is never really given a time and date for the setting, I imagine it might be an alternate version of today, one in which global warming, fleeting resources, and a sucky economy has caught up to us a little faster than in reality. Either that, or this is a dystopian set in the very near future. Either way, Earth is coming close to running out of its natural resources: trees, oil, etc. Families now live in fenced in neighborhoods called 'cooperatives', where the government supplies them with food, toilet paper, etc.
At the same time, there is an academy called Holbrook Academy, set on an island in Maine, where parents can board unruly teenagers in hopes of rehabilitation. Really, this place is more like a prison and the parents have no idea. For the first half of the book I was really upset by the way these teens were treated at Holbrook. (Think Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter or the head mistress in Matilda, Miss Trunchbull.) Everything done was in the name of rehabilitating, but really the "Caretakers" and teachers were just torturing them.
Faye, the main character, has been sent to this school because her night tremors, hallucinations, and odd habits have finally freaked her parents out enough to ship her off. Faye has a continuous daytime hallucination of water rushing into wherever she is and drowning her. She also has the ability to pick up strong emotions and thoughts from other people when they look into her eyes. Once at the school, she meets the other members of her "Family", which is the group of six students that attend the same classes at the same time, sit together at lunch, etc. Watching Faye, who has never really had any friends, somewhat bond with this group of people was really heartwarming. As the six of them come together to rebel against the school, they are slowly becoming an actual "Family", and I really enjoyed watching that happen.
But then, strange things start happening. Each night Faye and the other five members of her "Family" go to sleep in their beds in their dorm rooms. Each morning they wake up on the floor of their rooms with their hands stained red and no memory of the night. This causes Faye to start searching for clues to why this is happening, and, of course, she also starts to discover things about herself and her hallucinations and strange abilities.
Overall, I really liked this story. It is extremely well-crafted and unique. Etienne has a wonderful imagination and a really easy-to-read writing style. I loved trying to unravel the mystery with Faye, and experiencing all of her confusion, self-pity, and horror. As a character, I thought she was very believable. I also really loved the other teenagers in her "Family". Some were better thought out than others, but overall they were each individual. I liked the character of Kel, and how the author kept us wondering for most of the book if he could be trusted. His and Faye's attraction to each other wasn't the typical love at first sight often found in YA, and I appreciated that. I especially loved that Kel kept singing River by Joni Mitchell, because I have always loved that song.
Where this book lost that fifth star was the ending. As much as the last 80 pages or so wrapped up the story and tied up the mystery, it also took me out of the characters a little bit. And I really liked these characters, I didn't want to be dragged away from them, even to find out the answers to the puzzle. Plus, the ending was a little vague and flowery for me. This might just be the way it affected me, but I was ready for a little more substance after having my eyeballs glued to 250 pages. I was left with some serious questions about a few things that were left unexplained and about what would happen next.
Harbinger was a really fantastic debut from a new YA author and I still highly recommend it, despite a few issues with the ending. It is wildly interesting and engrossing.
Interested in checking it out for yourself?