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Book Review: NIL by Lynne Matson

Okay guys, I know WD is technically still under construction, but I have to tell you a thing. (Besides, it's almost done & really only missing the pictures on my About page, so it's not like WD is some flaming crap heap right now.)

**Since I’m reviewing a YA book, I feel compelled to apologize for the overabundance of cussing that is contained in this review. These things happen when I get stupid passionate about books. Apologies, folks.**

Nil by Lynne Matson
Nil by Lynne Matson

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across Lynne Matson's book Nil on a blog I follow, Reading is My Treasure (thanks again, Kaitlin!). I read the summary and it sounded hella intriguing, so I entered the giveaway, figuring nah, I’m not gonna win, but I might buy it next paycheck. Lo and behold, I did. My signed copy of Nil from Lynne herself arrived yesterday and I dove right in. (And thank you, Lynne!)

Seriously, I think I pissed some people off with my inability to cope with life and function like a proper adult while reading this. Before I get going, here’s the summary.

On the mysterious island of Nil, the rules are set. You have exactly 365 days to escape--or you die.

Seventeen-year-old Charley doesn't know the rules. She doesn't even know where she is. The last thing she remembers is blacking out, and when she wakes up, she's naked in an empty rock field.

Lost and alone, Charley finds no sign of other people until she meets Thad, the gorgeous leader of a clan of teenage refugees. Soon Charley learns that leaving the island is harder than she thought . . . and so is falling in love. With Thad's time running out, Charley realizes that to save their future, Charley must first save him. And on an island rife with hidden dangers, their greatest threat is time.

Sounds good, right? My thoughts exactly. My comment on the blog post was something along the lines of “This sounds like the best book I’ll read all year.”

Most accurate statement I could have made.

NIL was, in fact, a roller coaster ride.

What drew me to Nil in the first place were the science fiction premise and the plot outside of the love story of Charley and Thad. I’ve always loved a zillion different subplots in the books I read.

In Nil, both Charley and Thad have their own personal arc outside of their love story. Charley is trying to figure out what all the carvings around the island mean and what correlation they could have, if any, to the appearance of the gates on and off the island. Thad, the leader of the small tribe of teens on the island, is doing his best to keep everyone alive and okay. The whole concept felt very realistic.

I’m equal parts pleased and a little perturbed at the fact that Charley is the first person to see meaning behind the cryptic carvings. In a situation like that, I know my own seventeen year old, angsty-out-the-wazoo younger sister probably wouldn’t have been able to put those clues together because she’d be too damn freaked out by being on a freaky island.

That said, when I was seventeen, I probably would have picked up on it just like Charley because I’ve always been very analytically minded and good in crazy situations. If the island had been around for over a hundred years like Rives suggests, I’d like to think that there would have been at least one other teen to have picked up on that. (And, where did those carvings come from, anyway?)

I enjoyed Thad and his take on Nil being a potentially sentient island, and how Lynne peppered in responses that a sentient, batshit crazy island might have said to Thad’s inner monologue. It helped me differentiate whose POV I was in since both Thad’s and Charley’s were strikingly similar.

I also really liked how Lynne upped the danger factor with the dangerous animals randomly dropping out of the gates. It kept the story edge-of-my-seat enough to keep me interested without crossing into more violent NA or A territory. She also handled the concept of death and dying before your time is up in a really creative way that definitely got me thinking about what I want to accomplish in life before I go.

As a firm believer in the We Need Diverse Books movement, Lynne delivers. She’s got characters that pop in from all over the world, from Charley (US) and Thad (Canada), to characters from the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. She also doesn’t forget about mentioning small details that reference the secondary characters’ cultures. Heesham references Allah. Miguel says “amigo” occasionally. Li and Quan’s English leaves a lot to be desired.

As with all YA books, there was angst. It's generally why I avoid YA. I was never very angsty as a teen. That said, my sister is definitely angsty, and boy it gets old fast. The angst in Nil was certainly noticeable, but it wasn't too big a distraction.

As a 23-year-old diehard science fiction fan, there were a couple of things about this book that bothered me.

There were a few too many holes in the way Nil worked. Understandable I suppose since this is part of a series, but still a bit annoying since Nil was originally a standalone. I enjoyed the fact that the teens had theories on how Nil functioned and what brought them there, and I’m hoping to see Nil’s secrets revealed more and more as the series progresses.

Now, I’m going to completely regress because before I wrote my own review, out of curiosity, I checked out some of the reviews on Goodreads and HOLY SHIT they were infuriating.

First thing’s first: it’s not insta-love, it’s teenage infatuation. Been there, done that. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Seeing things from Thad’s POV helps ease the insta-love factor with a potential explanation for why both he and Charley are there and why they seem to be such a good match. Remember that sentient island? Yeah, Nil’s a bitch and is playing games. Works for me.

Secondly, am I really the only girl whose boyfriends have ever brushed her hair? I have obnoxiously thick hair and, for some weird reason I haven’t figured out, all my boyfriends have had this thing with wanting to touch it. I sure as hell don’t mind because it’s incredibly relaxing.

Third, what’s with all the “She stole ___’s idea/premise/world building” crap? Truly original ideas are hard to come by. So hard, to be honest, that the concept of an “original work” is comical. What really marks a good writer is his or her ability to take an unoriginal idea and put an original spin on it. Hell, kids at a boarding school in a magical world isn’t exactly a new thing, but look how well J K Rowling did with it. And speaking of teens on an island discovering love while trying to survive… anyone remember Blue Lagoon? The original and the remake? Seriously, not an original idea at all. Lynne’s take on it, her original spin on an unoriginal idea, is what sets Nil apart from the rest.

Fourth, and the most infuriating part about this whole thing, is how so many people seem to be completely hung up on the characters’ appearances.

GIRLS ARE PRETTY. BOYS ARE HOT. WAAAAHHHHH.

Charley was stuck in a very typical character trap because if Lynne had made her a stereotypical “ugly” girl, the reviews would have sounded like this:

“Why couldn’t she be pretty and smart? Pretty girls can be smart too!”

Lynne did just that. Charley is pretty and smart. Rather than be thankful, the reviews I’ve read have been catty as fuck. “Oh my God, she’s so pretty but she doesn’t know and, God, she’s so annoying like that, and just, like, UGH.” Yet, had Lynne given her proper confidence, reviewers would have hated her guts because obviously women can’t be fully aware of their capabilities and be confident at the same time.

Grow the fuck up. As grown-ass adults, we’re more than ready to tear down a fictional seventeen-year-old because she’s fucking pretty. What the fuck? What are we teaching our own seventeen-year-olds by engaging in such toxic hate parties? Here’s a revolutionary idea: let’s stop putting so much emphasis on appearances!

I have a personal philosophy: If someone else is going to base my value and their opinion of me solely on my looks, fine. They get what they deserve.

If someone can't see past my appearance, they're missing the big picture. It's like looking at the cover of a book and assuming you know everything about what's inside based only on what you see. Honestly, when people see me and assume I'm incapable because my nails look nice or my hair is done real pretty, then insist on doing all the work themselves, that's fine. Those folks should get what they deserve.

It shouldn't matter what someone looks like. It should matter who they are.

Let’s focus instead on Charley’s resilience, her intelligence, and her ability to pick up on the secrets of Nil, even though she left before she was able to fully understand them. How’s that sound? (Grown up and mature, if you ask me.)

Charley’s smart. She’s able to survive 12 days on her own before encountering the other teens, she’s able to figure out that the weird carvings are clues, and she’s able to piece together part of Nil’s secrets practically on her own. PRAISE THE LORD for a heroine who isn’t a useless little waif! No, Charley isn’t perfect, but at seventeen (or at any period in life), nobody is. Just like women the world over, she has hangups about her appearance, including her height. That doesn’t stop her, however, from becoming a kickass heroine that teens can relate to.

My rating: 4/5

4 star rating

Overall, I genuinely loved this book. It’s not without its faults, but no book ever is. Would I recommend it? To YA readers: hell yeah. To adults: only if they understood that this book is about teenagers.