There have been a ton of young adult fantasy novels lately where one person stands against a dystopian world, or faces a terrible menace, and they're sort of the chosen savior. But Gwenda Bond's YA debut, Blackwood, takes a very different tack: Her heroine, Miranda Blackwood, is the cursed one, who bears the mark of the betrayer, and she's also the most hated person in her small town. Blackwood is a neat spin on all of those YA fantasies about being special — especially when it turns into a story about "freaks in love."
Blackwood is based on the famous mystery of Roanoke Island, where a whole colony vanished. This is obviously a massively overused piece of American mythology, and everything from Supernatural to a Punisher/Batman comic has offered its own spin on Roanoke before. But Bond's novel still manages to bring a brand new spin to this idea, one which has a surprising amount of historical basis and manages to set up a nice modern-day mystery.
In a nutshell, the conceit of Blackwood is that in the present day, 114 people disappear from Roanoke Island — the same number of people who vanished back in the 16th century. This mystery appears to bring to light a long-buried secret about Roanoke, and two people in particular are at the center of it: Miranda Blackwood, the much-despised girl whose father's the town drunk, and Phillips Rawling, the son of the police chief who hears the voices of the town's ghosts. They're both tormented by their link to Roanoke — Phillips has been sent to boarding school to get him away from the ghost voices, and Miranda literally cannot leave the island without dying. When the people of modern day Roanoke Island vanish, Miranda and Phillips are automatically at the center of it. Too bad they hate each other.
To add to the heartache and trouble, Miranda's dad — who's disappeared at the same time as the other townsfolk — turns up dead, leaving Miranda an orphan.
As Blackwood unfolds, it's sort of half a detective novel about Miranda and Phillips teaming up to solve the mystery of the missing people, and half a romance in which the two outcast kids get over their mutual antagonism and start to bond over being "freaks." (At one point, the town bully paints "FREAKS IN LOVE" on Miranda's beloved old car, and it could almost serve as an alternate title for the book.) There's not all that much menace or horror in Blackwood, and even towards the end when things start to go supernaturally bonkers, it's more creepy than menacing or terrifying.
Instead, a lot of the energy in the book comes from the two main characters figuring out who they are and getting over the stigma they've grown up with. It's a more introspective, thoughtful book than a lot of young-adult adventures, and yet the characters also quickly develop a plucky adventurer spirit, causing them to traipse around getting into the requisite number of scrapes and mishaps.
At first blush, Miranda and Phillips seem to be heading in opposite directions. As I mentioned, she's the daughter of the town drunk, while he's the son of the police chief. But also, she's apparently bearing an ancient curse that goes back to the founding of Roanoke and marks her as, more or less, the snake in the grass. (When they were little kids, Phillips said as much to Miranda, because the spirits told him to.) And Phillips is descended from a long line of helpful witchy folk, who heard spirit voices and did good in the world. But they're both weirdos, in a town that's just as conformist and judgmental as every other small town in a young-adult novel.
And the scenes of them dealing with their freak-hood are definitely the best part of the book. Like this bit, where Miranda's talking to Phillips after he's just had a nasty outbreak of ghost voices:
"We could be in the freak Olympics," she said, depositing him against the rear passenger door. "Well, I don't have any actual skills. No, no, that's not what I mean. I have skills, but not like you have skills."
Sand clung to his eyelashes, his eyes still closed. He looked like was asleep standing up.
"If there was a freak Olympics," and she got the door open and slipped her arm around his side to help him ease into the seat. She clumped his feet over the edge so he was in the car, "maybe we would get training so we didn't suck so much at this."
It's cute and poignant, and that's pretty representative of the tone of Blackwood as a whole. It's definitely a wistful sort of novel about being different and dealing with scary stuff like losing your family and falling in love, as much as it is about ancient evils and terrible curses and supernatural menaces. It's nice to see a gentler, more personal sort of coming-of-age-and-battling evil novel, although of course Blackwood does deliver the required showdown with the forces of evil with the fate of the world at stake.
Full disclosure: Gwenda Bond is a friend of mine, and she gave me feedback on a novel I wrote.