Thursday, 17 November 2011

Review: Bree Despain, The Lost Saint (Egmont, 2011)

The Lost Saint is the sequel to Bree Despain’s YA werewolf fantasy The Dark Divine. The first book told the story of Grace Divine, the daughter of a pastor, and her relationship with Daniel Kalbi, a boy she has known since childhood. Daniel was near enough a member of Grace’s family, and was best friends with her and her brother Jude, but disappeared without warning some time before the novel begins. The Dark Divine tells the story of what happens when Daniel returns, and how Grace struggles to come to terms with the terrible secret that led him to run away.

Daniel is an Urbat, infected with a curse that causes a wolf demon to cohabit his body. If he gives in to his wolf, and commits a predatory act against a human, he will become a werewolf and will be lost forever. In the first book, seventeen-year-old Grace must deal with Daniel’s awful secret, as well as with her growing romantic feelings for him. In the end, she discovers that she is the one who holds the key to saving Daniel’s soul, and must make a horrible choice that leaves Daniel fighting for his life and Jude condemned to life as a werewolf.

The Lost Saint picks up the story ten months after the final events of The Dark Divine. Daniel has been ‘cured’ by Grace’s sacrifice; Jude – now a werewolf – has run away, and the Divine family is falling to pieces as a result. Perhaps more importantly, Grace has become infected with the Urbat curse and is beginning to learn what this might mean.

When Daniel appears to abandon Grace, insisting that she stops training to be a ‘Hound of Heaven’ (i.e. an Urbat warrior who learns to control their wolf and fight for the good of humanity), Grace becomes confused. The arrival of Gabriel Saint Moon, the legendary Urbat whose letters Grace read in The Dark Divine, does little to alleviate the confusion. Add to this the intrusion of a handsome stranger into Grace’s life, cryptic messages from Jude to Grace and best friend April, and the fact that the “Markham Street Monster” was never actually caught at the end of the first book, and Grace’s new life promises to be less than easy.

In many ways, The Dark Divine and The Lost Saint are typical YA urban fantasy/dark romance. True to genre, we have a teen heroine who meets a brooding young man, is both angered by him and drawn to him, and discovers he is a supernatural being. Like many YA books of this genre, Grace must come to terms with her first love, as well as with the fact that the world is not as straightforward as she previously thought. Sure enough, like many teen heroines, we see Grace navigate family problems, friendships and schoolwork, alongside her new relationship with the obligatory ‘supernatural hottie’.

However, Despain’s books also buck many of the trends of the genre, and I feel that it is in their resistance to certain stereotypical elements of dark romance that they are most interesting.

The first major difference lies with Despain’s werewolves. Daniel does not want to be a werewolf. And we’re not talking some Cullen-esque angst here: he really does not want to be a werewolf. In this, though, he is wise. In the world of Despain’s novels, to be a werewolf is not a good thing. It is possible, with care, focus and the help of a moonstone, to utilize the Urbat powers to help save human lives from other demons, but once an Urbat gives in to the anger and rage of the wolf inside them, they become something truly monstrous.

This is an interesting deviation from the more usual portrayal of werewolves in YA fiction. In other books – and I’m thinking particularly of Maggie Stiefvater and Andrea Cremer’s YA excellent YA werewolf fiction here – to be a werewolf is to embrace a sort of primal, raw power and a connection with other natural phenomena and living beings. While Despain’s werewolves share certain characteristics with those of Stiefvater and Cremer (like accelerated healing, heightened senses and increased physical strength), they are most definitely not ‘liberated’ by the transformation.

This results in Despain's stories being narratives of control (with control posited as a good thing). The Urbat is made up of two beings – human and wolf – and an internal battle rages for control. In places, this becomes almost a Jekyll and Hyde-type inner conflict, and the consequences for letting the Hyde-wolf take over are presented as wholly negative.

I’m sure there are werewolf fans who will be shocked or annoyed by this presentation. In recent years, there has been an investment in the ‘good’ werewolf that (I would suggest) even outstrips the investment in the ‘good’ vampire. But, as with vampires, there is no right or wrong way of presenting werewolves. I like the idea of bad, irredeemable werewolves, as much as I like the idea of sympathetic ones. Despain’s creatures are complex, and all the more interesting for swimming against the tide of YA fantasy.

What this ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ set up does is make Grace’s story one about learning to understand the competing forces that operate inside you, and about how to determine and exercise control. While this might seem rather punitive, The Lost Saint suggests that it should be seen as empowering. Grace contemplates this throughout the book:

“It had felt wonderful then… like nothing I’d known before. But this was so much more than that. Not merely energy transferred from someone else. This came from inside of me. This was my power. And no one could take it away from me.” (p. 128)
Like most YA heroines, Grace has to learn how to use this newfound power in order to make some very difficult decisions. However, once again, Despain offers something different. Though she wants to, Grace does not actually learn how to ‘kick ass’ – quite the opposite in fact. As at the end of The Dark Divine, the final choice that Grace makes in The Lost Saint is really quite astounding, and I found myself holding my breath as I read on to see if she really could go through with it.

It should be apparent from this review, for those not yet familiar with Despain’s novels, that these stories take place very much within a Christian framework. Grace Divine, as her name suggests, is Christian, and the Urbat curse is a threat to the soul of the ‘infected’ rather than a danger to the body (unlike in Maggie Stiefvater’s fiction, in which the werewolf ‘infection’ dramatically shortens lifespan but does not ‘curse’ the wolf eternally). Grace’s father is a pastor, but it is made absolutely clear that the heroine is not simply following what she has been told – she is a believer herself.

I am not a Christian, and I, like many readers, have some reservations about the ways in which religious teachings are used in some YA fiction (*cough*Twilight*cough*). However, I found the way in which Christianity was handled in The Lost Saint to be both interesting and thought-provoking.

As I say, Grace herself is a believer. The first person narrative allows for us to see her occasional internal debate around her belief in God. Rather than presenting us with a heroine attempting to live up to a set of expectations imposed on her by patriarchal figures, Despain gives us a young woman who looks at the world from a particular perspective and thinks carefully about the choices she makes. This is especially evident in Grace’s decision not to have pre-marital sex. The book never actually tells us whether Daniel wants to or not (though Grace is aware that he isn’t a virgin). Grace’s own sexual desire is mentioned, but she places this (quite frankly) within her own system of beliefs. Unlike other heroines who feel the burden of societal expectations placed on them from outside, Grace decides not to have sex with Daniel because she doesn’t believe it is right. Whether or not you share Grace’s beliefs, she comes across as a thoughtful young woman who makes up her own mind. Moreover, her Christianity is just one aspect of her characterization, and religious elements do not overpower the narrative - as much time is given to describing Grace suiting up for her first martial arts lesson as to her religious belief that sex before marriage is wrong.

Admittedly, the strength of Grace's convictions meant that I occasionally found her a tiny bit prissy. She is quite adamant that drinking alcohol is wrong, and, at one point, is shocked that her best friend April spells out the word “B-I-T-C-H”. I wonder if my annoyance at this says more about my own alcohol-fuelled and profanity-laden late-teens (and, fuck it, adulthood too) than it does about Despain’s character? I guess adults who read YA often identify with the characters as the teens they wished they had been. The examples given here were the points at which I found it hardest to identify with Grace.

Aside from this, the only other point in the book where I felt uneasy about the portrayal of Grace’s character was when, as she begins to succumb to the ‘wolf’, she becomes enflamed with animal lust for Daniel and leaps on him. Grace appears, at this point, to be displaying the kind of raw sexual energy that we find associated with female werewolves in much contemporary fiction. And yet this is also a scene in which a young woman discovers the pleasures of unmoderated sexual behaviour for the first time. It was very reminiscent of a scene in Annette Curtis Klause’s Blood and Chocolate, in which the heroine (Vivien) reveals her ‘wolf’ to her boyfriend for the first time (in bed). In The Lost Saint, as in Clause’s novel, the young woman is left feeling nothing but shame and disgust at her own animal lust. But while Vivien is able to realize that this shame is actually a reflection of how others see her femininity and sexuality, Grace is left with nothing but the conviction that it was a sign of her becoming a “monster”. I hope that, as Grace matures and her story continues in the next book in the series, she is able to better explore this aspect of her identity.

Despite this criticism, I highly recommend The Lost Saint (though it’s best to read The Dark Divine first). The storyline is compelling, and the central characters likable and sympathetic. Though I have categorized it as ‘dark romance’, the book is also a mystery, with well-sustained tension and suspense. And the ending is so heart-breaking (and so unexpected), it made me quite anxious to read the third book in the series (The Savage Grace)… we really can’t be left hanging like that for too long (though I believe I will have to wait until March 2012)!


  1. I really cannot wait to read this one. I read The Dark Divine earlier this year and really liked it. I have to pick up the next in the series!

  2. I've been meaning to read this one for awhile, but it keeps getting shoved to the bottom of the pile by more interesting-looking stuff. Plus, I keep hearing bad things about it from other reviewers. But I'm glad you liked it and hope Part 3 lives up to your expectations. ^_^

    Shooting for the Moon