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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Review: FIRST FROST by Liz DeJesus

First Frost by Lis DeJesus
Get It | Add It
Contemporary Fantast / Fairy Tales274 pages
Published June 22nd 2012 by Musa Publishing
Fairytales aren’t real…yeah…that’s exactly what Bianca thought. She was wrong.

For generations, the Frost family has run the Museum of Magical and Rare Artifacts, handing down guardianship from mother to daughter, always keeping their secrets to “family only.”

Gathered within museum’s walls is a collection dedicated to the Grimm fairy tales and to the rare items the family has acquired: Cinderella’s glass slipper, Snow White’s poisoned apple, the evil queen’s magic mirror, Sleeping Beauty’s enchanted spinning wheel…

Seventeen-year-old Bianca Frost wants none of it, dreaming instead of a career in art or photography or…well, anything except working in the family’s museum. She knows the items in the glass display cases are fakes because, of course, magic doesn’t really exist.

She’s about to find out how wrong she is.

I think, before I begin, that I need to warn you of just how nit-picky I can be. And that a good chunk of this review is going to be me nitpicking. Which is probably not fair, because I enjoyed First Frost well enough, but the nit-picky things are the things that stay with me, so there you go.  But I'm going to start with the positives, because there were positives - this is not a hated-it, why-did-I-read-this? review at all, so I don't want you guys to leave with that impression.
So first, the good:

There are some really, really cool concepts in First Frost, like the idea of "Happily ever after" being a typo (actually, fairy tale characters lived in a different world, called Everafter, so the sentence should read "happily IN Everafter"), or the idea that the Grimm brothers wrote the fairy tales as warnings, because people in our world were having issues with creatures and witches from Everafter - people being cursed, children going missing, etc. Thus, the tales give you the basics of Everafter magic, so you know what to look for and how to protect yourself, but they leave out key elements so people in our world can't take advantage of the magics and use them in bad ways themselves. And of course, the fairy tale museum and all of its artifacts is a great concept, and done in a fun way. I especially liked the applications that some of the artifacts can be put to (their own story-related powers, essentially), and the fact that the museum itself came about as a result of the Great Depression, when Bianca's grandfather decided to showcase his family's magical wares out of necessity. Things like this are nice real-world touches that root a story, and I always appreciate that.

I also thought that there was a fun, light tone to the story that worked. Bianca's best friend, Ming, is super fun, and I really enjoyed the camaraderie between the two. They really did interact like people who have known each other for ever, and who will always be there for each other, while also always giving each other grief. There's humor in their interactions that, when DeJesus got it right, she really nailed. There were times, too, when the villains of the story were perfectly villainous, saying or doing something perfectly evil, obsessive and dark, but with this little undercurrent of sympathy - the reader has the knowledge, however slight, that they weren't always this way, and probably didn't intend for things to turn out as they did. (Of course, there were also times when I found the villains too over-the-top for my tastes, and the magics of both sides a little too easy. I want balance in all things, so if you're going to lob fireballs, I need to know that you really have to work at it, or there's some huge drawback to spellcasting, etc. A "natural" approach to magic (it just happens) doesn't work for me unless it has some major side-effects, or something.)

First Frost was a very quick read, and for the most part, remained engaging throughout. But it also felt like a first pass, or the work of a young writer, which is where my nit-picking comes in.

As you probably know by now, sometimes my inner editor comes out, and she just won't shut the hell up. So even while this was enjoyable, Editor Misty was saying things like:
Why would hide in a hollow tree from a strange man, only to decide moments later (when he asks where you are in a singsong voice), that he's probably safe, and to go ahead and come out? Don't you know that a) singsong voice always means creep, and b) stranger danger? And why bother hiding to immediately crawl back out of that hiding spot, into the hands of the person you hid from? Why? Oh, you figured it was something else chasing you, and not the strange men on horseback... Wait, what? The strangers on horseback are not the ones chasing you?
So, your mother has just told your father - who you've thought was missing or absentee since your childhood - was actually turned into a bear, and you say "When did this happen?" Not, what? Not, how is that even possible? Not, what are you on? AND THEN, when she says "Don't you remember when your father went missing?" you say "I meant was it during the day? At night?" because somehow that's the key piece of info in the your father's been turned into a bear discussion...
It's silly little non-incidents like this - which don't seem like much, until they're piled all together - that break my connection to the story and characters. I talk a lot about ease in storytelling, and how I never want things to be too easy.  This is true not just of the tension and struggles of the story, but also how a character reacts to things. I need characters to react more naturally to huge scenarios - and though sometimes in a crisis, you may burst out with the stupidest thing you've ever said, in general, a person's natural reaction to something paradigm-changing is to be incredulous, questioning, hesitant, scared and/or angry first. They may come around, and they may even come around quickly if they have no choice, but there should at least be a moment in there that is full of "WTF?/This isn't happening!"

Another thing: I said that Mette Ivie Harrison's writing is sometimes missing the connective tissue; if that's the case, then I think Liz DeJesus' writing suffers from too much connective tissue.  I sometimes felt like scenes and/or dialogue was throw-away - like it's what the author needed to work through to get where she was going, but then which should have been left on the cutting room floor. Readers don't need every single link, every useless succession of events or unnecessary bits of dialogue, to get where you want them to go. Don't "Canadian Film Festival"* us; if the import of a scene  or a bit of dialogue is that it isn't important ("I don't mean to cause you any harm - so I won't. The end."), then don't bother.

Actually, I take that back. It's not that it suffered from too much connective tissue, but that it was in the wrong places. So we would have scenes that seemed overly-long and pointless, with the type of unnatural conversation that usually gets edited out, but then there would be bigger things happening with no real urgency to them. I don't know what you do when your mom is kidnapped by an evil witch and you need to break into another world to get her back, but when this happens to my mom, I generally don't go to work like everything's fine for a few days, hire a handyman for quick home repairs, or veg out in front of the tv with my bestie.  These are things I wanted to tighten in edit. I wanted so badly to say "Leave the window broken, close the shop, find the book and get a move on! This is a crisis situation, the day-to-day can wait."

Ugh. And now I've spent more time than intended on the nit-picky things, and I know I'm going to leave you guys with a negative impression of this book. Can we just say, I have no control over Editor Misty and her endless desire to red-pen, and I never know when she's going to come out, but that doesn't mean you won't enjoy First Frost, which at its core is a light, fun book with some really cool fairy tale concepts? Can we just leave it at that?

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*This is a reference to Family Guy, and not a reflection on Canadian films, FYI.


  1. Hmm, so I'm not sure if what bothered you would bother me. Except unnatural reactions. You father is a bear should illicit a WTF. No question. And hiding in a tree from something chasing you then coming out to someone singing "come out" that's just stupid. It's like in the scary movie, going into the basement, alone, with no lights.
    But the museum of magic is tempting. Maybe I'll keep it in mind for a library checkout! Great balanced review. And I can very much understand the things that bothered you about the novel.

    Here's the question, will you read the next book in the series?


  2. I've already talked to Liz about coming back next year for FTF, so yes. Now, that's not to say I don't hope to see growth and improvement, and that I won't be harsher (or even give up) if I don't...


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