Unbalanced by Courtney Shepard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.
“He’d had enough. He found the same weak, pathetic people in every town and village, and he would not abide their silence a second longer. His men had erected the pyre during the night. Now, displayed before every set of eyes, the mob’s reaction rewarded him. The palpable terror at the wooden structure charged him with renewed vigor, and his blood lust reared, battering against his control.
It was time to set an example.”
Okay, wow! This was interesting. As usual, let’s give a little summary before we get into the real meat of this review.
The story opens with a prologue about four sisters who control the elements of Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water and it is established that said sisters have been hunted down and sacrificed by a group known as the Order while also establishing that, to keep the future generations of the sisters safe from said group, they have been separated from each other shortly after birth because doing so takes away their ability to be tracked and hunted.
When the main story begins, we are introduced to Asha. Asha is one of the four element-controlling sisters and, when she is kidnapped by a visiting doctor with connections to the Order, she finds herself desperate to escape. Meanwhile, her sisters are out looking for her and, when they meet for the first time, they all discover that they are up against a force more powerful than they first thought. With the Order hunting them down and her confusing attraction toward the doctor that kidnapped her, Asha will have to find a way to help her sisters stop the forces against them before it is too late.
I had quite a bit of fun with this once I got into it. I will admit, the beginning is not what you’d call attractive, because it takes time to get to really know Asha and sympathize with her. That being said, I liked her once I spent a little time with her point of view.
She can be a bit rough around the edges and it’s obvious that she’s often on-edge throughout the story, but I can understand why, and that trait makes certain parts of the story particularly intense and engaging, which shows that it’s a good way to build both character and story.
I liked learning her backstory and how it made it easy to feel for her. It makes her rough personality understandable and easier to like. I appreciate that aspect in particular, because in the past I’ve found characters like Asha difficult to like because of the cold exterior.
“Her instincts, the ones she relied on, returned and came clearer now. They told her to trust him… odd. She was naturally suspicious, trusting was difficult, and his arrival was proof they were no longer safe. Despite all that, her instincts said he was okay.”
Despite her character strengths, I admit that I have mixed feelings about her original mistrust of Clay the doctor. It’s not that it was handled poorly, it’s just that I got a little irritated with her constantly pushing away her attraction toward him because of what he did to her, because she wasn’t being honest with herself. She absolutely had the right to have emotional turmoil given that he’d basically kidnapped her, but it goes on for a very long time and doesn’t feel like she gradually moved toward feeling otherwise. Instead, it feels like she went from not trusting him to sleeping with him in the blink of an eye with little buildup.
Another problem with this is that it makes her desire for him come off as purely lustful. I’ve always been of the opinion that friendship should come before romantic involvement if said relationship is to have any real depth, and I didn’t see that here. That being said, this whole story is clearly the beginning of a series, so this issue is something that can and should be worked on in future books.
As for Clay, I think his conflicted feelings worked a little bit better at the beginning compared to Asha’s. While I don’t think it was handled perfectly, his conflict about his feelings was more understandable given his background in the Order and what he was sent to do.
The thing that doesn’t work is the device that is used to show the origin of Clay’s feelings for Asha. In the story, he has a dream about her and said dream drives his actions. The problem is, the reader is not shown the dream, and is instead told about it when focusing on Clay’s point of view.
The reason this is a problem is because we don’t know Clay intimately when the dream is first brought up, so it’s harder to buy the idea when we’re told about it. It works in setting up the romance in the long run, but it also makes the introduction to Clay a little difficult to get behind. I don’t buy the dream because I didn’t actually see it.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to discern when to use the show-don’t-tell policy in writing. Summary narrative can work wonders for pacing and flow, but I think in this case it made the beginning move a little too fast, which is why seeing the dream would have been the better move, especially given the fact that the narrative is not strictly tied to just Asha’s viewpoint. If we knew exactly what Clay experienced during the dream, his position may have been easier to get behind.
“But it was she, and yet how could she be a real, living woman? She’d been cast as the lead in his most vivid dreams and nightmares. And now, to see the living embodiment of her here? La Guerrera Reina, the Warrior Queen, it was a kink in the plan.”
Speaking of the different viewpoints, it was nice to see the perspectives of Mere, Avia, and Ivy along with Asha’s and how they all came to be together again. I like that Shepard stuck with alternating between those viewpoints once we met the other sisters. Doing this helped to build tension in the narrative and really made it easy to care for the sisters as individuals as well as a group. I don’t feel like I know enough about them to comment on their individual characters, but I think that’s okay in this case because it is more Asha’s story than theirs, although of course they play a pivotal role in the story development.
“[Ivy] withdrew her hands and stared at them. This day was always going to come. He’d warned her it would. And though it had always hurt her to do it, they had prepared for it.”
And, finally, I should talk a bit about the main antagonists of this story. Starting with the Order, I personally felt that their characterization was handled well. It’s obvious throughout the story that they present a threat, even when it’s made clear that they’re just foot soldiers for an even worse force. I like that Clay and his brothers struggle with their ties to the Order and how said ties affect their dynamic characterizations.
“The ancient building’s history was as dark as its obsidian walls. The shining, black-stone towers rose, stabbing at the bright sun. Nothing would grow on such a smooth, impenetrable surface. The Order’s birthplace had endured since the beginning – imposing, frightening, and eternal.
Inside, the windowless hall remained dark, regardless of the hour. The building’s labyrinthine halls and staircases led like veins and arteries to the Grand Chamber, the heart of the Order.”
I thought it was great that the concept of the Four wasn’t obvious right off the bat. Through the abduction of Asha, Shepard makes it look like the Order will be the big bad, but as the story goes on, it becomes obvious that there is more at work here.
The Four itself is pretty intimidating, but I do admit that I’m a little confused about Mere’s huge discovery about the group. My question is, if she really did see who she thought she saw under the hood, how exactly were Clay and his brothers helping Asha and the sisters fight them during the climax? Can the Four take on disguises and just took on the brothers’ appearances to mess with Mere?
I don’t know if I misunderstood it or what, but it doesn’t add up that Clay and the others would continue to help after what was revealed. But again, I think this is something that can be fixed with the sequel. I don’t know exactly what Shepard was doing with that idea, but maybe it will become clear in later books.
Speaking of reveals, I need to discuss the character of Miles, particularly regarding this twist about his connection to the girls. He is part of the Order, but he betrayed the members and has been helping the girls throughout the story. It is only revealed at the end why he is doing so.
My question is, if he is who he’s revealed to be, why did he not tell Emma what he was doing with the babies and why he was doing it in the prologue? She tries to stop him when he takes the children, so why didn’t he explain to her what was going on and what was best? We don’t know what Emma knew, but if Miles is their father, wouldn’t that make Emma his wife? Doesn’t she have a right to understand the situation in full? Again, this could be explained and there could be more to it, but the explanation’s going to have to cover every angle of this issue in order for it to work well in the story and avoid being a plot hole.
Moving on from characters, I want to talk a bit about the magic system at play here and why the sisters are being hunted in the first place. The girls’ powers are interesting because you can play with the elements a bit, kind of like in Avatar: The Last Airbender. I also thought it was interesting that Clay and his brothers had their own versions of the powers as well, giving a neat parallel between them and the sisters.
I like the explanation Shepard provides for the Order and the Four’s motivations, because it makes them understandable despite the fact that they are obviously the villains.
I do wonder where the Order came from, though. What exactly do they get out of working for the Four? Is it just fear alone? Can the Four wipe them out if they want to, and that’s why they have these foot soldiers? This is too much to tackle with just one book, but I hope that Shepard will keep all of this in mind for the coming books in the series.
Finally, I want to leave a quick comment on the ending. Like I said, this story is clearly only the beginning, and seeing the Four rematerialize makes me anxious to see what will happen next. While their main motivation is known, there’s probably more to it than what was revealed here. There has to be a reason for the Four’s search for immortality, and I wonder what they’re planning next.
Despite the issues the story has, I did enjoy this experience. Shepard has definitely created a very interesting world that I want to know more about. I look forward to the sequel and seeing Asha again.