Book: “Before She Ignites” by Jodi Meadows
Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, September 2017
Where Did I Get this Book: the library!
Book Description: Before
Mira Minkoba is the Hopebearer. Since the day she was born, she’s been told she’s special. Important. Perfect. She’s known across the Fallen Isles not just for her beauty, but for the Mira Treaty named after her, a peace agreement which united the seven islands against their enemies on the mainland.
But Mira has never felt as perfect as everyone says. She counts compulsively. She struggles with crippling anxiety. And she’s far too interested in dragons for a girl of her station.
Then Mira discovers an explosive secret that challenges everything she and the Treaty stand for. Betrayed by the very people she spent her life serving, Mira is sentenced to the Pit–the deadliest prison in the Fallen Isles. There, a cruel guard would do anything to discover the secret she would die to protect.
No longer beholden to those who betrayed her, Mira must learn to survive on her own and unearth the dark truths about the Fallen Isles–and herself–before her very world begins to collapse.
Review: This book made its way on to my TBR pile for a few different reasons. First of all, I was intrigued by the inclusion of a fantasy heroine who struggles with her mental health. I’ve also read a few of Jodi Meadows’ books in the past and have mostly enjoyed them. And lastly, dragons. Enough said. For those three interest points, the book does deliver. However, the execution and pacing of the story was off and there simply weren’t enough dragons.
Mira’s life has been one lived upon a stage as the living representative of a treaty that brought several island nations together under a peace and trade agreement. But Mira herself has never felt like the fabled Hopebringer that she is meant to represent. For one, she suffers from anxiety and panic attacks and uses a counting system in her mind to keep her fears at bay. For two, she has an unseemly obsession with dragons, always running off to spend time on the reservation with her two friends and these fantastical beasts. But when she stumbles across a secret betrayal and reports it to her countrymen, she’s not rewarded, but thrown in prison.
I have complicated feelings and thoughts about this book. Many of the things I enjoyed were also parts that I later had criticisms of, which makes it hard to write this review. To start with some of the things I remained “all in” on throughout the book, I guess.
I very much enjoyed the world-building in this story. The islands that have joined together in the Mira Treaty all are based around one of the gods in a shared pantheon. These gods, and the religions practiced in their name, greatly shape the culture and priorities of each unique island nation. Mira is from a pair of twin islands that devote themselves to a pair of gods, a god and goddess of love. Through this lens, we get some insight not only into Mira herself and her struggles in her role as a public figure, but also into her reactions to the betrayal committed against her when she reports wrongdoing.
Part of Mira’s anxiety and insecurities are based on the fact that she sees herself as not perfectly matching the preferred and seemingly often inherent skill sets that make up her island’s culture. The people of her home are known for the social skills, to befriend others easily, to converse freely, and to generally thrive in social interactions. Thus, for Mira, a young woman whose role would require the most of these inherent skills, she sees her own struggles and inabilities in these roles as failures and a sign that there is something wrong with her. Further, her naivety when reporting on the betrayal she uncovers is explained through her perception of her homeland. For a country that’s focus is on love and care, it simply never occurs to her that power dynamics and political maneuvering could lead even her own country’s leaders down some treacherous paths.
As the story unrolls, we see various other island nation’s differing cultures and religions. There is an island nation devoted to Silence, and this is reflected in the power they associate with not speaking (a lesson Mira much needs), and an alternative language that they have developed to communicate without noise. There is also a nation focused on warfare and fighting prowess. A nation whose inhabitants are skillful healers and agriculturalists. A nation that worships shadows. All of these cultures are masterfully woven in throughout the story, and I very much appreciated the non-info-dumpy manner that Meadows worked them into Mira’s journey.
Mira herself was an interesting protagonist. I very much enjoyed the exploration of her anxiety, the strategies she has developed to deal with her panic attacks, her counting method (I don’t believe it is meant to represent an OCD habit, but it’s still incorporated well). Further, Mira is not demonized for missing the beautiful parts of her life when she finds herself in prison. She’s always been clean and been surrounded by lovely things. It’s believable and refreshing that she would miss these things and relish in them when she finds them again, even now knowing the underworkings behind her privileged life. I very much liked that she was written as a believable young woman in this way. And, again, while she sees things through new lens, her character isn’t punished for still loving these creature comforts or presented as superficial for caring that her hair is dry and broken from long days in a prison.
However, while I appreciated these aspects of her character, I never felt truly invested in Mira. I’m not quite sure what the problem was. Perhaps, while I liked the realism that was given to her character, that same realism read as…dull? The story has several action scenes and jumps from one location to another, but Mira was often a passive player in all of this. And that’s what the story requires, I understand that. But that still doesn’t make me enjoy it any more. So, yes, it’s complicated. I see what the author was trying to do, and I think she largely accomplished it, but the downside of that same success is that this goal makes Mira not the most engaging character to follow.
Further, the pacing of the story was strange. In the beginning, her time in prison was broken up with flashbacks to the events that lead up to her ending up where she does. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but it was hard not to find myself skimming through the flashbacks, eager to get back to the prison plotline that I felt was much more compelling. Part of this is due to the fact that Mira’s fellow inmates were much stronger characters than her two friends back in the outside world. So with a fairly bland leading lady, these variations in strength of supporting characters really drove my appreciation of one plotline over the other.
Further, about halfway through the story, Mira’s experiences take a sudden shift and, again, due to the change of location and supporting characters, it was all just kind of “meh.” This whole section left something wanting in my opinion, and again, I was eager to get back to the prison action.
Lastly, the dragons serve an important role within the story, and yet, somehow, I still felt like there wasn’t enough of them in the story itself. At the point we were at in this book, I almost wish there had been even less? We were right at the teetering point with what was given here, and I feel like committing to one side of the other would have been an improvement. Either make the dragons a more active portion of the story, or keep them more fully on the peripheral as chess pieces in a larger game.
Ultimately, while there were things that I very much enjoyed about this story, I left it feel rather indifferent. I wasn’t “in love” with anything presented here, but I also didn’t actively dislike it. I give tons of credit to Meadows for giving us yet another example of a YA protagonist who isn’t a special snowflake. And the world-building is very interesting. As I recently discovered with “A Poison Dark and Drowning,” sometimes the second book in a trilogy is better having gotten all of the set up out of the way with the first book. That would be my hope with this trilogy.
Rating 6: Doing good work introducing a YA heroine who struggles with her mental health, but lacking in strong pacing.
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