Reviewed by Antonella Townsend
A female protagonist who is half-English half-Chinese and half-monster half-human, a hoard of full-blood monsters, the protagonist’s human, monster-slaying love interest, and time travel! Such are the elements of Vanessa Len’s debut Young Adult novel, Only A Monster. Ambitious, to say the least!
Vanessa Len writes that she was interested in exploring her personal biracial experience, living within a culture but not fully part of it. Her protagonist, Joan, has an English mother, now deceased, and an Asian father, absent during the novel, as he is visiting a relative in Asia. To add, hugely, to her outlier cultural experience, Joan discovers that her English relatives are time traveling monsters. Hence she is half monster, although she was not brought up to knowing this. Discovering her heritage comes as a shock, when she spontaneously time travels just before she is to meet up with love-interest Nick. Days after this traumatic experience, they meet at Holland House, a historical site, where they both work. They are in love, but, oh so inconveniently, Nick turns out to be a monster-slaying hero. His hatred of monsters is justified, as the monsters’ means of time travel is to steal years of life from their unsuspecting human victims. Monsters do this by placing their hand on the back of their victims’ necks. If traveling back one hundred years, they spread their theft across many people for fear of causing death, so drawing attention to their crime. That is as much as can be revealed without straying into spoiler territory. I might mention two other male characters, Tom and Aaron, both monsters, who keep readers wondering how their relationship with Joan will develop as the narrative unfolds.
This is an intriguing fantasy plot full of clever literary devices intended to explore identity while straddling two cultures. And, I might add, puts in mind how many crimes are, at a fundamental level, stealing time. Children’s lives are rendered void via inappropriate sexual encounters; women being abandoned, left to raise children alone, their partner moving on to younger pastures; and financial scams that steal the years it took to acquire retirement funds; and, of course, the ultimate time theft of murder.
I loved the clever concept of ‘time line resistance’, whereby time protects itself from too much human intervention, and the idea of an ancient time bubble that was constructed to guard an entrance, where a Sabre Tooth Tiger strolled around.
However, even allowing for suspension of disbelief, fantasy must have logical threads that make sense in the reader’s world. But on a few occasions, the plot took illogical leaps, one of which was Joan’s first-time travel experience. To encourage an analytic approach toward cultural norms, the author seemed willing to sacrifice plot logic in order to emphasize the extent of our socially constructed nature. Whereas the characters were busy pushing the plot forward, their inner thought processes were missing, particularly Nick, Aaron and Tom. Perhaps because of this the novel feels as if written for a younger demographic.
Nevertheless, Vanessa Len has written a page-turner, giving the reader a fresh perspective on time travel. In the process, she has mastered the art of suspense and leaves the reader wondering what might happen next. There is bound to be a sequel.
By Vanessa Len
Allen & Unwin