Every once in a while, like a magic spell, a book series comes along that takes me away to a magical place and never lets me go. Harry Potter did that. So, to a lesser extent, did Percy Jackson. Uglies did a good job, too. And now, I have another trilogy (and maybe more? *crosses fingers*) that I can add to my list of must-reads: The Unseen by Johnny Worthen.
I discovered Johnny Worthen quite by chance–I was in Utah, nervously trying to break into the author scene, and tiptoed my way into a League of Utah Writers writing group. Johnny Worthen was there, in all his tie-dyed glory. He was so bright, so loud, so welcoming, that I felt immediately that I was in the presence of a giant. And so, of course, I bowed my head in infinite shyness, mumbled that I didn’t have a business card when Johnny handed me his, and somehow made it through the group meeting.
I’ve seen Johnny a few other times–different writing groups, writers conference panels, and so on–though I don’t know if he remembers me personally (we’re friends on Facebook, but then again I’m also Facebook friends with Brandon Sanderson and he doesn’t know I exist), but each time I’ve seen him I’ve been impressed. So, one time when he was one of several authors at a Barnes and Noble signing event, I took a chance and bought a book from this man who had inspired me to keep writing. That book was the first of his The Unseen trilogy: Eleanor.
I didn’t know what I was getting into. But once I read it, I knew I wanted the rest. And so, when I went to Salt Lake Comic Con, I got the other two books in the trilogy. Thus, my signed trilogy collection was complete (though my Johnny Worthen book collection is not).
And each book is worth every penny.
Eleanor is a girl with a secret: she isn’t quite human, and keeping that secret is the key to her survival.
The first book in The Unseen trilogy introduces the reader to Eleanor, a shapeshifter who has spent fifty years as a coyote and only comes back when she realizes she’s losing her humanity. But with humanity comes heartache, fear, hatred, and death. What Eleanor has to learn is that humanity also contains kindness, goodness, and unimaginable love.
This YA series is in a genre called magical realism, which means it is set in a realistic setting with one small fantasy element that melds into the larger world. This inclusion of a magical element–in this case Eleanor–makes it so we can see the world through slightly different eyes. Johnny Worthen does an excellent job of setting up Jamesford, the small Wyoming town that Eleanor calls home, and populating it with a cast of multifaceted characters, including Eleanor herself and Tabitha–the woman who took Eleanor in and taught her to build her trust in humanity.
Up front, I must say this book goes slower than the usual Young Adult sci-fi/fantasy fare that is offered up on bookshelves, but this is a good thing. It allows the characters–especially Eleanor–to grow, to change, to discover themselves. This isn’t a shoot-em-up, hunt-em-down, uncover-the-conspiracy book. It’s a coming-of-age story about a girl who thinks she is a monster, who thinks no one can love her, and who has a lot of anger at herself and the world in general–and about the woman she calls mother who helps her learn to see the good in all things. I empathized deeply with Eleanor, cried with her, hoped for her. It is still my favorite book in the series, if only for the slow discovery of Eleanor and her world.
Eleanor’s life has been turned upside-down more than once in her life, and once again she finds she has to fight between the need to hide and her desire to be seen and loved. Her relationship with her unofficial boyfriend David is getting stronger, but consequences of her actions at the end of Eleanor catch up to her in an unexpected way: she is caught on video, and a family with a missing girl named Celeste thinks she’s her. And, physically, she is Celeste: she has copied Celeste’s form and lives every day with Celeste’s face.
As the investigation continues and Celeste’s family brings in everyone from congressmen to billionare scientists to discover exactly who Eleanor is, Eleanor realizes her desire to belong has threatened to destroy her life and the lives of those she loves.
Celeste ventures more towards traditional YA storytelling, with an overarching plot that pits the protagonists against a force so much greater than themselves, but it still remains true to themes seen in Eleanor: the struggle to belong, to do good when all you receive is evil in return, to discover the humanity in yourself when all you see are your flaws.
Oh, and Celeste had a cliffhanger that made me glad I had the next book waiting on my bookshelf.
In the final book, Eleanor must decide once and for all what it means to be human and whether she can hide. It’s hard to write a synopsis without giving away too much of this or the previous stories, but just know that many questions are answered, others remain, and the reader gets to see more of Eleanor’s shapeshifting abilities in action. Romance lovers get to see more of Eleanor and David. Mythology lovers get to learn more about shapeshifters and skinwalkers. Those who love coming-of-age stories with inner turmoil and soul-searching, it’s still here. It’s still not your typical YA fantasy, but in a good way.
While this could be the end of the series, I feel like a lot more could be explored with Eleanor. A certain African legend summarized in the book comes to mind. And I would love to see Eleanor and company exploring the wide world, perhaps finding other shapeshifters, perhaps not, but truly coming out of the shadows and living a full and happy life. After all, after everything Eleanor has gone through, she deserves it.
In summary, I recommend The Unseen trilogy (series?) to anyone who loves a good story. And to those who thinks it’s a little slow? Just relax, let the words flow over you, and enjoy the ride.