A review of GP McKenna’s gory, uproarious coming-of-age fantasy novel
One of the most annoying things about YA fantasy is that its teenage heroes often seem like tiny, serious adults in disguise. They’re preternaturally mature orphans who end up saving the world, usually with grave mien and occasionally with extraordinary fighting talent. They parent themselves with grace, and their teenage crushes turn into their lifelong soulmates.
And then there’s Kilco.
Within the first few chapters of “Remnants of Atonement”, Kilco establishes herself as an insufferable, offensive, sarcastic, self-absorbed brat. In other words, a teenager. Forget saving the world, Kilco can barely be trusted to show up for the afternoon shift at the hospital where she works as an assistant to her mother, the indomitable Kira Escamilla, a physician whose bedside manner is only steps above that of Dr. Gregory House.
The story begins when Kira and Kilco decamp for the front to assist the Princess of neighboring Ascot in a rebellion against a usurper. Whatever. The novel pays about as much attention to politics as the average teenager would. Instead, Kilco swiftly ditches her duties to stumble into the tent of Pogue, a brawny teenaged warrior with “cheekbones that defied gravity.” Seriously, he’s basically the teenage version of Brad Pitt in “Troy.” Pogue is that blue-eyed hero whom everyone loves — the world is just nicer to him, Kilco realizes — which makes him attractive enough to Kilco that it’s worth restricting herself to the “simple language” that Pogue best understands. He isn’t stupid, exactly, but “once you hit four syllables, you might as well start speaking in the old tongue.” Still, he’s got a heart of gold under his iron muscles. No one’s perfect, right?
Enter Pogue’s bff, fighting companion, and foil, Ilya. A self-described “virgin who can read”, the 15-year-old scarlet-eyed assassin from a clan known as the Ilvarjo is every manga-loving girl’s imaginary boyfriend. He’s slim and pale and graceful and shy and we’re just waiting for him to love us. Unfortunately, in a twist of fate that the aforementioned teenage girls will entirely understand, it turns out Ilya and Pogue like each other a lot more than they like Kilco. (She does spend the entire novel stumbling about in the same blood, gore and guts-soaked dress.) In the words of Never Have I Ever, another teen rom-com, it’s less of a love triangle and more of “a line and a dot.”
Because the term “third wheel” doesn’t exist in this universe, Kilco tags along on Ilya and Pogue’s dates until they eventually accept her as a friend. Tragedy, hijinks, undignified barfing and a relatably terrible sex scene ensue, but the heart of this story is the fun, sweet, fond relationship between the three main characters who are doing a pretty shit job of everything except for caring about each other. And even there, their record is not fantastic.
Kilco may be a nightmare, but she’s funny as hell: “violence disguised as bedside manner was a privilege reserved only for supervising physicians,” she muses, fighting the urge to murder a troublesome patient. Or “like caring for her loin fruit was my life’s greatest privilege” of one ungrateful patient’s parent. She’s nicknamed her arm muscles the “twiglets.” Whatever the opposite of Special Snowflake syndrome is, Kilco has it. She is well aware that she has zero outstanding talents, no looks to speak of, terrible dress sense, a bad attitude, and the closest she can get to a boyfriend is a dude who wants to use her to throw his possibly-homophobic mother off the scent. Talk about the hero we deserve. And yet, somewhere between the self-effacing humor and the incessant whining about how the Deities hate her, Kilco offers a few nuggets of wisdom: “Rolling in the blood of your enemies was preferable to swimming in the tears of your friends,” for example. Kilco, c’est moi.
That said, there are downsides to this novel: for starters, there are some awkward, awkward turns of phrase. Awkward enough that I began to wonder if maybe the entire text had been fed through Google Translate a time or two. “You could rest assured that Kirk would not only know every detail but had scientifically analysed them three times over by lunchtime,” Kilco observes about one character. Huh? Is there a verb missing in there, or possibly a tense that went somehow awry? Elsewhere: “the orb flew off course into a tree, enlightening it in flames.” Really? That is a very literal use of the term “enlighten.” The pacing could be more consistent. The story jerks from one semi-climax to the next, with some fallow ground in between.
If the teenagers feel deeply authentic, the adults are totally inexplicable. Ilya and the rest of the Ilvarjo feel a deep loyalty to a Princess who seems like a sadistic jerk. Ilya’s mother is a distant succubus. Even Kira seems to yo-yo between caring for her daughter and treating her like an unwelcome stranger. If their motivations seem opaque and their characters inconsistent, one could also argue that’s what adult society actually looks like to kids.
So, if some of the sentences take a few seconds to decipher, it’s worth it. This is a fun, funny story whose heroine genuinely grabbed me and whose emotional dramas I felt invested in. There are two more novels coming in short succession. I want to know: do Pogue and Ilya ever get to tell their parents about their relationship? What horrible thing happened in Kilco’s past? Do they all live happily ever after? Does anyone live happily ever after, or even live? This is a hilarious book that, much like its heroine, benefits from not taking itself too seriously.
Thanks to Andraharts Publications and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.