Only a Monster
In Vanessa Len’s debut YA fantasy Only a Monster we meet Joan Chang-Hunt, who is staying with her quirky London relatives for the summer. She volunteers at a historical museum and is excited about her first date with a fellow volunteer. Joan’s world turns upside down when she discovers that what her grandmother has always told her is in fact true: she is a monster.
Joan’s family is one of 12 monster families in London, who are able to travel through time by stealing time from humans, thus shortening their life spans. Each family also possesses specific powers. It turns out that the boy Joan’s been crushing on all summer is her enemy, “The Hero” who is destined to end monster kind.
Joan wrestles with what her new abilities mean, how she’s drawn to them, if and how she wants to use them and what the consequences of her choices will be. She also grapples with her anger at her family for keeping the world of monsters from her. With no choice but to team up with the son of a rival monster family, she begins a journey to fix what is broken while learning about the realities and limitations of her powers.
Len’s prose is rich with vivid descriptions and lush historical detail. Through her adventures across Len’s alternative London and the unsettling people she meets there, Joan – alongside the reader – constantly reckons with the question of what, or who, is a monster. What makes a person monstrous or heroic? What makes us believe someone is a monster, just because we’ve been told that they are? Len’s monsters and heroes are a fascinating and chilling allegory of the othering and marginalisation present in our own world, and question the stories it favours.
I thought I knew roughly what to expect. I was wrong. Len’s story and characters never went where I anticipated, and when things did take more familiar roads, the path was filled with so many zigzags and back-turns that the familiar became unexpected and thrilling. It shocked me and broke my heart.
Only a Monster left me with almost as many questions as it did answers but, like the best stories that do this, it was also intensely satisfying. Len has created a rich world that blurs the lines between good and evil, inhabited by fascinating, complex, unheroic characters who constantly wrestle with the question of what is right.
Allen & Unwin, 416pp, $22.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 12, 2022 as "Only a Monster, Vanessa Len".
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