Review: Places No One Knows



Brenna Yovanoff is a seasoned author at this point, but Places No One Knows is going to be her break-out hit.

People who know me in real life know what a fan I am of the Merry Sisters of Fate, a trio of authors comprised of Tessa Gratton, Maggie Stiefvater, and Brenna Yovanoff. All three write a particular brand of eerie, unconventional modern fantasy that draws me in like nothing else. Although I’ve read most of Stiefvater’s work and am working my way through Gratton’s, so far I have only had the opportunity to read one of Yovanoff’s novels, The Replacement. Its blend of personal drama, fairy intrigue, and horror prepped me to expect (and enjoy) more of the same from Yovanoff. You can imagine my surprise when I got a copy of her newest novel, Places No One Knows, and realized it was primarily a high school drama. But oh, was I delighted when I delved into it and realized it was so much more than the stereotypical school angst I have — perhaps wrongly — come to expect from contemporary YA.

My first thing to say about this novel isn’t a criticism, but a caveat. I love lyrical prose, the slow burn of good character development, and watching a story unfold a piece at a time. Not everyone does. If you’re looking for something with snappy action and a quirky premise, this one probably isn’t for you — it takes its time getting to the end, though I think it’s a better book for it.

The heroine, Waverly, seems ordinary to her peers: high strung, maybe, but aren’t they all? Yet inside her head, she is a calculating, marvelous wonder, just one accident of birth away from being a great political or military strategist in another era. She reads The Art of War and Machiavelli to understand how to navigate the interpersonal complexities of high school. She plots with her best friend to carefully dethrone and replace other girls in the social hierarchy as ruthlessly as she might plan a coup. And, gripped by nightly insomnia, she runs through her suburban neighborhood every night like a person possessed. I’ve never encountered a heroine like Waverly in contemporary fiction, and she is so deliciously startling that you can’t help but love her, flaws and vicious streak and all.

Meanwhile, our troubled hero Marshall would be easy to fumble in another author’s hands. He parties, drinks too much, and makes out with girls he doesn’t really care about to cover up the stresses of his home life. He doesn’t care about school and school mostly doesn’t care about him. He is, by our academic-driven standards, a failure. It would be easy to loose him in stereotypes about dark, brooding love interests, but Yovanoff plucks him from his wallowing and gives him something few YA love interests have: personality. By the end of the novel, I couldn’t help loving him, too.

Star-crossed lovers are always a fun plot to play with. How do they meet? Why should they care about one another? These two in particular have no reason to know each other’s names, much less to become friends. So what happens when Waverly starts dreaming herself into Marshall’s bedroom at night?

It would be wrong to label Places No One Knows as an urban fantasy. “Magical realism” would be closer. The splash of fantasy that drives the premise is a clever, dangling “what if?” that comes to life on the page with both dream-like prose and a cutting look at the characters at their most vulnerable. It doesn’t stop at the heroes, either. The entire novel is an excruciatingly beautiful portrait of life in a modern high school, with all the anxieties and triumphs it encompasses. It’s no secret that this is what grips me most in novels: the ability to take any setting, any plot, and crack it open to show us what the people are really like inside, as if they breathed the same air we do. At this, Yovanoff excels.