The Blackwell Family Secret: The Guardians of Sin by Jonathan L. Ferrera is the first book where I have received the text from Netgalley, read it, and seriously considered not providing feedback. Sure, there have been a few I have received and not read fast enough that they expired and I couldn’t actually read them, but I pretty much read everything I request and provide feedback on everything I read. Part of the reason I always provide feedback is because I feel that if I get a book through that service, it deserves an honest review. But I also feel bad when I review something I got from there and I don’t love it (I get them for free after all…). I don’t let that color my review, but this is the first time I have had such a negative reaction to something received from Netgalley. I thought about what to do, what to say in the review, and should I spin it so that it’s not so negative? But then I remembered, that part of the deal is that I will provide honest feedback, so with that in mind….
I think The Blackwell Family Secret (BFS, for short) is a secret that would’ve been better had I never learned it. I am not saying the book is a waste of paper (or “ipad memory since I got it on my kindle), but there are far fewer redeeming qualities in this than there are negative ones and if I gave stars, this would be lucky to get 1 star.
I am not a huge fan of the self-publishing trend/industry. I have expressed the limitations with it, despite the fact that there are, from time to time, some hidden gems that are later more broadly distributed/published. But, they are rare. Like finding a raw diamond while digging a hole in your back year. Not totally out of the real of possibility, but odds at winning the $500 million power ball are just as good. Why do I raise this here? Because I went so far as to google the name of the publisher of the BFS to see if it was one of those self-publishing houses (they are self described as “[a]n independent book publisher of speculative fiction” and I didn’t see anything indicating that it was a self-publishing company). That’s the kind of vibe this left me with. I will go so far as to say that this felt like it was just the first draft – not because of typos or grammatical issues, but because the Grand Canyon size craters in the story and plot could hold NY City (with room to spare), the total lack of character development or relationship foundation between characters is so insubstantial Nearly Headless Nick is as solid as a brick wall in comparison, and the NASCAR-on-steroids speed at which the story is paced (aided significantly by those Grand Canyon gaps in plot) would probably support time-travel or get me to Venus faster than I could fly to London.
Setting the stage is important. The prologue had promise – it wasn’t bad. But, it gave me 7 year-old Nicholas and the first chapter gives me 16 year old Nicolas. We need to re adjust. When you serve the first course of a meal on the only plates set on the table and you clear those plates for the main course, you have to set new plates first. Or expect your guests to eat directly off the table cloth – and, well, that’s just messy!
We meet our main characters and they spend very little time together before being whisked away to the demon city to start trying to save the world. We are asked to believe that Nicholas and Amy, in the half day they’ve known each other, have instantly developed some wonderful sort of real relationship. We don’t really see any significant… well, anything, of either of them. We meet Theodore, Nicholas’s roommate for all of three minutes before things start. There’s no background, there’s no basis, no time to get used to the characters and feel invested in them to care at all what happens when Nicholas and Amy go to this city of demons. The chapter where Nicholas ends up back at school and the principal decides, all of a sudden, to take the actions he takes was only a surprise because of the abrupt manner in which is was handled (twists like that are a dime-a-dozen in this genre, so that’s not what made it a surprise). Crash test dummies come to a stop less abruptly.
The author also hasn’t learned the art of subtlety. Is there more to Amy? Of course. But, the hints dropped were so obvious that symbol Trelawney could have predicted exactly what would’ve happened. She would have been the most successful Seer to grace the pages of literature, ever (total tangent: my years worth of reading and re-reading, not to mention my annual re-listening to the Jim Dale version of the audio books has led me to the conclusion that she really was better at divination than she gets credit for). And anyone who is even remotely familiar with those books or movies could tell you that is saying something as she is portrayed as the largest fraud in the history of fortune telling. She would’ve had a room in the Department of mysteries dedicated to just her prophecies if they were as obvious as they are here.
I wonder if the author has ever even met a 16-year-old boy. What 16-year-old boy would in one breath ask a question and demand to know more about the girl he’s with and then literally the next breath completely ignore it and drop it and totally let it go? Especially with anything that they might even remotely think is important. I have yet to meet a teenager, who when they really want to know something, doesn’t make any second follow up attempt. In fact they usually pester and pester and pester in an attempt to get their own way. Kind of like a dog who refuses to let go of that juicy hambone. Even well behaved teenagers do this. Here, Nicholas gets told that there are some great big giant family secret and then he basically just say “yeah, secret, what is it? Okay, don’t tell me. Thanks.” And he totally moves on. What teenager would really be a that way? Don’t even get me started on the fact that Nicholas is supposed to defeat these guardians of sin and a toddler would have a harder time making a mess out of a plate of spaghetti. Take the guardian of envy portion of this story, for example. Nicholas basically just asks the demon to give up the piece the crown and she can’t wait to be rid of it. I don’t care that later Lucifer tries to justify the easy path by saying Nicholas had some control over the guardians. It was still just way too easy and I started to find it amusing – and not in a good way. Leaving me to conclude that the plot and details of the story really weren’t very well thought through. These things made it really hard for me to care.
I have to say that the theology was hard to swallow also. There were moments where I’m convinced I read something that contradicted something else I had read previously. Further illustrating my lack of any sort of care how things ended up, I usually make notes of those sorts of things for my reviews. Here, I didn’t even bookmark those things. I was just that uninterested because the author didn’t give me enough to make me feel invested. Mortimer and Randolph Duke had more skin in the game when they bet a dollar on Billy Ray Valentine and Louis Winthorpe III. A dollar people, a whole whopping dollar, was a greater investment.
And despite all of the issues with this book, the biggest travesty here is that there’s a kernel of a good idea at the root of the story. Folks who read my reviews know I’m a fan of serials. And, with a little bit more time, effort and page space, the author could have taken this book and turned it into a series. I hate it when publishers stretch books into series just for the sake of the money grab. But here, some good writing, a little bit more time flushing out the inconsistencies of the theology and plot, some decent character and relationship building, and we could have actually had good battles for the the Devil’s crown and some real battles and, most importantly, a decent story – one that needs to be a series. This is one of the other reasons why I checked on whether or not the publisher was a self-publishing service. It’s more likely these days to stretch stories beyond their breaking point into multiple installments and way less likely to cram everything into one tiny book.
Finally, this is marketed as a young adult book and I’m not sure that that’s appropriate. I mentioned earlier that there is a smattering of some complex or advanced words in the book. They themselves aren’t enough to make me feel like this is appropriately aimed at young adults. I have read a number of the installments of the “Heck” series (by Dale E. Basye) and this book felt much more akin to that. That series is aimed at “young readers” – aka children. The simplicity of the writing and similar overall issues plagued that series as well. If I were the author I would probably retool BFS a little bit and adjust the marketing of to squarely make this a children’s book. Overall the secret of the Blackwell family wasn’t really that big of a twist or reveal. I could have lived without learning it. I hope if the author continues to write he finds a way to address these issues and he doesn’t repeat them in future stories.