Only a Monster by Vanessa Len
Hodder & Stoughton, hb, £13.59
By Rima Devereaux
Joan Chang-Hunt is a YA heroine who is not a heroine. That is to say: she and her family are monsters, but she is in love with a monster slayer of legend who happens to be a real boy, Nick. This is the premise for Vanessa Len’s stunning switchback ride that overturns and plays with many topoi of classic fantasy.
The story is set in the London of various eras because monsters are able to time-travel, but only – and here is the rub – when they steal time from a human being, in a process slightly reminiscent of Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels. The time-travelling allows Len to play with some amazing settings, including an alternative London behind closed doors, to which only monsters have access. This includes a memorable depiction of the Monster Court that resides in Whitehall Palace at a time when the latter was still standing. The setting recalls other London-based fantasy, especially Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.
The conflict Joan experiences between her monster identity and her love for a monster slayer is enhanced by the idea that there is an alternative timeline in which she and Nick were able to love each other as ordinary people. In this alternative timeline, the massacre that Nick inflicts on Joan’s whole family at the outset never happens. And it is Joan herself who possesses the power to unmake Nick’s hero status and turn him into an ordinary boy. Len plays with notions of storytelling and heroism, showing that heroes are made by events rather than destined; furthermore, monsters have normal human feelings too, and can experience love and family life, Joan’s pursuit of which is at the centre of the book’s plot. These motifs overturn classic fantasy tropes.
A feature of modern fantasy which also characterizes the novel is the fact that Joan is mixed race – her father is from Malaysia. The story plays with questions of race and identity since Joan crosses two worlds in another sense too, because she is half-human and half-monster, and it is this mixed identity that in the end gives her the power to unmake the monster slayer.
The alternative timeline is an evocative tool and Len uses it to good effect, but the book’s ending raised some questions for me which the book itself does not answer. It might be that Len is contemplating a sequel, or that the end is deliberately bittersweet. Not to give too much away, it isn’t a happy ever after. Too much has been lost along the way, but perhaps that’s the ultimate message. We are the sum of what has happened to us, and there is much that cannot really be unmade.