Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Review: Valentine by Jodi McAlister

Valentine remains one of Australia's most underrated YA fantasies.

It's crunch time for me as the deadline for judging the Aurealis Awards rapidly looms. Since I was unable to figure out how to squeeze one more thing into my already crammed reading schedule, I thought I would offer this old review of mine on a book I consider to be one of Australia's most underrated YA fantasy novels. I've added a few extra thoughts here and there.

Pearl is one of four children in her town born on Valentine's Day. One of them is a changeling, but not even the Unseelie fae hunting them know which one of them it is.

This was definitely a case of "right book, right time" for me. I'd meant to review something else, but it was clear from the first page that we weren't going to get along. Since I had a Monsterhearts game coming up, I thought I'd give Valentine a go instead. It turned out to be the perfect mood-setter.

But I think I was always going to love this book. As I've mentioned before, I was a huge fan of Holly Black's Tithe, and Valentine hits many of the same buttons. The book starts off with a strange event -- a black horse mysteriously showing up at a party -- and things get stranger around Pearl. If you like your faeries with teeth, this is definitely a book to check out. It makes use of some of the less commonly known or used pieces of faerie lore, such as elflocks, though it doesn't always play them straight.

Pearl isn't stupid and recognises something weird is going on, though she sometimes wavers in that belief. She's a relatable character in many ways, taking her responsibilities seriously and angsting over what other people think of her. She's brave and loyal, while also being afraid and, at times, hypocritical. She neglects her best friend but doesn't hesitate to put herself in danger for the people she cares about.

The book is told in first person and is lightly sprinkled with pop-culture references and text speak. This is not going to suit everyone. I thought it contributed to making Pearl's voice a strong one. The reference to the eternal conundrum of Sherlock vs Elementary made me smile. Facebook also plays a role in the plot as a way the characters keep in contact. Valentine embraces the modern era, rather than trying to work around it.

Of course, this may work less well from the perspective of 2023. After all, who uses Facebook anymore? Certainly not teenagers like Pearl and her friends. The drawback with incorporating current trends in technology, social media and pop culture is that it serves to date the book, and sometimes quite rapidly (my goodness, how the world has changed since 2017). This may not be a problem for older audiences, but may make it a little less accessible or appealing to the target audience.

One thing that never gets old for me is a good enemies-to-lovers story (or at least an on-page relationship that starts out in antagonism). It's clear from the outset that Finn isn't as disdainful of Pearl as she is of him, though that doesn't prevent him from expressing anger and irritation towards her where it's warranted. Watching Pearl's opinion of him grow and improve was a delight.

Not everyone is going to like the ending, particularly since it deviates from certain genre expectations, but I found it a mature change. In fact, the series as a whole handles consent in a pretty healthy way, making it easy for me to recommend.

The story is also set in Australia, which results in some subtle cultural shifts. The common US stereotypes of jocks, nerds and goths are absent. Instead, there are some distinctly Australian elements, like school captains and Pearl's job as a lifeguard at the local pool.

Overall, I found Valentine a fresh and intelligent take on faerie YA urban fantasy and one very appropriate to the current season.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8 /10

Bonuses: +1 for fairies with teeth, + 1 for mature handling of consent

Penalties: -1 for dated use of pop culture and social media

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

POSTED BY: Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a writer, binge reader, tabletop gamer & tea addict.


McAlister, Jodi. Valentine. (Penguin Teen Australia, 2017)

Black, Holly. Tithe. (Simon Pulse, 2002)