Review by Louise Brecht
Penguin Teen, Penguin Random House Canada, 24 September 2019
256 pages, hardcover, $21.99 CAD, 978-0-73526-298-0
Ages 14+, Grades 9-12
Young Adult, Horror/Thriller, Mystery, Romance, Action/Adventure
It was all falling apart before they even reached their destination. They were alone, hemmed in by trees, halfway between nowhere and nowhere. Was someone watching them even now?
Deep breaths, in and out. If this all went wrong, it would be her fault.
D’s scared. The trip was her idea. The plane crash happened here, the one that claimed the lives of her twin sister and Spider’s brother two long years ago. Now she, Spider, and their friend, Min, are stranded on the slopes of the Grey Sisters mountain range. The burned-out site is somewhere above them. Miles of mountainous terrain is below. Spider is impatient with D’s quest for closure. She accepts that her why’s don’t have answers, but she came along when D asked her. Min came too, although she hadn’t even known the siblings they lost. She moved in with D and her mother last year, at the beginning of eleventh grade, and ever since, Min’s become the yang to her yin. She’s the navigator, the local researcher, and the teens’ sole voice of experience in wilderness survival. Dusk is falling. D’s ancient car, She-Ra, is immobile; her battery is as dead as their cell phone reception, and Min’s spotted an eerie presence in the forest. Is it human? Perhaps. The next day, Min disappears.
Meanwhile, things are heating up in Avalon, the fortress-like compound tucked into the mountainside mere miles away from the girls’ camp site. Big Daddy needs to keep his cult’s home off the public’s radar for a number of reasons, and Big Daddy’s word is law to a hodge-podge mixture of “blood-bound” mountain folk, aging Vietnam veterans…and an occasional ‘inductee.’ It’s a foreign world. Men rule, women tend to the chores of daily communal living, bear children, and they all scrabble for food. Male babies are (mostly) sold for profit, but girl-children—the ones who survive—are raised to become warriors for Big Daddy’s cause.
Ariel’s in charge of the female fighters ordered to get rid of D and Spider before they create trouble over their missing friend. The girls are armed, night is nigh, and their sights are trained on Min’s friends, but Ariel is distracted by love. Aaron, her partner of choice, has been mutilated by a marauding bear, and he’ll die without the kind of medical assistance that doesn’t exist in Avalon. If Ariel can get She-Ra running, if she has a driver, she can get him off the mountain. Will she set her orders aside and take D and Spider to find Min…for a price?
Protagonists D and Spider have to transcend their own inexperience and rise to the challenge of retrieving one of their number from the compound’s “off-the-grid whack jobs.” Up until this point, D’s life has revolved around school, the mall, downtown, and home. Spider’s busy-ness, socializing, drinking, making out with random girls, all cloak her grief. Min is a farm girl bent on finishing school in a traditional way. Collectively, they are privileged suburbanites, ones whose feelings for each other haven’t been put to the test—until now.
The self-evident clash of cultures then, denotes The Grey Sisters’ primary conflict, but it’s far from the only one that author Jo Treggiari weaves through its pages. A coup against Big Daddy is in the works, the forest is crawling with unsavory characters, Min’s captivity isn’t exactly an idle one, and the mountain holds many mysteries. The pace, once the teens’ march on the compound begins, is unrelenting. The book is almost impossible to put down.
There is no doubt that The Grey Sisters is well worth the read, although to my mind, the story ends on a few grey notes. As drawn as I am to each and every one of the characters, I admit that I have a certain fondness for Ariel, for her loyalty, her strength, and the way she counters loss. The final scene feels a trifle constructed, so the questions its speakers pose don’t resonate with me quite the same way as Ariel’s do in the preceding one. I’d also like to know so much more, such as where the story takes place. However, neither issue detracts from the question that remains long after finishing this novel: How does one value survival?
The Grey Sisters hits the shelves on September 24th, 2019!
Louise Brecht is a Creative Writing and English Literature student at the University of British Columbia. An avid reader and aspiring author, Louise has published works of non-fiction, fiction and poetry in nineteenquestions, Pearls, Collage, and Sweatink.