The Unnaturalists (The Unnaturalists #1) by Tiffany Trent
Published August 14th 2012 by Simon & Schuster
In an alternate London where magical creatures are preserved in a museum, two teens find themselves caught in a web of intrigue, deception, and danger.
Vespa Nyx wants nothing more than to spend the rest of her life cataloging Unnatural creatures in her father’s museum, but as she gets older, the requirement to become a lady and find a husband is looming large. Syrus Reed’s Tinker family has always served and revered the Unnaturals from afar, but when his family is captured to be refinery slaves, he finds that his fate may be bound up with Vespa’s—and with the Unnaturals.
As the danger grows, Vespa and Syrus find themselves in a tightening web of deception and intrigue. At stake may be the fate of New London—and the world.
The Unnaturalists has been on my wishlist for ages. I love the idea of separate Londons and cataloging jobs at museums, and I’m a sucker for those old English stories about girls on the brink of being ladies and who face the growing pressure of finding a husband, though they themselves have other wants and other plans. Contrary to what the cover, eye-catching blurb, and synopsis says, however, this was none of these things – The Unnaturalists was a tangle of interesting ideas that hadn’t been fully developed into a story, melded together with excessive info-dumping, an unfeeling romance, and cheap plot twists, then topped with elements that left me more than a little uncomfortable.
The chapters alternate between Vespa’s first person POV and Syrus’s third person POV, but strangely, I didn’t mind. Rather, I was more thrown off by the characters themselves.
Vespa’s POV is certainly impactful – in a terrible way. Her priorities have gone… somewhere, she’s bratty, shallow, and petty from the start, and she shows absolutely no signs of improving. Syrus’s POV is detached and cold. I’m actually a little confused as to why he was chosen to front half of the chapters? Syrus doesn’t read as a main character so much as he does a random side-character who runs around hiding and scratching his head and doing the other characters’ biddings. His chapters read as choppy and forgettable, serving only as convenient windows to further describe the Tinkers – whose depictions, especially against the Londoners, left me feeling uncomfortable and uneasy. I flipped back through the book and I can’t quite describe what it is, there’s this above-looking-down feeling, and more, but I do have two things related to it that I can describe. First, and granted, my English isn’t terribly great and I haven’t been immersed in it for nearly even half as long as the author has, but I’ve always carried the thought that “tinker” carried a negative connotation – in the same vein as “gypsy”? Also, in the author’s note, she mentions that the Tinker’s sacred language was Chinese. She intends for it to be a return gift to the Duobo, whom she spent a summer with. However, as the author puts it –
“In my own small and perhaps strange way, I hope at least to preserve some of their beauty in the pages of this book. While my Tinkers speak Chinese as their sacred language, it’s only because I was never fortunate enough to learn the Baima language or alphabet.”
It’s a sweet idea in theory, but the execution… The author uses Mandarin, but only scarcely – Syrus calls his grandmother nainai, the heavenly dragon is called tianlong, and he also says “wo shi” at one point (page 172 in the paperback), which the author translates into “I will,” but really means something more like “I am,” which doesn’t make sense in context. And before I delve into a convoluted ramble, full discloser: for what it’s worth, I’m Taiwanese Japanese, and converse with the Taiwanese side of my family in Mandarin and Taiwanese. So now that’s out of the way. I think it’s super cool and pretty sweet of the author to want to give something back. I think it’s great that the author wanted to incorporate different languages into her story. And, hey, maybe I’m being nitpicky – I try not to read reviews before I finish my own, but a cursory glance around says no one else has raised this as an issue – and maybe I’m just being a bit more sensitive and overreacting because of the times we’re in. But, firstly, I feel like if you could provide a “sacred language” version of Heavenly Dragon (tianlong), could the same not also be done for other crucial words and phrases in The Unnaturals, such as the Heart and Elementals and Manticore? Honestly, I didn’t even fully realize the “Tinkers” had a sacred language, let alone that it was actually Mandarin until I read the author’s note. If you’re going to introduce another language, introduce another language! Sprinkle in some words here and there – let it leave its mark! If you’re going to do something, let it be known that you’re doing it! Especially if it’s their sacred language, and you’re trying to define a culture. I’ve lightly scanned the book a few times, and could only find the three instances I mentioned before. Maybe there’s more – I hope there’s more! But it’s pretty disappointing? To have underdeveloped this part to such a degree. It feels half-assed – thrown in as an afterthought, just for the sake of being able to include a note on it at the end of the book. And, please, if you’re going to use another language, especially one that you may not feel 100% comfortable with, please please check it with someone? The most spoken language in the world is Mandarin – I’m sure someone would be willing to help. I know I’d be.
And then, of course, her beaten-down Tinkers use Mandarin, but the Architects – “one of the most powerful, devious, and wanted sorts in all the Empire,” as per the author’s own words – use Latin. I.e. in page 41 of the paperback, where one of their spells reads “Et in Arcadia ego.” So. Um. There’s that. Yeah.
I’m going to cut myself off before I go on anymore because this review is turning into a mess but TL;DR: the fact that the author dedicated half of her author’s note to talking about using Mandarin in her novel, but only used it extremely sparingly and almost unnoticeably, and still ended up erring once when she did so didn’t make me feel too great, especially when coupled with the aforementioned other uneasy things I found about her Tinkers.
Bayne’s tolerable only because he provides a break from Vespa, and I honestly think the twist in their relationship could’ve been prevented had Vespa thought for longer than a second; the plot does show its face, and the setting is wildly fascinating, but the novel overall is greatly burdened by The Unnaturalist’s flaws; the ending felt vague and muddled, least of which because of the abrupt and late introduction of a rather big character.
I had more thoughts on The Unnaturalists, but after putting all the thoughts I already had into words here, I think I’m going to go read something else and clear my mind. Yep. That seems like a good idea.