Only a Monster by Vanessa Len is the Only YA Fantasy You Need in Your Life (book review)
GENRE: YA Fantasy LENGTH: 403 pages
Joan is a half-human, half-monster and her monster family is massacred by a legendary human hero. She is forced to team up with Aaron, a fellow monster whose family doesn't like her own, in order to find a way to save her family and stop the hero.
I picked up this book because I love books with morally gry characters. I was intrigued by the idea of reading a story told from the villain's point of view. That isn't precisely what I got, but I'm not complaining. All the characters read as so authentic and raw in their reactions to the events of the novel. They were so layered that they feel like they could be real people.
Our protagonist, Joan, is stubborn has a strong moral compass. She grapples deeply with not wanting to harm humans but also wanting to protect her family. Aaron, her reluctant ally, comes across initially as cowardly and pompous. As the novel progresses we get to see more of his soft side. Nick, the 'hero', is Joan's crush at the start of the novel with whom she develops a complicated love-hate relationship.
The novel is enemies to lovers and I would loosely describe it as a love triangle. I say loosely because while Aaron very clearly becomes fond of Joan it's more questionable if she likes him in return (at least in the same way that she does Nick). Both Joan and Nick AND Joan and Aaron have a strong set up for an enemies to lovers romance. The first couple are natural enemies as one is a monster and the other the hero, while Joan and Aaron are from warring monster families. Both give major Romeo and Juliet/star crossed lovers vibes, so if you like that sort of romance trope then you'd probably like this. Even I, who doesn't normally gravitate towards this type of trope, found myself getting emotional over Joan and Nick's ill fated romance.
The novel is told from the third person perspective of Joan. While the novel is fantasy I can see it appealing to sci-fi readers as it heavily features time travel. This is because monsters have the ability to travel through time by feeding off of humans (deducting years from their lives).
I think some may find the idea of monsters who look human to be boring, but to me it makes them all the more threatening. Even if humans were to find out monsters exist in this universe they'd never be able to distinguish them. Another thing I really liked was how each monster family had its own power (though all shared the time traveling ability). This kept the magic system simple for readers (important in a novel where there is so much going on) but their powers also serve as great plot devices.
This novel is surprisingly dark and violent for a YA book and has on page character deaths so keep that in mind before you start reading. A lot happens in this novel. It gets off to a pretty fast start with the massacre of Joan and Aaron's families at Nick's hands (our inciting event). This is followed by some time for Joan to learn about and adjust to the monster world and then a heist in the Monster Court and, of course, our climax. This is all intermixed with traversing time. Somehow it manages not to get convoluted. Instead, it's high stakes, tense, and thrilling. It's one of those books that keeps you reading in anticipation of what comes next.
There are plenty of unanswered questions at the end of the novel but this is the first book in a new trilogy so I never expected all my questions to be answered. Given how much fun I had reading this one I was super pumped when I realized this was a trilogy.
An easy recommendation/comparison is Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. Both have morally gray characters and feature a heist and enemies to lovers romance. Outside of that they are quite different, but I still think fans of one would like the other (after all, Bardugo is my favorite YA author and I loved this book).
FINAL THOUGHTS It's probably too early to call this my favorite YA fantasy and one of my overall favorite books of the year. Honestly, though, I'd be genuinely shocked if anything (other than maybe Lori M. Lee's Shamanborn trilogy conclusion) ties or tops this for the YA fantasy crown. From the characters that felt like real people to the tense thrills of a time heist there wasn't much this book DIDN'T have. The fact that this is Len's debut shocks me. I plan to closely follow her career in the years to come even after the trilogy's eventual conclusion.
FINAL RATING: 5⭐️