I first heard about Gifted, a new urban fantasy novel by debut author Liz Long, when I heard on Twitter that she was giving away free Kindle copies in exchange for an honest review. Well, I love me a free book, so I read the summary on Amazon and instantly knew I wanted to check this one out. Circus performers with superpowers is too awesome a combo to pass up. So I emailed Liz, and she promptly got back to me with my review copy.
I even paused in the middle of my current books (I’m sorry, Kvothe!) to read this one, because there was a little voice in my head that kept chanting, “you need to read about circus performers with superpowers!”
I’ve got to say, I’m glad I did.
What it’s about:
Gifted is the story of Lucy Sullivan, a young woman grieving the semi-recent loss of both her parents. The book opens as she contacts Sheffield Donovan, owner and Ringmaster of the Donovan Circus, to ask if she can join up. Lucy was raised in the circus until her parents left to have a normal life. Now that her parents are gone, Lucy is anxious to re-enter a world where she can feel comfortable, accepted, and understood. She’s never felt truly at home in the world outside the circus, and knows that Donovan Circus is where she truly belongs.
You see, Donovan Circus isn’t your everyday circus. Because most of the performers in the Donovan Circus are Gifted. They have special powers that set them apart from the outside world. And Lucy is no exception. She is a Firestarter.
Lucy is quickly embraced by the young performers in the circus, a group that includes other Firestarters, a Telepath, a Runner, a Shape-Shifter, a Transporter, and more. She also quickly finds herself a (mostly) unwilling participant in a love triangle, which she does her best to ignore as she works on honing her abilities and developing her power.
But her new life with the circus is threatened when someone starts attacking and killing the Gifted. And she’s the prime suspect.
After reading the synopsis of Gifted, I thought to myself, “okay, so it’s Water for Elephants meets X-Men.” And Gifted absolutely bears some similarities to both of those, as well as some other gems of pop culture. An orphan joins up with the circus. Everyone has superpowers. There’s a wise Professor X-ish mentor-type (sans wheelchair and bald head, and plus handlebar mustache). There’s an evil supervillain that’s kind of a cross between Magneto and Peter Petrelli, if Peter Petrelli was evil (did I just lose cool points with the Heroes reference? Admit it. The first season of Heroes was awesome) [Edit: Sylar would be a much better comparison. I realized this last night as I was falling asleep. It bothered me I didn’t make the comparison earlier. So now I’m correcting myself. He’s a cross between Magneto and Sylar]. And of course Lucy’s Firestarter ability calls to mind (duh) Firestarter. But even though Gifted bears similarities to several other more familiar works, I still found it to be a fresh take on the more traditional comic-y superhero tales.
Lucy was a great main character. She’s strong and smart and sarcastic; all traits I like in female protagonists. She’s not without her flaws. She tends to be a tad on the oblivious side (especially when it comes to men, and her own abilities). And, like most strong female protagonists, she also has a strong stubborn streak. But she kept learning and growing and struggling to understand the big picture throughout the book, and I admired that in her.
There is a very pronounced love triangle in this book, and it’s not like a lot of books where there’s an obvious frontrunner for Lucy’s affections. She flip-flops between them a good amount, and so did I. Truthfully, I’m still not sure whether I’m Team Gabriel or Team Keegan.
*gag* I can’t believe I just said that. Never mind. I’m not Team-anyone. I hate Teams. My point is that it’s really not obvious who she should/will choose (in large part because of the previously mentioned obliviousness). Honestly, I think that’s a more realistic way to portray a love triangle than a lot of books that have the poor, ignored, frustrated guy patiently waiting in the wings as the female protagonist displays zero interest in him while fawning over his rival.
The overarching murder mystery plot was intriguing. Ms. Long drops tiny hints here and there about what’s going on in the Big Picture, but mostly we discover tidbits of information right along with Lucy. I was kept guessing for a big chunk of the book, and right when I thought I had everything figured out, she threw me for a loop. It wasn’t chock-full of twists and turns, but the road to the end was winding enough that it kept my full attention.
As for the superhero action, it is abundant. There’s a good amount of action sprinkled in throughout the book, and the climactic showdown is really satisfying. It’s fun to watch Lucy develop her Firestarter ability, especially when all the Firestarters are training together. And since nearly every character in the book has some sort of “gift,” not a lot of time ever passes without something supernatural happening.
The only real problem I had with this book was that Lucy and her friends go through some experiences that I imagine would be horribly traumatizing in real life. There’s a couple instances of sexual assault, brutal beatings, and several of the characters are forced to kill. And yet, none of them seem all that bothered by what they’ve gone through, or what they’ve had to do. Even if the person that died is unequivocally a Bad Guy, I’d think taking a life would still take a heavy toll on a previously innocent circus performer.
Now, I’m not sure the book would have been that much fun to read if the characters were constantly in mental anguish after having attacked or having been attacked. But I think I would have appreciated if there was at least a bit more of a psychological price to pay for their actions and experiences.
I do want to mention that there’s a good amount of strong language in this book. If it was a movie, the MPAA would give it an R rating. I mention it because the plot and subject matter give it a YA feel (even though Lucy and her friends are all at least in their 20s), but as far as parents or teachers giving it to young readers, it has a lot more cursing than I’ve seen in other YA books. I understand why it’s in there — Ms. Long wanted to be true to how most adults traveling with a circus would actually talk — but I didn’t want a parent to give it to their young reader thinking, “little Sally loves X-Men!” (you go, little Sally), and then get mad at me because I didn’t warn them about all the f-words.
Overall, Gifted was a fun read, chock full of stuff I like (including X-Men and Star Wars references), with an exciting plot and really likable characters. I know Liz Long has some other stories for the Donovan Circus crew swimming around in her head, and I’ll be anxious to read them!
Content guide: Contains strong language, smoking by most of the main characters, some scenes of violence and sexual assault.
Also, Liz Long has agreed to let me interview her here on this blog sometime in the near future! Yay! I plan to ask her all sorts of geeky questions about X-Men and Star Wars. And I will probably ask her some stuff about Gifted as well. And maybe unicorns. Stay tuned!