January Black by Wendy Russo
Bookclub is a fantastic source of new books, ones I might not otherwise pick up on my own. January Black was never on my radar, but it was a delightful read.
“Sixteen-year-old genius Matty Ducayn is the son of The Hill’s commandant. As such, he’s expected to conform to a strict, unspoken code of conduct. Small acts of defiance over years—such as walking on the grass—have earned him a reputation for being unruly. When sarcastic test answers finally get Matty expelled from school, King Hadrian offers him a diploma if he can answer a deceptively simple question, and then dismisses the only answer.
To prove his worth to society, Matty wrestles with the king’s word games, the kingdom’s historical record, and laws that don’t make sense. He meets Iris Locke, a street smart gardener, along the way. After enchanting him at a glance, Iris helps his research, keeps him out of trouble, and finally breaks his heart.
Alone again, Matty finds himself on collision course with a deadly law, one he will have to break to answer the king’s question. Was Hadrian challenging him, or teaching him a lesson? Without Iris, it won’t matter, because Matty won’t stand down for anyone else.”
I’m a sucker for smart guys (I married one, after all), so Matty is a winner protagonist for me. He writes programs to predict people’s locations, analyzes pictures in terms of their geometric components, and recites the digits of pi to keep himself from getting too distracted by pretty girls. His rebellious nature takes him far from the stereotypical four-eyed weakling puffing on his inhaler that most intelligent teen characters end up being. Rather than feeling forced, his smarts are a natural part of his character which weave through the narrative. His character reads as a guy who is smart, not “the smart guy.”
The leading lady, Iris, has a past that plays to the intrigue of the plot. For much of the story, I suspected she was a double agent because she was just too perfect. I dislike romantic subplots where the primary love interest has so few flaws, but Iris’s past and the trouble they get into help. The chemistry between them is natural enough to pass.
The story takes place in the future, which is interesting, but the chief strength is the plot. King Hadrian’s puzzle and the political intrigue it involves kept me turning pages. I predicted most of the twists, including the ending, but that didn’t spoil it. I enjoyed watching everything unfold, and the author did an excellent job tying up all the loose ends.
This isn’t a book you read for its flowing prose and sparkling metaphors like say, Where the Crawdad’s Sing. The prose was simple, and the author explicitly named each character’s emotions, which I found patronizing. She wrote in multiple perspectives, which if you’ve read my own book, The Lies She Wore, you know I usually enjoy. However, this book didn’t need any perspective but Matty’s. The author could have maintained the dramatic tension and tied up the loose ends with only one perspective. I am also not a fan of flash-forwards, which is how the book begins. Matty’s expulsion was dramatic enough to begin the story. Russo didn’t need to jump to the climax to grab my attention.
I have mixed feelings about the cover. For me, the most interesting part of the book was the political intrigue, not the romance, but I will agree it is an upgrade from the original cover.
This book was perfect for those times my brain sought entertainment, but no stress. It had enough drama to keep me turning pages, but was light and romantic enough to classify as a feel-good book. Many thanks to my book club for selecting it!
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