Michelle Zink

Atom (2009)

ISBN: 978-1-905654-50-5

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack, June 2010

Although there isn’t a great deal wrong with this book, technically speaking, on an emotional level it failed to engage with me to any great degree.  It wasn’t exactly boring, but neither was it particularly interesting; in particular, I just didn’t care about what happened to the characters.  To some degree, this was just as well, as it isn’t obvious till about a dozen pages before the end that this isn’t a standalone novel – it ends with virtually nothing resolved.

The novel opens as twins Lia and Alice Milthorpe bury their father, making them orphans and the mistresses of Birchwood Manor.  In the next few days they will discover their roles in a prophecy which has influenced the lives of generations of twins – one may open the Gate to Satan to enable him to take over the world, while one may bar the Gate to him.

The novel is set in the 1800s, and I think Zink may have been trying to capture the proper atmosphere of the period – a time when people at least pretended to act in accordance with propriety, and didn’t necessarily admit to or show great emotion in public.  Unfortunately the result is a great distance not only between the characters, but between the characters and the readers.  I found it hard to take an interest in any of them, or to care about what happened to them. More importantly, it was difficult to believe the changed relationship between Alice and Lia. They didn’t seem to have much relationship to start with, so when they became enemies – and fairly bloodlessly at that – it was hard to detect a difference.

And despite the deadly urgency of their tussle – the very existence of the world is at stake – there was no sense of urgency in the prose or the story.  The story is well enough written – the plot makes sense, the prose flows well, there’s nothing jarringly out of period.  However, it failed to connect with me at all.  None of the characters reached out to me so that I cared about them, and the plot just wasn’t very strong.  At times it was blindingly obvious. For example, I really think most readers will twig to what the Keys are long before Lia does.  More importantly, Zink doesn’t give the reader a compelling reason to care about the plot. Sure, the world might end. But if you don’t care about any of the characters who populate it, why mind very much? This is particularly troubling given that the novel is narrated by Lia. You would have thought Zink might convey Lia’s emotions more strongly as a result, but even those are muted.  There is no real sadness at the loss of her sister as a trusted companion, no great sense of fear, and only a mild sense of urgency.

I can’t see myself seeking out the next novel in this series. This one just wasn’t very interesting, and I can’t say that I care much about what will happen to the characters. It’s conventional enough that I’m fairly sure Lia will save the world.  And beyond that – well, Zink hasn’t given me any reason to care.

However, the novel may appeal to some other readers. It’s well written in the sense that the prose flows well and is unobtrusive. The plot is well worked out; it makes sense and is easy to follow.  I felt it lacked urgency, but that goes back to the lack of emotional connection with or between the characters.  It’s a very proper sort of adventure; given the time it is set in, the most daring thing Lia does is take a walk without a chaperone.  There’s little sex, only the merest hint that it might exist. And no explicit violence. In those regards, this novel might suit younger readers well. However, the psychological violence is much more overt, and the supernatural themes could well be frightening for some particularly young readers.

In the end this is a novel that I can’t recommend, as it gave me no enjoyment at all and doesn’t have any significant redeeming qualities.  However, there is nothing overtly wrong with it either, and some readers – particularly those looking for something undemanding and sedate – may find it has more to offer them.