Sixteen-year-old genius Matty Ducayn has never fit in on The Hill, an ordered place seriously lacking a sense of humor. After his school’s headmaster expels him for a small act of mischief, Matty’s future looks grim until King Hadrian comes to his rescue with a challenge: answer a question for a master’s diploma.
More than a second chance, this means freedom. Masters can choose where they work, a rarity among Regents, and the question is simple.
What was January Black?
It’s a ship. Everyone knows that. Hadrian rejects that answer, though, and Matty becomes compelled by curiosity and pride to solve the puzzle. When his search for an answer turns up long-buried state secrets, Matty’s journey becomes a collision course with a deadly royal decree. He’s been set up to fail, which forces him to choose. Run for his life with the challenge lost…or call the king’s bluff.
Wendy S. Russo got her start writing in the sixth grade. That story involved a talisman with crystals that had to be found and assembled before bad things happened, and dialog that read like classroom roll call. Since then, she’s majored in journalism (for one semester), published poetry, taken a course on short novels, and watched most everything ever filmed by Quentin Tarantino. A Wyoming native transplanted in Baton Rouge, Wendy works for Louisiana State University as an IT analyst. She’s a wife, a mom, a Tiger, a Who Dat, and she falls asleep on her couch at 8:30 on weeknights.
January Black was an appealing, fast-paced coming-of-age story. It had all the right ingredients to keep the reader engaged and entertained. What was January Black? The quest to answer this question is the fuel behind the story. But readers are taken on a journey of twists, turns, hidden secrets and agendas, a lost garden and downright lies before discovering the answer. Oh, and romance. I guess it would not be a YA novel if it did not have that element in the story as well. My review will be divided into what I liked about the book and what I didn't like.
What I liked:
January Black was fast-paced and had an engaging plot with interesting characters.
The first chapter opens with Iris racing through the streets to prevent Matty from opening the doors of the Lost Garden, an act punishable by death. But instead, she actually leads the police to Matty in which he is captured and taken away but not before he leaves her with a task. "January Black, Iris!" The story then goes back two years where everything begins with Matty taking the King's challenge for a master's diploma. "What was January Black?" because it was NOT a ship.
The author did a great job developing the main characters. While Iris played a huge role in forcing Matty to "grow up" she was not my favorite character. However they did make a cute couple and team. King Hadrian, Matty and Elijah Ducayn were my favorites. Hadrian made a cool big brother figure for Matty but even at the beginning, I could tell there had to be something else that made the king treat Matty differently, not just his wits, smarts and knack for getting into mischief in school. Matty and his father's relationship was a tense one but again, there was something off about it. Elijah was hard on Matty but for some reason, I did not get the impression that he hated Matty. Toward the end, you find out why.
Secret Societies are always an added bonus! And this story has one that keeps the corrupt government of Colombia very busy. I was thrilled to find out who the "Cowboy" was in the story :D They have a vested interest in Matty and his quest to find the answer to "What was January Black?" and "righting the way of the world" and bringing about freedom.
World building. While the author built an intriguing world, I was not sure if the people were immigrants from another world/planet of if they simply migrated from another continent. It wasn't till the end that it was made clear. Great thing though, it did not pose a problem while reading the story. The bottom line, the citizens of Columbia were the descendants of migrants looking to find a new home, life, opportunity, liberty and freedom. But three hundred years later, it was anything but that.
Politics. I have never liked politics but I feel the author did a great job exploring the political atmosphere of Colombia's past and present. Government corruption, civil discourse, American history, add a bit of science fiction all made this very interesting read. Even in novels it seems history tends to repeat its self.
What I didn't like:
The story was promoted as a clean teen read due to the relationship between Matty and Iris. But I have to disagree. For much of the book, it was okay but there was still quite a bit of content, implied and explicit. For example Matty being aroused sexually, detailed description of them kissing, making out and sleeping together. I was grateful that the author did not go into much detail of their actual sex encounter, it was treated more like an after thought. There was also the use of profanity in the book that I did not like.
Overall, I have to say I enjoyed the story, the plot, the characters and the mystery of January Black even though it was NOT a "clean" read by my standards.