Often, I can make up my mind about a new book right after finishing it. But in some cases, it takes a second read for me to decide whether or not a book is worth keeping on my shelves or not. Roar, a YA fantasy, is one such book; and unfortunately, the second go-around for me revealed some very stormy areas in this meteorological magic-based story.
But to start, I think the cover is stunning! In fact, I was drawn to this book thanks to its cover, and it’s one of these covers that looks better in person. It has three dimensional elements to it so the title stands out, which is a nice touch. Also, though you can’t see it here, the art is actually a panorama that wraps around the entire dust jacket so it’s a continuing scene rather than a solitary snapshot. Likewise, I love the organic color combination of pink, purple, green, grey, and white, and I think this works to establish the story’s overall tone and setting, which is chiefly outdoors. So, all, in all, I give major props to the art department!
Concerning the story itself, Roar focuses on the titular Roar (aka Aurora, aka Rora) who, in keeping with typical YA fantasy court intrigue tradition, is a princess who, despite coming from a magically-gifted family, lacks any magical talents herself. (So in Harry Potter terms, we’d call Roar a Squib.) Roar’s mother, the queen, has done her best to hide this fact from the public eye as the populace looks to the royal family to protect the kingdom when dangerous, magically-infused weather strikes. Roar’s only hope of preserving her people is to marry a magically gifted Stormling prince, the sinister Cassius, who fulfills the obligatory “bad boy” trope.
Naturally, Roar doesn’t want to marry him (though once we get to know Cassius, who could blame her?), so she runs away. She eventually comes into the company of a group of storm hunters who steal the magical “hearts” of storms. The leader of this band of rebels is Locke, who fulfills the third corner of the obligatory “love” triangle. For most of the story, Roar aligns herself with Locke and his magical rebels as all sorts of magical dangers and court politics ensue.
Please stop me if you’ve heard all of this before. Seriously, I won’t be offended.
As you might have deduced, Roar is a run-of-the-mill YA court intrigue story complete with a love triangle, drama, and magic. In short, if you remove the magic system, which is the story’s only interesting element, you get the usual recipe that has dominated the YA fantasy market for years. (Though I would categorize this as more New Adult than Young Adult for reasons I’ll get into later on.) Thus, the general plot, when divorced from its magical element, was very ho-hum for me.
That being said, I didn’t dislike everything about the plot as it has some good action scenes, especially when characters confront storms, and the magic system is fairly innovative. Here, magic is weather-centered as characters can master, conquer, and (in a sense) kill meteorological phenomena, from dust storms to raging tempests. While we’re not told exactly how these storms obtained their magic, we do learn that each one is driven by a magical center, a heart, that can be removed and reused as a magical talisman or retained as a trophy. While weather-based magic is nothing new (Maria V. Snyder’s Glass trilogy, which borrows elements of meteorological magic, comes to mind), I still think it’s a fun literary device.
It was the magic system that ultimately saved this book for me (as I awarded it one star), but it was not enough to conceal the problems I had with the story. Aside from its color-by-number plot and characters, <i>Roar</i> not only suffers from trite love triangle-itis but also presents its two “romantic” male leads as less than honorable gentlemen. This “love” triangle (that’s more like a lust triangle) involves Roar and two male suitors, the dark and mysterious Cassius and the not-as-dark yet still mysterious Locke. I’m not a fan of love triangles in general on the principle that they have been overused and seem to be a writer’s default way of inserting dramatic tension into a story. Though I think some love triangles do work, especially when they’re not the crux of the plot, the triangle here does not thanks to its components.
Roar is the typical beautiful swan character caught in the middle of two would-be suitors and who doesn’t seem to know what she wants out of a relationship. On one side is Cassius who sees Roar as a trophy for him to claim and conquer, and on the other side is Locke, an ultra-alpha male. Rather than present the reader – and Roar – with two equally worthy male love interests, the novel instead offers up two questionable choices.
From the start, Cassius is depicted as a villain and views Roar as a challenge to be won, not a woman to cherish. His actions are dictated by a possessive nature and he displays a clear lack of respect for Roar’s boundaries, reading her refusals and her anger as turn-ons rather than signals that he’s overstepping his bounds. One such scene in which Roar and Cassius throw knives at each other (in a moment redolent of a similar scene between Tris and Four/Tobias in Divergent) puts Cassius’ callousness on display when he seems to take great pride in sticking a knife straight into Roar’s arm. To its credit, the novel rightfully treats Cassius’ actions as manipulative and doesn’t have Roar fall for his charms.
However, what the novel initially declares as unhealthy and possessive is later depicted as romantic and swoon-worthy when Locke comes on the scene. Locke is a cliched alpha male, which isn’t an immediate negative as he does make for a good leader and rallying point for his fellow storm hunters. However, his actions towards and perceptions of Roar mirror Cassius’ behaviors and thoughts yet the novel never calls these out. Rather than view Roar as a woman worth getting to know and cherishing, Locke seeks to possess her because he finds her mesmerizing. However, there is a fine line between being intrigued by someone and wanting to get to know them better as a person and being drawn to someone and obsessing over them. Obsession isn’t synonymous with love and, much like unwanted weeds in a flourishing flower garden, has no place in a healthy romance.
To add to Locke’s unlikable factor, he, more than once, recalls how Roar reminds him of his deceased sister, and the same traits he saw in his sister he also sees in Roar, which further fuels his obsessed lustful attraction. So let me get this straight – we have a guy who is lusting/obsessing after a woman, with whom he is eventually physical with, who reminds him of his dead sister. No thanks.
As expected, Locke and Roar eventually become physical; however, during some of these scenes, Locke becomes rough and manhandles Roar. Yet rather than shove him away, Roar either enjoys being treated as such or just resigns herself to being roughhoused under the guise of “intimacy.” I’m sorry, but any intimate act, from a hug to anything else, that involves manhandling or even the implication that one party is struggling or fighting against the other is NOT an act of genuine affection! But rather than paint Locke’s actions as abusive, the novel glosses over them, covertly declaring them “romantic.”
I know this topic has consumed the bulk of this review, but it’s a major issue in the novel that deserves to not be dismissed. A couple of things concern me about the depiction of abusive relationships as healthy, normal, and romantic. The first of which is that Roar is marketed as a YA novel; however, this is closer to a new adult or an adult novel (ages 18+) than a book for teenagers (ages 13-17). Roar is no more a YA novel than Watchmen is a suitable picture book for preschoolers. While Roar is devoid of excessive language and violence, its sensuality factor and depiction of questionable relationship dynamics make this a poor pick for teens.
I also believe Roar is riding on the coattails of the abusive-relationships-are-romantic trend that was kick-started by the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy (which I’ve never read nor would I though I’m familiar with its basic premise). This is a dangerous message to present to female readers, teens especially but also to women of any age. While <i>Roar</i> manages to keep its fantasy focus, its central “romantic” thread presents unhealthy dynamics where lust is elevated over love, possession is preferred over gentle protection, and obsession is prized over mutual attraction.
Concerning content, any language used is few and far between and primarily consists of PG-level words. Violence is chiefly contained in the fantasy violence lane where characters track down storms and harvest their magical hearts. Storms are also shown to be destructive forces that can turn lethal, but they can have their magical powers harnessed for either good (as a means of protecting others) or bad (as a weapon). Some characters employ traditional weapons, such as blades, at times, but there are no instances of gory, graphic violence other than passing mentions of bleeding wounds.
Lastly, the chemistry between Roar and Cassius and Roar and Locke simmers with sensuality that scantily avoids any outright sex scenes. Cassius views Roar as more of a possession than a person and makes vague mental comments about her body and their pending wedding night (which never happens as the two don’t wed). Locke also treats Roar in a possessive manner and the two are often physical. One scene near the novel’s end barely avoids being a sex scene as Locke and Roar caress and make bodily contact while clothed. (This scene, along with others, depicts Locke’s actions as controlling yet also somehow “romantic” as Roar succumbs to his rough advances.) Finally, it’s worth noting that author Cora Carmack chiefly pens adult/erotic romances, and while there is nothing here quite at that level, this supposedly YA novel is decidedly not for teens.
Overall, Roar has only one redeeming value – its magic. When the novel spends its time and attention on the various storm hunter characters and their meteorological magical arts, it’s entertaining and creative. However, when this is subtracted from the equation, all readers are left with is a by-the-numbers YA fantasy riddled with tropes and cliches. In and of itself, this doesn’t make the book terrible but it does make it predictable and bland. However, when the story delves in Roar’s sundry “romantic” relationships, it depicts some highly questionable dynamics that, in real-world settings, would be unhealthy at best and abusive at worst.