Review of The Holders by Julianna Scott
by Julianna Scott
This might not have been the best time for me to read The Holders. The first (and only) season of The Tomorrow People just finished broadcasting here in the UK, and I’m sad it’s over, because my landlady and I were having so much fun heckling its ridiculous characters and plot twists. Seriously, Stephen is supposed to be a high school student but has the ripped body of a mid-twenties man and never gets IDed at a bar (Robbie Amell is older than I am)? Anyway, The Tomorrow People seems to be the CW’s latest attempt to catch the YA/fantasy bloc with its own little take on mutants, and it’s predictably terrible. It did not leave me well-disposed to a book like The Holders, which seems to promise much the same.
It’s like X-Men set in Ireland: people with special powers come to take away Becca’s younger brother, Ryland, because he can hear people’s thoughts. They want him to go to a school for special people (sound familiar?) and Becca comes along to make sure he settles in all right and isn’t tortured or experimented on. She’s a good sister that way. Except as the novel develops, we learn that there’s more to being a Holder than learning how to master one’s mutant power. There are enemies, and apparently Ryland has a destiny.
So I really didn’t want to like this novel. It’s a testament to its quality, then, that despite such determination on my part, I ended up liking it anyway. Between Becca’s frank and honest voice, a decent plot, and a good twist halfway through to shake up the status quo, Julianna Scott manages to win me over. It hasn’t quite wowed its way among my favourite books of the year, and I’m hard pressed to really identify something that stands out about the book as special … but it is a strong use of all its ingredients, and that alone is worth some praise.
For The Holders to work, you have to be invested in Becca. At first she seems like the stereotypical 17-year-old girl who has had to hold her family together in the years since her father’s departure and her mother going to pieces. She has graduated high school early but deferred college to instead work some jobs and stay near home and Ryland. This has all come at the expense of any kind of life for herself, and most of the book—particularly the oh-so-predictable romance between her and Alex—is about Becca starting to realize that she has to let Ryland find his own way and start looking out for herself.
Fortunately, Becca’s refreshing frankness elevates her above the stereotypical. She is honest with herself. She doesn’t mope or swoon like some of the more egregious heroines that grace the pages of YA fiction these days. When she realizes she has fallen for Alex—first as a crush, then as something more series—she is pragmatic. She recognizes she can’t change that feeling, but she’s damned if she will let it interfere with everything else in her life. I like this attitude, because it acknowledges her feelings and simultaneously moves them to the backburner without invalidating them.
I say that the romance is predictable, but to be fair, it’s also not over-the-top and melodramatic. There is a notable absence of a rival—either for Becca or for Alex’s affections—which precludes that most annoying of romantic tropes, the unnecessary love triangle. The angst is more organic and also related to the plot. And most importantly, Scott takes the time to explore other relationships. Becca has her first female “bestie” in the form of Chloe; and she also makes some progress repairing the relationship between her and her father. In all of these ways, Scott manages to make these characters feel like real people, rather than simply having a heroine and a love interest who come together amidst a story about mutant schoolchildren.
As far as the powers thing goes, it’s all actually a little tame, and I think that’s one reason I expected The Holders to underwhelm me. Without the flashiness of television special effects, even the most flamboyant scenes of action don’t exactly leap off the page. Holder competently executes the dynamics of having a power, the strengths and weaknesses and the types of personalities that often result (I thought that Taron’s understated brusqueness was a very subtle way to point out how telling if people are lying would definitely make someone more tight-lipped and asocial). The patterns and conventions are thus familiar to anyone who has read a comic book or been exposed to popular culture any time in the past half-century, and I think they would certainly appeal.
Alas, that’s all it is: a kind of general rehash of the typical mutant power plot. There’s even a Big Bad nemesis mutant, who used to work with Joceyln (our Charles Xavier to this Magneto), who now views Holders/mutants as superior to humanity and wants them to assume their rightful place. Sound familiar? Again, Scott pulls it off well, but she doesn’t bring much new to the table. One of the boons of the past decade in speculative fiction has been the willingness to deconstruct the motif of the superhero, to pull apart the idea of what superpowers would actually do to someone. And while this approach is not necessary to writing original superhero stories, it’s an example of how one needs to go beyond the basic idea that “some people have a power.”
The Holders ticks a lot of the right boxes. It has a protagonist with a good head on her shoulders who also manages to nurture an unannoying romance. It has a small but diverse cast of characters. And its plot, though somewhat slow at times, eventually builds to a twist I, for one, didn’t anticipate, which changes the dynamics of the story and propels it in interesting new directions. I will happily dive into the sequel at some point, but probably not right away. For people who like superhero stories told from the perspective of someone mostly on the sidelines, however, this is worth checking out.