A couple disclaimers before I get into the post:
- This is a SPOILER review! There will be many spoilers from Unlocked and some from the previous eight books of the Keeper of the Lost Cities series, so if you don’t want things spoiled for you, come back and read this later!
- This fandom in particular is full of very passionate people, myself included, with very strong opinions. I will be as considerate as possible with my opinions in this post, but please keep in mind that these are just my opinions. You don’t have to agree! I welcome discussion in the comments, just keep it kind and considerate!
- I will be mentioning the notorious ‘love triangle’ in this post, but it is not the main point of this post because I don’t believe it should be the main focal point of the series as a whole. Just to get it out of the way, I am Team Keefe. This doesn’t mean I hate Fitz, and it doesn’t mean I love every aspect of Keefe. I’m not here to start a fight, just share my thoughts.
Alright, now lets get into my review!
Just to be clear, I’m going to mostly be discussing the novella portion of Unlocked, not all the fun extras that take up the first half of the book. Cool? Cool.
I have been following the Keeper of the Lost Cities (KotLC) series since before book five came out. There was a time where I would have probably called this my favorite series. I went to the book signing for Flashback, I have fought hard for my side of the love triangle, I have had deep conversations about character motivations late at night with my friends. And because of all that, this series will always have a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf. However, just because I’m a fan doesn’t mean this series doesn’t have some… issues. As I’ve gotten into learning more about story craft, and taken a step back to objectively view this series these problems have begun to be a little more obvious to me. Yet I still buy every book when it comes out.
Well, almost every book. You see, I didn’t preorder Unlocked like I usually do with the new KotLC books. Instead, I got it for Christmas and read it in the span of a few hours. This was because I had lost a bit of my faith for the series. And I’ve finally figured out exactly why.
A very common discussion in the books is when the characters are making a plan to fight whatever big bad has shown up and they say something like “It doesn’t feel like we’ve gotten anywhere.” or “We haven’t made any progress!” or something like that. And… that’s true. See, I’m obsessed with character arcs. They are one of my favorite topics of conversation, by far. People growing and changing over the course of a story is my JAM.
The thing is, when it comes to this series, something Unlocked truly taught me is that these characters haven’t really had any arcs over the course of all 8.5 books. Sophie supposedly “found where she belonged” in book one, but since then has just kept mentioning how she feels she doesn’t fit in within the elvin world. Fitz apologized for his temper back in Exile, but since then we have seen very little progress when it comes to him learning to direct his anger. Keefe had the best and most full arc of all the characters… until Unlocked. Instead of learning from when he ran away in Neverseen, learning from the love his friends had shown him for the past years, he ran away again. This felt like one of the biggest steps back in the series so far. Instead of proving his transformation by granting him another opportunity to run and seeing him reject it, he just… did it again. As far as the other characters go, Biana had an arc in book one but hasn’t changed or even had a ton of page time since then. Tam maybe learned to be a little more trusting? Linh finally learned to test her powers and then also pretty much disappeared from the page. Dex finally let go of his Vacker grudge in Neverseen, which is the most stable and satisfying arc of the whole series, but then he too got set aside for a while. He did however have a more prominent role in Legacy, and he was my favorite part of Unlocked.
See what I’m saying? What progress has been made? Even when it comes to the villains they haven’t really made any huge strides forward.
Now there was major character transformation in Unlocked, on Keefe’s part. But it wasn’t forward progress. He doesn’t even sound like Keefe anymore. He’s retreated inside himself, lost his voice in more than one way. Sophie also had some change in Unlocked, becoming more confident. But she’s still insecure and comes across as rather petty in several circumstances.
I’m not saying these transformations aren’t understandable, these kids have been through a LOT, and these are all valid responses to grief and trauma. However, when every book presents another major blow and the characters respond the same way or even worse than they have before, it doesn’t prove to the reader that they can change. It makes the series as a whole seem like one progressive downhill battle where danger and trauma keep getting thrown at the characters like they’re some kind of proverbial punching bag and they never learn to do anything about it.
As a byproduct of all this, this series feels… directionless. Te only real progress that is ever made is in regards to the love triangle, and that’s been dragged out for quite a while. It has become the main focal point of the series, the only aspect of the story that is constantly progressing. And it’s gone on for a very long time.
If Sophie finally got through her ‘oblivion’ and realized people genuinely cared about her and it helped resolve her insecurities that several boys are into her, then it would feel more important. It all comes back around to the lack of real character arcs. And yet…
And yet I still, without fail, have the most emotional reactions to reading this series than most any other series in existence. I laugh out loud, I squeal, I gasp, I even cry. I literally leaned back in my chair and braced myself in Unlocked when Sophie first walked into the healing center and hit Keefe with a wall of emotions. I felt Keefe’s desperation to make it stop. And when Dex cried for his little brother? I teared up too. I cried way back in book one when Sophie thought she wouldn’t get adopted and was feeling abandoned and unloved. I have lived with these characters.
Writing is an art, and the point of art is to evoke emotion. So, despite all the technical faults I can nitpick about this series…. it does it’s job. It makes me feel. It isn’t perfect, no book ever is. But every time I crack open a KotLC book, it feels like coming home.
There are many things I would change about this series, but there are a TON more things I would change within my own writing. Every writer out there, especially me, has things we need to work on. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Shannon Messenger’s strength is making me feel real, deep emotions. And that’s an amazing talent that should be celebrated. So I’ll keep coming back, again and again. And if that character arc/progression issue is finally resolved? All the better.
Who else is ready for book 9?