Mystic City, Theo Lawrence’s debut novel, is a dystopian fantasy, taking place in a futuristic Manhattan that has been ravaged by global warming. The rich live in the Aeries, luxurious skyscrapers, while the poor live in the hot, dirty Depths below. Mystic City runs, not on electricity, but on magical powers drained from mystics, humans born with magical abilities. Two competing political families, the Roses and the Fosters who, control the city, and (in typical Capulet-and-Montague fashion) come complete with their own star-crossed lovers. Aria Rose loves Thomas Foster–and their families approve. The only problem is that Aria cannot remember meeting, let alone loving, Thomas. When Aria meets Hunter, a rebel mystic from the Depths, things inevitably get complicated. Aria must navigate her politically charged world as she tries to regain her memory and sort out her emotions for Thomas, and for the mysterious Hunter. Lawrence creates a captivating world and a compelling frame for the love story, however he falls short on the development and depth of both.
I was immediately drawn to the novel because of its promising world. Dystopia and fantasy: how could this not be interesting? A revolution was clearly brewing. The fact that it is set in a Manhattan that could be our future–minus the magic–made this my top pick (and the cover was shiny). I was curious to read how Lawrence would build this world–how he would employ class hierarchies and a politically charged world to shape the development of his female protagonist. Unfortunately for my expectations, the world I found so promising fell short of its potential. The prose is unimaginative and overly simple, using common adjectives to characterize both the world and the characters. Aria comes from a world of pretense; even if she is not pretentious herself, her vocabulary should reflect some of the sophistication that comes with being a Rose. Furthermore, the grand social issues which could have been used to make a statement seemed merely incidental to the story; just filler instead of a shaping force. Although my expectations were not met, the novel still puts forward an interesting love story.
Mystic City manages to incorporate several conventions of the young adult romance genre cohesively and in an innovative manner. Lawrence restructures the Romeo and Juliet narrative and inserts a love triangle into the mix, still minding the political ties of each family involved. Aria plays the Juliet to two Romeos. Both affairs are star-crossed in cleverly different ways, although it becomes immediately clear which lover is not true. The love story is predictable, but that is in part due to the genre. Lawrence does well in creating an interesting frame out of a specific romantic tradition. This being said, the novel needed compelling characterization to compensate for predictability, however it did not achieve this with Aria.
Aria’s memory loss makes her a problematic narrator. She cannot fully tell us the significance of events because she does not know them. She is figuring out her life as we try to figure her out as readers. Even with this understanding about Aria, it takes far too long for her to piece everything together. The novel spends the majority of its pages waiting for Aria to regain her memory, though all the signs are practically laid out in front of her. Thomas acts deliberately; every action Aria finds suspicious seems like a clue directly from Thomas. It seems like he wants her to figure it out just as badly as we do. Hunter, as mysterious as Aria thinks he is, also acts very deliberately in his hesitant behavior. It’s altogether too obvious.
We readers probably figure out more about Aria’s life than she does at certain points in the novel. This creates dramatic irony that serves no purpose. Aria lacks depth in characterization. She is one-dimensional, which is especially disappointing because she has all the family history needed to provide a rich characterization. Being a Rose, a “political darling” (p.5), comes with implications that would have been good to explore through more family interactions. Furthermore, as a Rose people, mainly men, are always speaking and acting for her. Even when Aria breaks away from her family, her actions are still shaped by men: “So I do what any girl would do when a gorgeous boy saves her life in the seedy Depths of Manhattan: I let him take me away” (47). She plays into gender stereotypes that she never attempts to break, let alone surpass. Her character does not problematize blind teenage devotion, based on little more than sparkle. She wraps her identity around a guy and her love is all-encompassing. It leaves her no room for political agency. She is a puppet of her family and of her own emotions. She never comes into her own as a person, or as a heroine (a role I’m assuming she is meant to fill), but perhaps we shall see her full development as the series continues.
After all Mystic City is only the first book of the series, however I believe that’s the root of all the novel’s problems. Mystic City does not feel like it could stand alone under any circumstance. Aria’s memory recovery took up the majority of the narrative and the true action only made up a tiny portion of this novel. The novel reserves the rebellion till its last pages. The story arc, climax and resolution, feels incomplete, like it’s waiting for a sequel to really delve into things. A sequel that I probably will look into. Despite its lack of depth, Mystic City was a page-turner with an interesting story to tell. I grant that I am not the target audience of this book. I enjoy young adult novels which problematize morals and the developmental experience, which Mystic City does not do. What Mystic City does do is create an enjoyable, love story that is framed by the possibility of becoming so much more. Those who just love a good love triangle, spiced up with magic and a hint of revolution will certainly find Mystic City a good read.