Book Review: Firstlife by Gena Showalter

Firstlife Review

This book has guts. It goes hard or it goes home. This is not your tiptoeing-around-YA-clichés sort of novel. This book slams a foot on the creative gas pedal and doesn’t stop until the end, no matter what it crashes into on the way. By the end of this review, it’s going to sound like I didn’t like this book. I have a lot of complaints. But that’s because the things I didn’t like, I hated. On the other hand, the things I was interested in, I loved reading. There’s so much that’s innovative and entertaining and thought-provoking about this book. Even though I don’t exactly recommend this book, I’m glad I read it and I think lots of other people would be too.

Who this book is for

I think this book is likely more enjoyable if you’ve already read a lot of YA sci-fi and dystopia. You’ll be a little less “what in all hell is this” and a little more “what an interesting and entertaining and bizarre take on those tropes.”

This book might be a good fit for a reader that’s really into character death. Since your first death isn’t really death in this universe, the author is very free with killing characters and you still get to see them do interesting things afterward.

Some readers might be into this book for its philosophical side. The warring-realms situation would appeal to someone interested in world-building that’s based on competing value systems and arguments about right and wrong. The book does a good job of rolling those elements out slowly, so they mature over time.

If you’re looking for something a little wild and have a high tolerance for ridiculousness, this might be your book.

What I appreciated

I’m so into the whole pledging-to-the-realms idea. There’s a lot that isn’t fleshed-out about this world, but I stayed engaged because I’m so interested in the core concept. The blurb sells the transcendent elements, but I’m most interested in the people who are still living. How do you decide when and how to sign with a realm? What are the ramifications of having already pledged yourself? What sort of twist on religious evangelization do these stakes create? Great stuff to play with.

I do truly love the cover.

There are a couple of marvelous scenes that just lit up in my brain. There’s a beautiful, heartbreaking little scene with Tenly’s baby brother and some interesting stuff out in the snow. Things get bright and colorful and abstract when Tenly briefly leaves the physical world, and I’m so excited for more of that.

I’m definitely planning to read the next book, partly because I want to find out what happens next and partly because Showalter has a lot of explaining to do.

What bothered me

Mostly Tenly.

Truly, I can tolerate a large amount of Special Snowflake Female Protagonist. I get why it needs to happen. So… for this character to grate on me the way that she did really tells you something.

Tenly has an ill-defined affinity for numbers that feels like it came from the “Quirky Traits” box on a build-your-first-character worksheet. It is referenced several times a page in the first chapter and has completely disappeared without a trace by halfway through the book. It has no impact on the story at any point. I feel that the way this trait is handled is a good representation of the way that whole character is put together.

And then, of course, we discover that both realms want her desperately because… I’m not really sure why. She’s Special. She can… conduct light, I think? She can be something called a Conduit, which is important in the Unspecified War Over Nothing that the realms are somehow fighting. So… two cosmic realms (and, therefore, two hot boys) are fighting over her. What’s a girl to do?

Complain, mostly. It’s not that Tenly doesn’t have anything to complain about, because she endures some unnecessarily horrific stuff. But even when faced with something profoundly awful, Tenly reacts to it with an immature, self-aggrandizing, bizarrely lewd voice that makes it so unpleasant to be in her mind. I think I’d have enjoyed this book a lot better if it were written in third person and I didn’t feel expected to root for Ten, who can’t make a decision to save her firstlife. (I know.)

Not that I particularly root for anyone else either. Ten comes with a flock of thin and confusing characters, only a few of whom really matter and none of whom I really care about. I do somewhat like Archer. And I believe Ten when she says once a page how attractive the excessively-accented Killian is. And of course, I’m rooting for that baby.

The story starts in this nightmarish torture-asylum-boarding school-prison for teenagers that really needed a second draft. Once the characters get out of there, things get less unpleasant and less laughably absurd and faux-dark, but it’ll be rough going for a bit.

Age appropriateness and content warnings

Given the strong Christian overtones to the premise, I would have expected a lot less gratuitous profanity and lewd sexual comments. Yet, here we are.

The torture-asylum-boarding school-prison has some graphic scenes of, well, torture. Lots of violence against Tenly, and since the book is written in first person, the reader is immersed in those experiences.

Everybody’s making sex jokes, and not in a cute way. Strong sexual overtones to several of the relationships.

Yes, the violence and sexual stuff are on par with what a teen is probably seeing on television, but it’s still a lot. And because it’s so unnecessary, it feels frivolous and immaturely handled.

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