Review: Only a Monster by Vanessa Len

It should have been the perfect summer. Sent to stay with her late mother’s eccentric family in London, sixteen-year-old Joan is determined to enjoy herself. She loves her nerdy job at the historic Holland House, and when her super cute co-worker Nick asks her on a date, it feels like everything is falling into place.

But she soon learns the truth. Her family aren’t just eccentric: they’re monsters, with terrifying, hidden powers. And Nick isn’t just a cute boy: he’s a legendary monster slayer, who will do anything to bring them down.

As she battles Nick, Joan is forced to work with the beautiful and ruthless Aaron Oliver, heir to a monster family that hates her own. She’ll have to embrace her own monstrousness if she is to save herself, and her family. Because in this story . . .

. . . she is not the hero.

Publication details: 17 February 2022, by Hodder & Stoughton. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 4/5

Honestly, the blurb for Only a Monster sounds a lot like generic YA-fare. A girl with a monstrous power, a love triangle… thankfully, it’s actually one of the more unique YA books I’ve read in a while, in that it actually takes a look at some of the tropes in a critical light.

It helps that I love time travel stories, but the premise of this story is basically: what if time travel was limited to a small number of powerful families with magical abilities, and only made possible by shortening someone else’s lifespan in exchange? All those fun jaunts back to the 1920s for a garden party now essentially involve taking months off someone’s life… making those that travel in time rather monstrous, indeed.

It’s an interesting and different way of looking at the ethical conundrums of time travel, and it also sets up an engaging story where travelling through time to escape those who hunt monsters is no longer a morally simple activity. It also establishes the basis for the relationships between Joan, our half-monstrous MC, her monster-hunter crush, and the boy she’s reliant on to teach everything she needs to know about time travel (even if his family would like to kill her too). While that sounds like it could easily descend into trope-laden madness, Only a Monster is very clear that the murderous intent of both boys is a barrier to romance, and the focus is instead on Joan figuring out her own boundaries and how far she can trust each of them, as well as coming to grips with her abilities.

In case that also all sounds painfully heterosexual, this book is also very casually diverse. Joan is half-British, half Chinese-Malaysian, and there are several queer characters – for some of them, this is quite relevant to the plot.

I will also acknowledge that I was very impressed with Vanessa Len’s writing abilities. I was a little worried at the beginning as the protagonist read a little young (though admittedly this was a nice change from all the 17 going on 70 protagonists in YA), but once the story got going, Len has a fantastic scene of pacing, knowing when to dole out information to the reader and when to just let the scene unfold. I won’t say it’s the most evocative story ever written as the prose is fairly simple, but it reads very quickly as a result, and there is still enough detail to fully imagine this version of London.

Given how events unfold, Only a Monster definitely feels complete as a story in its own right, but there are some unanswered questions, and I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel.

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