Friday, May 4, 2012

Review: The Rivals

Daisy Whitney
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Coming back to Themis Academy after summer, Alex Patrick's first year as leader of the Mockingbirds is off to a confusing, complicated start when a new student comes to her with allegations that a widespread cheating ring, aided by pharmaceutical drugs, is being carefully planned by a large group of students. This crime is less clear-cut than anything the Mockingbirds have went after before: there's no clear victim and they're not even sure who the accused are. But as clues start piling up, some of them pointing towards people Alex hate to think of as anything less than honest and innocent, the already complicated case gets even more confusing. And Alex, pushed into the role of vigilante justice leader, learns just how tricky the role is when she's torn between her friends and those she's vowed to protect, between what's right and what the rules say.

I was wary of (but excited about) a Mockingbirds (review) sequel, and, it turns out, with good reason. The case this time isn't nearly as cut-and-dried as Alex's date rape case was -- without a clear person (or group of people, even) who are accused, much of the book is taken up by the clue-gathering on the part of the Mockingbirds board (Alex, her boyfriend Martin, and third board member Parker) before there's even an accused to bring to trial. The specifics of the drug/cheating ring are often as confusing to the reader as they are to Alex and there are plenty of misdirects when it comes to who's masterminding the ring. Whereas The Mockingbirds was focused on the date rape issue, The Rivals deals more squarely with the Mockingbirds' brand of vigilante justice and just how well it works (or doesn't). Alex struggles with where the line is when it comes to justice, morality, and who should come first: her friends, or the Mockingbirds. It's clear that this second installment is leading up to the next book and various changes in how the Mockingbirds is run, but maybe because of this it falls prey to that "second book syndrome" in that much of the book feels like a set up for what comes next. Over halfway through the story I still felt like I was waiting for it to begin. (Part of this, maybe, is because the book's title doesn't make sense until nearly the very end.)

None of this is to say that there's not some captivating, important stuff in The Rivals, because there definitely is. Just how oblivious or ignorant the faculty and administration are is brought to the forefront in stunning ways; there were scenes between Alex and the dean of Themis that had me staring in shock at how certain things were viewed and treated. Alex, Martin, and her friend Jones' thoughts on justice, right and wrong, and how the case should be handled were very interesting, especially after reading The Mockingbirds where Alex was on the other side of the fence, so to speak. Having her pushed into a leadership position gives a very "insider" look at how the Mockingbirds operates and what those inside think of it, which was pretty awesome. Unfortunately, the main storyline (the drugs/cheating ring) had so many misdirects and took so long to find its footing that it didn't quite have the heft I felt that it needed to carry the rest of the book. Additionally, second-book syndrome and the fact that I found myself disagreeing with various characters' decisions mean that this one falls a bit short of it's predecessor. This was a good read, and I'm fairly sure (though not positive) that I'll be reading the next book in the series, but The Mockingbirds can certainly stand alone, and maybe it should.

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