Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Releases March 6, 2012
YA / Supernatural / Paranormal Romance
Do you ever start reading a book and somewhere around page 15 realize that the main character is you? That happened to me with Aimee Agresti’s Illuminate. Her protagonist, Haven Terra, sounded like me in high school – geeky, day-dreamy, and under the radar. It was nice to slip into a story where I could inherently understand the main character’s decisions because I felt such a personal connection. It’s weird, but nice. It probably also helps that I always wanted to live in a hotel…
In Illuminate Haven is torn from her comfortable little world in the suburbs after being chosen to participate in a prestigious internship program at a fancy-pants hotel, recently renovated and reopened by a small army of young glamazons. She, along with her gay best friend and another geeky mathlete, gets pulled out of their junior year in high school and shipped to downtown Chicago to live and work inside the Lexington Hotel for the next several months. Immediately things feel off. As she falls for the ridiculously good looking and charming Lucian (which is never the name of a good guy), Haven learns that she’s working in a hotel acting as a recruiting ground for deals with demons. And that’s only the first of many crazy things that go down.
To be completely honest, I have too many connections to this book, so it hit me in ways that it probably wouldn’t for many others. Sensible, highly cautious Haven felt like someone I knew from the moment she was staring into space thinking about how the hot guy in her class kept stealing all her pens. Then she leaves behind the drudgery of high school for something far more interesting and glamorous, a daydream I had just about every day while suffering through AP Calculus. Then of course there’s the setting of Chicago, where I spent an awesome summer interning. Granted I was five years older than the protagonist, but I could picture the places she was at. There’s a scene set in a crazy multi-story thrift store where I just kept thinking, “I’ve been there. My apartment was down the street!” So Illuminate hit me in ways that I didn’t see coming beyond its storytelling.
But then again, Aimee Agresti created a set of characters that were real. The bad guys had more layers than “default moustache twirling” and the good guys were conflicted about joining in the glamor of their new life while still remaining who they were. Aurelia, the gorgeous leader of the Lexington Hotel, was equal parts domineering and terrifying while still occasionally showing signs of vulnerability. Meanwhile incredibly hot Lucian went from coming on a little too strong and over-the-top Casanova to someone that I could spend time with without laughing at him. Though I have to admit that I had a hard time picturing Lucian as remotely the same age as Haven, which left me feeling a little squicked out when he turned on the heavy hitting flirting.
But forget dreamy, shiny Lucian. I wanted more Lance. Whenever he wasn’t on the page, I impatiently kept reading just for him to show up again. I love geeky guys who are incredibly awkward and actually super hot. Lance is loyal, incredibly smart and a lot stronger than he looks. Due to the story being told in first person, a lot of his more heroic moments are only glimpsed, mentioned briefly or not described at all, which is unfortunate. The flamboyant Dante plays a crucial part to the narrative, but isn’t around much. He’s a bit more stereotypical than any of the other characters, but 16-year-old me who wanted a gay best friend can accept that.
From nearly the beginning, it’s obvious that no one is really what they say or think they are. There’s supernatural craziness happening all over and I didn’t find many surprises. The real identities of everyone are pretty easy to spot early on, but I didn’t like the ways that Haven and her friends found out what was really happening at the hotel. I liked the mysterious journal, where bits and pieces of cryptic information were given to Haven without knowing who the author was. Then of course there are Haven’s magical photographs that show the soul of a person, not what they look like on the surface. It had a very Picture of Dorian Gray feel to it.
Up until the last handful of pages, Illuminate read like a standalone, but then the last page is just a list of questions that Haven asks herself about her future, implying that not only will there be a sequel, but there will be more supernatural craziness going down in her life. I think I would have preferred the book to be a standalone – just because so few exist these days – but I can understand the motivation to create the building blocks of a series. I think Agresti does that while also telling a full story with world and character building seamlessly ingrained into all the exposition needed to set up this world for this and all future stories told within it.
Also I feel I have to mention that, while gorgeous, the cover didn't strike me as a very good one for this particular book. Yes, there's a red dress and the girl looks like Haven is described, but that particular dress wasn't the one she wore while all the important things went down and the girl doesn't have the scars that Haven has. While I like the use of shadows, it just didn't fit for me overall.
I read the last 400 pages of Illuminate in one day, only stopping for a brief appointment. It’s a bit hefty for the story it tells, but I never found myself bored. While it maintains a consistent pace, it is a little on the slow side with the final conflicts wrapping up pretty quickly. It does manage to maintain tension throughout and I loved how Agresti made me feel like I was leave a circle of hell whenever Haven managed to make it outside the doors of the hotel. I’m very interested to see if the sequel is able to maintain the same consistency now that there are even fewer mysteries to unravel.
I received a copy of this book from the author and her publisher, and I'd like to thank them for providing it. Despite that, the author did not realize that I had spent time in Chicago, was a complete geek in high school or that I had fantasies of living in a hotel. Opinions are my own.