Illustrated books tend to divide readers – some love them and think they add to the story and others think that they limit the reader’s imagination. My preference depends on the book’s intended reader. For example; I’m all for illustrations in books for children (and here I’d like to differentiate between ‘children’ and ‘young adult’) but I don’t usually like to see illustrations in any other books unless they are special illustrated editions – such as the gorgeous Harry Potter books illustrated by the amazing Jim Kay!
But Areh promises a “decadently lush visual experience quite unlike any other” – so naturally my interest was piqued. Illustrations, to me, are usually a nice addition to books, but with Areh they are just as much a part of the book as the words are.
Author Jeffrey Kinsey mixes his incredibly descriptive prose and poetry with the stunning and intricate visual artwork of Mia Bergeron and Amelia Dregiewicz to striking effect.
The plot of Areh takes place in a morally dark and incredibly troubled society where children who are born with deformities are seen as human embodiments of the gods of those who follow the religion of “The purpose”. In this society, the cursed/blessed are revered by the adults and ridiculed by their peers, who view them as little more than freaks. Like any other bunch of teenagers, they must find their own identity and their place in the world, but unfortunately they’re also thrown onto a path that forces them to race against time to avert a theological apocalypse.
“We are an unbalanced metaphor teetering beautifully on the edge.”
The combination of a contemporary life and exploits of a mythological nature make for an interesting tone shift throughout the book. The choice of writing style also helps to give the reader a more in-depth experience. The writing changes from the voice of our narrator, to the voice of the Goddess Areh and uses both poetry and prose alike. We also jump backwards and forwards in time from present day to flashbacks and other parts that seem to be without time – such as the text coming from Areh herself. I have to admit that the constant jumps lost me a couple of times and disconnected me from the fantasy, but I quickly found my place again.
It’s easy to become attached to the characters in Areh – the characterisation is, for the most part, very good. Sammy was the only character I had a major problem with and that was because of his speech. I don’t want to give too much away, but I found myself having one of two reactions whenever Sammy had dialogue: I was either laughing at the absurdity (not always in the good way) of what he was saying or cringing at the sheer unrealistic use of language. His choice of speech seemed out of place in almost every way; the tone of the story, the society he was in and even for the people he hung out with.
“Tents rise and fall like handfuls of recycled confetti tossed dirty and without surprise into the air of one party too many.”
But despite this, I still liked Sammy and I really liked Sia. Del was an absolute scene-stealer and his heart and character were simply impossible to dislike. However I did find my loyalties change for other characters as the story progressed. I started off liking Remi and Miri, but by the end of the story I had lost a lot of sympathy for both of them and near detested Remi.
Mixing the extremes of fantasy with the everyday mundane throughout the plot shows the confliction that the characters felt themselves and themes of religion, gods, pain, suicide, love and otherness make for a complex yet involving journey for the reader. However, there were times where this seemed to become jumbled and messy to read. I had to re-read several passages to firmly get a grip on what was happening throughout the story. This was especially true for the second half, which has a total pace and tone change and gets confusing at times.
[I feel it necessary to comment on why I believe these problems came to fruition in the final work. Kinsey has a page on his website for his mission when it came to creating Areh, and I highly recommend you take 3 minutes to read it in order to have full context for the constructive criticism that I’m about to make with regards to the flow and pace of the story. Kinsey is clearly very, very passionate about Areh – and with very good reason, but it seems that his aversion to any input from anyone who wasn’t a contributing artist (words or pictures) was detrimental to the final product – especially with regards to pace and flow. Kinsey does admit that this choice was made “for better or worse” – it’s just such a shame that it came to be that way.
Kinsey finds the road to traditional publishing to be “tragically ugly” and doesn’t seem to like that there are multiple people (authors, editors, designers, proof-readers etc.) involved in the journey that most books make to become published in print –and it even seems that he is calling traditionally published books “disingenuous and disposable art” although he does say that he is not passing “judgement” and that “a good story is a good story no matter what clothes it has on”.
I honestly believe that by only having those who were directly involved in bringing Areh to life take control of every aspect of its creation was a mistake. I think that the creators were too close to their creation to see and fix any flaws. I completely understand that there is a lot of passion from the creators for their work -which is totally justified, and I also understand that not everyone will like everything about a piece of art, regardless of what it is (book, film, clothing, painting etc.) and that you can’t please everybody. But I just wish that they had trusted a professional editor (or even a selection of people they trusted from outside their own creative circle) to give Areh a read and potentially fix the flow and pacing problems that stop this from becoming all it could have been.
This is, of course, just my opinion but I give honest reviews and thoughts and that will never change. I also believe that if an artist of any medium puts their work out for the public then they must be prepared for both praise and criticism in all its forms.]
Now I can’t talk about Areh without mentioning the absolutely jaw dropping artwork. The ink work was incredibly intricate and had a habit of subtly reflecting what was about to come in the chapter ahead of it. I really enjoyed seeing the attention to detail in each piece. The paintings that were peppered throughout the book were breath-taking. The use of colour and texture were expertly used and I spent a lot of time absorbing their beauty and looking at every pixel (I had an electronic version of Areh) that they took up. I just wish there were more of them! There were some scenes that were crying out for an illustration!
“Rain enters through the roof like misted dew, breaking to a million soft pieces – damp, powdered diamonds turning and sparkling by the temple’s glow.”
Areh is one of those books that’s made for a print based read, but the electronic version still makes for a beautiful reading experience. The narrative is sensitive yet unforgiving and is harrowing and beautiful all at the same time. It’s not without its faults but it’s definitely a unique read.
I have also interviewed the author here.
[PLEASE NOTE]: I was given a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. This did not affect my review in a positive or negative way – all the opinions are honest and my own.