Switched by Amanda Hocking
Am I crazy, or is there bad writing here? I think I might be the only person in the world who has read this novel and doesn’t love it.
First, a word on why I prefer to avoid writing negative reviews: 1. If a book is bad enough to merit a bad review, it’s not worth the attention a bad review would give it. In fact, if it’s that bad, it’s probably not worth reading the entire book. 2. Negativity poisons everyone. 3. Authors deserve room to grow. Just because one book is bad doesn’t mean all of that author’s books will be. 4. My reading experience is unique to me. When I don’t enjoy a book, often it’s because of some unrealistic expectations of mine. If I’m in the mood for a heart-warming, clever romance, a la Jane Austen, that’s not the time to pick up Stephen King. Or, for example, if I “need” to read books with a certain kind of protagonist who ultimately succeeds against all odds, this is usually more about my need to be validated than it is my need to read a good story. So if the story fails to meet that need, that’s not the author’s fault. I just like to acknowledge the gap between the story the writer needs to tell and the story I need to hear. 5. Bad karma. In sum, I just like liking things (like Abed from Community— anyone?)
That said, I didn’t enjoy Switched. I received an advance copy of this book (thanks St. Martin’s Press!) with the understanding that I would tell people about it, so I feel obligated to respond to the book here. I’ve waited a while, though (the book came out Jan 24th; its sequel was published just 4 days ago), hoping that all the nice things people wanted to say would get said so the author could pay attention to those and keep writing.
The premise of Switched is interesting enough. Living in neighboring towns (not quite living amongst us normals, but near enough) are clans of trolls. Often, the troll babies are switched at birth with human babies. The troll babies are raised in human families and the human babies are (more or less) raised in troll families. Wendy Everly, the protagonist of this novel, discovers at the age of 17 that she is, in fact, a troll. And not only a troll, but The Future Queen of Trolls (this is an oversimplification. Apologies to the author.). Like many trolls, she discovers that she has magical gifts, and needs to learn to control them, and her temper. Anyway, Wendy rejoins her troll family, falls in love with her caste-forbidden bodyguard, and other political chaos ensues. This is a (very) basic plot summary.
I have two overall criticisms of this book. First, I hate the protagonist. No, not even hate, because nothing in this book draws any kind of strong emotion from me. I guess I’m just annoyed by her. I know she’s a troll and she’s supposed to rebellious or fractious or whatever, but she just bugs the crap out of me. She veers from belligerence to lonely-girl-lost in a heartbeat. She’s stupid and unpleasant and uninteresting. (Interesting things happen to her, but she herself is not interesting. See next paragraph.) I also understand that her “mother” (human mom) tried to kill her when she was six. I do not believe, however, that the author understands this. Hocking deals with this terrible trauma incredibly superficially. It is just a plot point. Which brings me to my second issue:
The action in this story happens because the author wants it to happen, not because of some internal motivation from the characters. Some books are plot-driven and some are character-driven, but even plot-driven books have fully formed characters in them. Switched does not. I know this is just the first novel in a trilogy, but even if I, the reader, don’t know these characters very well, the author sure as heck better. I don’t believe that Hocking has considered who her characters are as people or how they would function in real life. Writing fantasy doesn’t give you a pass on believability. Hocking treats her characters like paper dolls. In The Lord of the Rings, there’s a very real sense that it has to be Frodo and Gollum there at the end at Mt. Doom. The Ring’s destruction takes place the way it does because of who those two characters are. You can’t substitute, say, Pippin, or Aragorn, because who they are is materially opposed to actually destroying the Ring. Now, I don’t expect (or even want) every author I read to be Tolkien, but I do expect good writing. One mark of good writing is full (or even adequate) characterization.
In Switched, Wendy might as well be Willa, or even her own mother. While each character does have a place in the story, it’s clear that they are just that– places, functions, silhouettes. Hocking needed a hot young thing and an equally hot, but also mysterious, love interest. Hence, Wendy and Finn. Please understand, Hocking gives readers lots of detail about these people, lots of information about their lives before they met each other, lots of likes and dislikes. But a weight of information shouldn’t be confused with characterization. Readers get to know characters the same way we get to know other people– by observing behavior over time. Hocking spends so much time on cool plot twists (and she is good at those) that she’s completely forgotten that there are actually people running around performing them. Like I said, paper dolls.
Amanda Hocking has sold over a million copies of her self-published books. Switched’s first printing was 250,000 copies, and it’s receiving a major marketing campaign. The Industry, such as it is, is doing everything it can to make this book successful. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it did well. My ARC claims that it is already a nationally best-selling series. And you know what? That’s a real shame. Switched really isn’t a terrible book, it’s just not ready to be published. I feel like it needs to be workshopped at writer’s conferences or revised (a lot) more. The writing has a really unfinished quality. Maybe some of that comes from the fact that I’m reading an advance copy, but I think it’s mostly due to Hocking’s status as a novice writer. (No, fan-fic doesn’t count.) So it’s a shame that this utterly forgettable book was rushed into publication. It seems exploitative of both the writer and the reader. If Hocking had been encouraged to let this cook a while longer, maybe it would’ve been better. Or maybe this is better, in which case it’s a real shame that the Industry doesn’t think readers deserve good writing.
Maybe people will be talking about this book this summer, but they probably won’t be next summer. And if people are still talking about this book, or if it gets picked up to be turned into a movie (it has some great movie qualities– lots of plot twists, and the actors can fill in the gaps Hocking’s left in the characters), or receives any other mark of success, this will still be a poorly-written book that will be a waste of your time to read. I know The New York Times said nice things about it, as did Kirkus Reviews and Booklist, but I’m warning you. Just skip it. It’s a quick read, but it’s still not worth your time.
PS TROLLS??? WTFrak?