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Book Review: Only A Monster by Vanessa Len

Book Review: Only A Monster by Vanessa Len

When an author promises ‘enemies to lovers, hot, ruthless monsters, a hero antagonist, a magical underworld, a monster court heist, and a big guy with a cute dog’, you know you’re in for a real treat. Add to that an intricately crafted time travel adventure, a biracial Asian protagonist and a captivating star-crossed romance, and you’ve got yourself one of this year’s most exciting YA urban fantasy books.

Vanessa Len’s debut, Only A Monster, centres on sixteen-year-old Joan who, having been sent to stay with her late mother’s eccentric family in London for the summer, is determined to enjoy herself. She’s fallen in love with her job at the historic Holland House and she’s also fallen a little in love with her co-worker Nick, who’s made the first move and asked Joan on a date. Everything is going perfectly until a seemingly harmless Good Samaritan attempt goes wrong and Joan’s sent spinning through time. Soon her life is unravelling before her eyes. Not only are her family being hunted, but it turns out Nick is actually a legendary monster slayer determined to kill every monster he can find – including Joan.

Having thought she was the only one in her family without hidden powers, Joan is suddenly thrown into another existence – one where she’s jumping through time and on the run with the beautiful and ruthless Aaron Oliver, heir to a rival monster family, whose own kin are being hunted and slaughtered too. Stealing time and travelling back so that she can warn her family and prevent a massacre, Joan must learn to embrace her own unique monstrousness in order to save herself and everyone she loves.

I mean it,” she said. “You’re dead.”
He gave her his familiar solemn smile, the one that he’d given her all the time at the house. “Aren’t we all,” he said. “Somewhere on the timeline.”

If it sounds like Joan might be the hero in this story, think again. As part of a family who selfishly and impulsively wield their powers on a whim, she’s the monster of the story by birthright – even if she doesn’t know it at the beginning. Shaking up the classic lines between hero and villain, Vanessa Len plays with our perception of good and bad, monster and saviour. If Joan is the monster, by definition it makes Nick the hero. Yet he’s also trying to kill Joan’s entire family, so he’s also the antagonist, which creates a whole heap of conflicted feelings – for Joan, because she cares about Nick, and for the reader, because we want Joan to prevail, and Joan prevailing means that the hero of the story loses. It’s a Catch 22 scenario that Len uses to perfection.

There’s so much going on in this book that it would be easy for the story to buckle under the myriad of urban fantasy and time travel elements. However, Len never lets any strand or character become superfluous. Everything flows and intertwines so effortlessly – from the clever method of time travel where the monsters quite literally steal seconds, minutes, hours or days from other people’s lives, to Joan’s apparent lack of hidden power, to the fabled backstory revolving around the hero, which encompasses a nice twist that throws the whole plot wide open.

As exciting as the action and time travel is, this book wouldn’t be half as readable without its wonderful cast of characters. Joan is easy to like and identify with from the very beginning. She’s a kind and unassuming history geek, which doesn’t make her your typical hero or villain. The fact that she could sway either way as the book draws to a close shows just how much development Len gives her central character. Aaron is very much Joan’s opposite – arrogant, entitled and waspish, he fits the whole monster persona, which of course means he’s so much more. Something that can also be said for Nick, who is so hell-bent on his heroic mission to rid the world of monsters that he’s lost all sense of who he is and how he got here. These characters are beautifully morally grey and it makes their respective and collective journeys all the more thrilling.

Only A Monster really does tick every single box for an absorbing, intriguing and action-packed YA story. There’s a teasing of the star-crossed, doomed romance between Joan and Nick, as well as sparks flying between Joan and Aaron as their relationship shifts, but it really feels as if Len is holding back the fire for the next two books in the trilogy, which also hold the promise of even more heists, tragedy, unique magic, underworld adventures and fresh spins on familiar genre tropes. I feel sorry for the next fantasy book people read after finishing this, because it will have a lot to live up to.


Only A Monster is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 17 February 2022

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