by Colleen Houck
by Colleen Houck
Book Jacket Summary: The last thing Kelsey Hayes thought she'd be doing this summer was trying to break a 300-year-old Indian curse. With a mysterious white tiger named Ren. Halfway around the world. But that's exactly what happened. Face-to-face with dark forces, spell-binding magic, and mysterious worlds where nothing is what it seems, Kelsey risks everything to piece together an ancient prophecy that could break the curse forever.
An Actual Summary (because the jacket uses poor grammar to not actually tell you anything): Orphan and recent high school graduate Kelsey is looking for a job. She gets a temporary position helping out at a circus where she meets the white tiger Dhiren. Kelsey finds herself drawn to the tiger, so that when the mysterious Mr. Kadam offers to pay for her to travel with “Ren” back to his home in India, she gladly accepts. Arriving in the foreign land, she finds herself stranded in the jungle with a tiger who she discovers is not just a tiger. Ren is a cursed prince who has spent the past 300 years in captivity. For the first time since his captivity, he finds he can again take human form and he appeals to Kelsey to help him break the curse placed on himself, his brother, and Mr. Kadam. She agrees to help, and they set out to find the first in a set of four items sacred to the goddess Durga that will help them to break the curse. Kelsey discovers she is Durga's “chosen one” and that her fate may already be tied to the tiger man she finds herself falling for.
My Thoughts: I really wanted to like this book. I really did. But reading this book is like... well, imagine the ugliest animal you can think of. Now imagine that animal has a baby. That baby is trying to stand up for the first time, all uncoordinated limbs and wild squalling. It can't seem to manage standing up, and the whole situation is so terrible that you can't decide whether to help the baby out with the standing up, or just put a shotgun to its head and put the thing out of its misery. You want to help it, because everyone deserves a chance to live and all baby animals are cute, right? But the thing is so damn stupid and ugly that all you feel is sorry for its existence.
And with that I've just left you with a far more lasting image in your head than this book will come close to doing. I had innumerable issues with this book and I could go on for pages and pages, but, because I value the time that you the reader are spending, I will do the opposite of what this book did and attempt to be brief.
Kelsey is a terrible character. She has an attitude of self-righteous entitlement that is intensely off-putting. I would say she barely qualifies as a character since she is so poorly fleshed out it would not surprise me in the least to discover that she is in fact a computer program that was written and put into place two days before the action of the book begins. She has none of the attachments or reactions to the world that an actual 18-year-old girl would have and absolutely no personal interaction skills. Though she has recently graduated from high school, she never mentions friends or events from her life before page 1. The only things we are ever told about her life before the beginning of the book are that she used to bake cookies with her mother and that she, at some point in her life, has heard of the movie The Karate Kid. When the story opens, Kelsey's parents have recently died in a car accident; she mentions this repeatedly but never expresses any sort of emotion about that situation, other than a vague sort of sadness, and never mentions any of the specifics of how she dealt with it. She claims that the death of her parents is what causes her to be afraid of reaching out and forming new relationships; this is her excuse for behaving poorly toward Ren when he approaches her romantically, though she has no problem forming quick and comfortable relationships with the friends she makes at her two-week stint with the circus, or the ubiquitous Mr. Kadam. Kelsey's reactions to all the events in her life are just odd. She immediately accepts without reservations the offer to fly to a country she has never been to, never had any interest in prior to this point, and where she doesn't speak the language, with a complete stranger. When Mr. Kadam abandons her on the roadside in an Indian village, she gets over her initial anger fairly quickly after Ren explains to her that they couldn't tell her what was going on at first because she wouldn't have believed them. She then proceeds to gripe endlessly about some bugs they have to get past in order to retrieve one of the items to break the curse. She also doesn't mind hiking into the jungle with only a tiger as her guide, but complains about the fact that Mr. Kadam bought her new hiking boots because they will give her blisters. Being abandoned in a foreign land is not a big deal, but God forbid she have to look at a nasty bug or that her feet should be uncomfortable. Her treatment of Ren is the most appalling. She lets him lay his head in her lap and strokes her fingers through his hair while she read him poetry, and then acts horrified when he asks permission to kiss her. She flirts with Ren's brother right in front of him, then acts surprised when Ren becomes angry. Ren's character is bland and passive throughout the story. The only actions he truly takes are in saving Kelsey from whatever passing animal (or falling rock) that is trying to kill her. This is until the very end of the book, where he develops a huge passive-aggressive streak and becomes obsessively controlling of Kelsey; this only gets worse in the sequel (which I know because parts of the second book in the series were read aloud to me on a road trip, not because I would voluntarily subject myself to it).
As much as I dislike the underdeveloped characters, that is only a symptom of the main problem. The writing is terrible. The style is awkward and there are a lot of things that are just not researched thoroughly. As one example amount dozens: Kelsey goes to thank the pilot of her flight to India for being decent at his job and discovers that he “didn't speak English other than basic flight words.” The author specifically has Kelsey go and thank the pilot herself, deliberately says that he doesn't speak English, and apparently didn't research enough to know that international pilots are required by the ICAO to speak English proficiently. As for the awkward style, this novel would be a great example for why people say “show, don't tell.” This book tells you a lot of things about the characters, but they never connect as real because I, as the reader, am never shown that these things are true. Kelsey as the narrator is descriptive of the weirdest things, obsessively detailing the food she eats, the décor of Ren's house in India, and the entire contents of her closet at each place she stays. In opposition to those pointlessly elaborate descriptions, the novel is strangely lacking in ambiance. Kelsey rarely describes the jungle itself; it is monsoon season but she never talks about the humidity or how she deals with the omnipresent insect life. She reports on an occasional bird or tree, but there is no sense of place to the things that she does describe. This lack of setting is only mildly annoying when compared to the sheer clumsiness which with the love story is handled. While again the characters talk about their emotions, nothing they do convinces me of the sincerity of those emotions. Since when she met him she thought he was a tiger, Ren obviously falls in love with Kelsey before she returns the emotion. When her tiger does turn into a breathtakingly gorgeous man, Kelsey responds by being so utterly in denial of his attraction to her that she repeatedly treats him terribly and pushes him away, believing that he will leave her eventually anyway. Even given how insecure teen girls can be, Kelsey's level of denial toward Ren's obvious interest in her is not only an unattractive trait in a main character, it is frankly unbelievable in someone not suffering from brain damage.
I won't touch on all the problems I had with this book, but one thing I will say that parts of it just leave me baffled. I honestly didn't know what do to with it sometimes. The premise, of a 300-year-old cursed Indian prince ending up in a circus show in Oregon in order to facilitate him meeting the main character is ridiculous enough, but that's a level of ridiculous I can work with. Things I can't really work with would include: Taking an airplane from Oregon to India by way of New York, which increases the distance traveled by at least 2,000 miles. Dhiren claiming his blue eyes (an exclusively European trait) are inherited from his mother who was “Asian.” The neither racially nor culturally descriptive term “Asian” being the only description of his mother we ever do get; she could have been anything from Thai to Lebanese to Siberian as far as I know. Kadam, the native Indian who has lived as a man under the curse for over 300 years, knows nothing about Hindu religion and mythology and has to spend most of the novel researching the clues they get toward finding out how to break the curse. And that's not even getting into everything I missed because I myself don't know much about Indian culture.
In the end, I found this book to be a lot like the cover. At first glance it looks beautiful and deep. But when you open it up and try to look behind that facade you discover something flat and, ultimately, soulless.
Recommended Readings: I can't honestly recommend this book to anyone. It does have several plot points in common with Meyer's Twilight, so I would imagine if you liked the one you might like the other. While I would personally rate them both on about the same level of things-that-I-don't-ever-want-
to-read-again, others have told me that
is far worse. It does take everything I disliked about Twilight
(the bland leads, the meandering plotlessness, the forced love
triangle, and the unrealistic relationship) and magnify those things.
If you are looking for more teen romance along those lines, I'm
probably not the person to help you with that; I prefer my romance
with a healthy dose of adventure mixed in. When I was a teen I was
reading Tamora Pierce and Patricia C. Wrede- stories about girls who
had ambitions and the fates of kingdoms, not just princes, hinged on
their decisions. Love was neither the goal nor focus, but rather a thing
they found along the way.
If you absolutely must read a debut teen novel that references William Blake's poem “Tiger, Tiger,” try In the Forests of the Night by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. Atwater-Rhodes wrote In the Forests of the Night when she was thirteen. This definitely shows in the writing style, but she has a passion for her characters and the world she has created that far exceeds Houck; while immature, Atwater-Rhodes' writing style is far less baffling. The story is not about tigers but is actually a character study of a young Puritan woman who is turned into a vampire. The reference to the poem comes from the main character visiting a caged tiger at a zoo and finding a parallel to her own situation in that they are both predators who are being held back from experiencing their full potential. In the Forests of the Night is definitely not Atwater-Rhodes' best work; if you don't mind distancing yourself further from the tiger element but returning to the theme of shape-shifting I would highly recommend her novel Hawksong.
If you're looking for a more mature romance involving cursed tiger-men, try Marjorie M. Liu's Tiger Eye. In Tiger Eye, Dela is a metal-smith and sculpture artist on vacation in China when she is given a puzzle box that just happens to contain Hari, a 2000-year-old shape-shifter bound to the box with a dark curse and forced to do the bidding of whosoever summons him from his prison. Dela and Hari work together to break his curse and to save Dela from someone else who is determined to kill her. The book isn't perfect; it treads a line of bestiality that some readers might find uncomfortable and several plot threads get wrapped up quickly, without any dwelling on the emotional consequences. Liu's writing is evocative and sensuous, and I'm not even talking about the romance; within the first two paragraphs of the novel Liu has described a summer day in Beijing that makes me feel like I'm actually there, whereas Houck, in 400 pages, fails to evoke India to the point where I feel transported there along with the characters. I was expecting a teen version of Tiger Eye when I first picked up Tiger's Curse, which may ultimately be the source of the feelings of betrayal and disappointment with which Houck's novel fills me.