A debut novel fuses a serious issue—the stigma of mental illness—with sci-fi to chronicle a girl’s unusual coming-of-age.
On the surface, Courtney Hoffman seems like an average 15-year-old girl: she holds down a decently high spot in the high school hierarchy, serving as vice captain of the soccer team. But she also experiences nightmares stemming from when her now-dead grandfather, who believed in aliens, supposedly tried to drown her. Turns out, these aren’t dreams after all—aliens visit Courtney at night, trying to communicate with her (“Slowly I cracked my eyes open. Silhouetted in the light were three alien creatures. Their long, lanky bodies shuffled awkwardly toward my bed. This isn’t supposed to be happening!”). But how can she figure out what they want when her mother keeps threatening to lock her up in a psychiatric hospital? With the help of an older girl named Agatha Kirlich, who possesses an extravagant goth wardrobe, and a brother who is also visited by the aliens, Courtney uncovers clues that lead her to an ancient group known as the Knights of the Magi. Courtney’s destiny lies with the Knights and their quest to keep the dangerous pathways between universes closed off—but their mortal enemies, the Soldiers of Bilim, are determined to stop her from fulfilling it. Stefani takes readers along on a wild ride through portals to other worlds that delivers plenty of amusing adolescent dialogue; Courtney and Agatha’s interactions crackle with chemistry and eccentricity. In contrast to these funny moments, the earlier parts of the book, before Courtney realizes the aliens are real—when she legitimately believes that she is losing her mind—are pretty dark. The character of Courtney’s mom is unsympathetic and cruel to the point of feeling like a coldhearted cartoon; she treats her daughter’s potential mental illness as an inconvenience that must be forcibly submerged by Courtney or she’ll be shuttered in an institution as punishment. Once Courtney’s conflict with her mother takes a back seat to her escapades with Agatha and the aliens, the plot picks up speed and becomes a lot more enjoyable.
Chock-full of sharp tonal contrasts, this tale should appeal to readers with a hunger for alien adventure and an understanding of how it feels to be considered crazy.