Those of you who’ve read Rachel Ward’s Numbers trilogy will find the premise of Victoria Laurie’s upcoming When familiar: A young girl is capable of seeing what no one else can see—the deathdates of everyone she meets. Rest assured, though—that is pretty much the only thing that the books have in common. Despite the similarity in set-up, they differ in tone, storyline, character type and even genre.
Sixteen-year-old Maddie Fynn’s mother is a not-so-functional alcoholic, so over the years, Maddie has taken on paying the bills, buying groceries, and keeping everything running smoothly in order to stay under the CPS radar. As the money from her father’s wrongful-death settlement is dwindling, Maddie has been doing more and more readings for people—in which clients ask for their own deathdates or for those of their loved ones—in order to make ends meet. Some people take the news well, while others…don’t. When one such interaction precedes the brutal killing of a teenager, the FBI gets involved, and suddenly Maddie and her best friend are the prime suspects in a murder investigation.
If you’re willing to overlook a few problematic aspects—which, never fear, I’ll get to in a moment—it’s an entertaining page-turner, suspenseful and morally complex. Maddie’s habit of giving out the deathdate of each character she introduces drives home the unsettling nature of her ability:
From the seat in front of me, Eric Anderson (7-25-2017) said, “Yo, Murdering Maddie, what’d you do?”
I felt my mouth go dry. What had I done?
“Mr. Anderson. Another word from you, and you’ll join us,” warned Harris.
Eric turned away and snickered along with his best friend, Mario Rossi (7-25-2017).
When she’s pulled into her first meeting with the FBI, she almost IMMEDIATELY asks for a lawyer, and doesn’t let the agents bully her into waiving her right to counsel; when things start getting ugly at school, she speaks up about it. It’s always fabulous to see characters—especially characters who’re supposed to be as independent and resourceful and practical as Maddie—make choices that reflect those traits.
Unfortunately, her decision-making—especially in terms of her timing in relaying crucial information—is often more driven by the needs of the plotting than by what would be consistent with the characterization. Additionally, her voice, interests, attitude and peer relationships read closer to 12 than to16—so much so that I kept picturing her as a tween until a plot element (her best friend drives a van; CPS allows her to stay alone while her mother is in the hospital) fast-forwarded her back to 16 again. The behavior of the authorities—school and law enforcement—is almost uniformly terrible, which struck me as especially unlikely, given that her father was a police officer who died in the line of duty. (Also, holy cow, the FBI agents are more obstinately skeptical than Season One Dana Scully, something I wouldn’t have thought humanly possible.)
So, no, it’s not flawless. But, as I said above, it’s entirely entertaining, and my issues with it certainly didn’t stop me from barreling through in one sitting. If Laurie writes a sequel, I have no doubt that I’ll snatch it right up—but probably from the library, rather than a bookstore.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or running the show at her local library, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while rewatching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.