Only a Monster by Vanessa Len subverts the notions of a monster and a hero by centering the voice of a monster and questioning just what heroism is. It’s a remarkable achievement that creates another dimension to what monstrosity is, although the novel is somewhat diluted by the seemingly sci-fi environment in which this takes place.
Joan Chang-Hunt is half-human and half-monster in a world where monsters travel through time by stealing life force from humans. Joan has a huge crush on Nick, who she’s volunteered with over the summer at Holland House, a museum. Then before a date with Nick, Joan accidentally steals time from a man (and subsequently misses the date by traveling to the future).
Then the Olivers, an enemy family of monsters, appear in Holland House while Nick and Joan are discussing their missed date and sharing a romantic moment. During this part Joan is revealed to be a monster, which surprises Nick — it turns out that he’s the hero of the story and has made it his mission to kill monsters. Nick ends up perpetuating a massacre that kills nearly the entire Oliver family as well as Joan’s own family. As a result, Joan embarks on a journey with Aaron Oliver, her sworn enemy, to try and figure out if there’s a way to reverse the timeline and their families’ deaths. The journey takes them to multiple time periods and places, including the cryptic Monster Court.
The concept that Len foregrounds throughout the book of history and how it’s created is very intriguing. Not to mention, Only a Monster’s aesthetics are incredible. The atmosphere is dark and inviting, particularly when Len describes the different British settings and time periods that shape the novel.
However, time-travel in any plot is undeniably risky, and this is again demonstrated here. Between false records of history, jumping back and forth between times, and mysterious devices or people that can alter destinies, it’s confusing. Yes, it’s not like an in-depth understanding of the way the world works is necessary to getting the basic plot. A general gist of this is sufficient enough to mostly follow along. Even then, the amount of explanation the characters do — mostly in conveying what the “timeline” is to Joan — detracts from the story’s potency.
Everything is so fast-paced that getting fully into the characters is no easy task. Readers are consistently told their importance to the central plot, and we never get a full sense of why relationships between characters are so meaningful. In the process of making things engaging, Len dismisses some of the more intricate aspects of the story, like developing the complicated relationship between Joan and Nick more without resorting solely to the “soulmate” trope. The dynamic between Joan and Nick is a weaker part of the novel. Len starts off things after Joan and Nick have already spent much time together, so perhaps seeing the progression of this relationship was already out of the question.
Aaron is much more compelling as a character and companion in the journey, but he seems destined to fall in love with Joan too just because he accompanies her on her quest. There’s a lot of fun dialogue and Aaron has a strong sense of personality, but it’s a very superficial idea. This plot device is reliant more on adding love triangle drama than emotional pull.
Although the theme of monstrosity is rather forced at times, Len does provide a great counterpart to it in the form of Joan’s biracial identity. By showing how Joan is perceived as an oddity on two levels, Len conveys these different conflicts with astounding sensitivity to the fantasy of Joan’s circumstances and her real life.
Yet when considering its content, Only a Monster could have been much, much more. Instead, it is only what it is — something that, much like Joan’s struggle, still needs to figure out the depth of its true power.