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Review: Instant Karma

On the third of November 2020, Marissa Meyer released her first attempt at the contemporary romance genre. After years of writing science fiction and fantasy – her first sci-fantasy novel Cinder came out in 2012 – she’s decided to take a trip outside of her comfort zone. 

Instant Karma is about high school sophomore Prudence Barnett, who is as intense an overachiever as you can imagine, and quick to judge. She dreams of being able to cast instant karma on the lazy residents of Fortuna Beach. When granted that power, however, the rush of excitement only lasts so long as she finds that Quint Erikson, her lazy, arrogant lab partner appears immune. The longer she spends with this new power and Quint, the more she learns about him, herself, and the fine line between virtue and vanity.

There was a lot of good in this book, especially for a first dabble into the contemporary genre. Despite being set in the real world, her world building skills from years of fantasy left me Google searching Fortuna Beach to see if it was real. Alas, it was only a vivid creation of a beach side town. From Prudence’s favorite restaurant, Encanto, along the boardwalk to the record store her parents own, I felt like I was walking on the sand with her. After spending only a couple scenes in her marine biology class I could see where the white board was and navigate my way through the maze of desks opposite it. 

Not only was the world vivid, but the book was written in one of the most accessible styles I’ve come across. I wondered going into this novel how Meyer’s writing style would differ from that of her previous novels. After all, there are no superheroes here, or queens of the moon. Not to mention it was in first person, unlike the third person perspective she usually writes in. But I wasn’t left disappointed in any way. The writing is perfect for the targeted young adult audience with easy prose that isn’t too flowery and the occasional quippy internal remark from Pru. While it may not be the most beautiful writing, it fulfills Meyer’s intent.

Like her recently completed Renegades series, the ideas discussed in this book through the plot were both evocative and woven in to the point that I didn’t fully recognize what I was reading until all was revealed. First of all is Quint Erikson himself as an idea. Without getting into spoilers, Quint is a theatrical play. Pru is constantly annoyed by his tardiness and constant I-don’t-care attitude. But behind the curtain, he’s running a mile a minute working for a cause that he deeply cares about. Only when Pru takes the time to, or rather, is forced to get to know him, does she realize that he isn’t as simple as he seems. This idea branches out into all the people Pru throws her karmic powers upon. And while it’s only touched on, there is the idea of body positivity and overall confidence. Pru had never worried about how her body looked, or about how she came off to other people. When she finally stops to think about it, Meyer handles the brief interaction very well for an audience of teenagers who are likely going through a similar thing. She reinforces the idea of throwing other people’s criticism to the wind and living in the moment, something Pru must grow into throughout the story, and will continue to do after the back cover closes.

This leads into the character development! Characters have always been my favorite part of Meyer’s novels. There isn’t a character in her previous series that I haven’t loved or loved to hate, and Instant Karma was no different. I’ll admit, it took awhile for me to latch onto Pru as I did with the main cast of the Lunar Chronicles and Renegades series, or even Quint, who I instantly fell in love with. Getting slightly into spoiler territory, I certainly felt a sense of camaraderie in the first scene. Pru, ever the overachiever, is forced to give her project presentation without Quint. Who hasn’t been in a group assignment where one person ends up with all the work? It created a feeling of instant empathy. However, when they received their grades, Pru’s reaction was not only frustrating, but also unrealistic. Sure, it was a final and she got a C, but really? She threw a tantrum in her classroom, whining at the teacher to give her another chance. I’ve been a sophomore before. More than anything, even if a student was so upset with their grade, they’d at least wait until the end of class to save what social dignity they had. 

All that aside, I did eventually come to enjoy Pru. The more I saw her interacting with her brother, friends, and Quint, the more I saw behind her own theatrical curtain. She may not be an orphan like Cinder, or… well, an orphan like Nova Artino, but her struggles were relatable to the more common reader, especially a teenage one. Like Quint, she was going through more than was initially visible and as the two got closer and realized this about each other, their arcs took full shape.

Over the course of the book, I’d say the character arcs were paced relatively well. There was no sudden “I’m fixed!” moment, and by the end it did feel like both Pru and Quint had grown. The overall pacing was a bit slower than I’m used to, which was probably a side effect of this being contemporary instead of fantasy. Meyer had to adjust from the fast pacing demands of YA fantasy, and that meant that there were some scenes that felt long and a bit boring while others, like those in her fantasy, were fast, one event rolling after the other. For this reason, the middle of the book suffered from a slight sagging-middle syndrome. It felt like a lot of the same: go to the rescue center, argue with Quint, worry about the marine biology project. Of course it wasn’t exactly like that, but up until the build up to the climax, I did put the book down a few times.

In the end, I’m glad I was able to start this book right upon publication and will continue to do so for Marissa Meyer’s books. I have yet to dislike any of her books. While I feel that star rankings can often put a number to a piece of art that is much more complex than one character, I feel comfortable giving Instant Karma a solid four stars for enjoyment. I really did enjoy the environment of this book, and no book I’ve read has made me want to visit an aquarium quite this much. If you’re looking for a lighthearted romance that explores rescued marine wildlife, the drama of teenage romance, and a girl who finds herself with the power of judge, jury, and executioner, Instant Karma is the perfect book.

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