Every once in a while I am won over by a book blurb that sounds bizarre enough that I just have to know whether the author manages to pull off the crazy concept. In the case of Rebel Belle by Rachel Hawkins, I was intrigued by the mix of contemporary and fantasy elements, plus the promise of a fish-out-of-water trope (one of my favorites!) as a teenage debutante realizes she has been imbued with some pretty cool ninja skills and a heady responsibility to protect an important supernatural figure.
Our introduction to Rebel Belle’s heroine, Harper, isn’t entirely pleasant – Harper is a high-strung overachiever from a wealthy family, and her biggest concern is finding some lip gloss before she gets called up to receive her Homecoming Queen crown. But it’s that quest for lip gloss that ultimately leads to Harper finding herself at the center of a violent ladies’ room confrontation where she happens into a huge new responsibility as a Paladin.
Don’t know what a Paladin is? Don’t worry, neither does Harper – and as she starts researching to learn more about her new fighting abilities and what they mean, I found myself settling into Harper’s personality as well. Her voice, initially a bit grating, becomes much more relatable as Harper is forced to mature and face her past demons. A character that initially seems so shallow gradually gains depth as the story progresses, and there’s very little more I appreciate in a book than a great character arc.
I enjoyed reading Harper’s struggle to balance her “old” life – a life of academic achievement, student government, cheerleading, Cotillion, and a doting boyfriend – with her new abilities and a duty to protect her sworn enemy since nursery school, David. Harper isn’t entirely sure why she needs to protect David, but that’s another fun mystery that unfolds as the story progresses. Harper’s disposition changes around David. He challenges her and keeps her on her toes, so I found Harper to be more engaging when they were together, trying to figure out the big picture.
Harper lives in a traditional southern town, and Hawkins includes a ton of little details that really bring the setting to live. There are also quite a few colorful side characters that feel right at home in this world, and I loved how Hawkins tied these characters in to the larger narrative without too many contrivances. There was one little character twist at the end that was all too convenient for setting up sequels (more on that in a minute), but overall the side characters were used really effectively within the plot, often in ways you don’t see coming.
Okay, so the sequel thing. This book is the first in a series, and one of the things that distracted me from totally loving it was how much I could tell it was a series book. Set-up is important in a series, but this book contained a ton of exposition, some of it quite complex, and it seemed to set up a rather epic story – so then when the climactic ending was one 12 page chapter (or thereabout), I felt a little let down. Yes, the series is set up nicely, but I wish Hawkins might have chosen to unveil the backstory more strategically, so I wasn’t expecting an epic finale in the first book. A lot of the information could have been saved for the next book without causing any trouble with the plot of Rebel Belle.
Still, I really enjoyed the book’s unique premise and vivacious characters. The mix of contemporary, fantasy, and action elements keeps things even and interesting throughout, and I’m definitely intrigued to see what direction the story goes as the series progresses. If you’re suffering from YA genre fatigue – maybe you read a few too many dystopian or paranormal stories lately – Rebel Belle is a great fix for that. It integrates several popular YA trends into one story, but it still feels fresh and different.