by Leah Bobet
Review by: Kathleen Richardson
I grabbed Above by Leah Bobet from the new book cart and quickly put it on my hold list because, for one thing, I did love the cover. Ariel and her butterfly wings are featured in a classy yet glamorous shot and the book jacket plays up the romance between two of the major characters, Ariel and Matthew.
In Above, the inhabitants of the world called Safe live below the city. Above is the story of what happened when they had to come above, after an emergency within their conclave of unusual people. There was murder and mayhem. and that drove them to the home of Dr. Marybeth, a psychiatric nurse who offers them sanctuary. "Sanctuary" is a term used throughout the book about the choices that determine who is welcome above and who is welcome to continue living in Safe. Ariel gets stressed out often and she runs away to the world the rest of the inhabitants have intentionally fled from. Ariel is almost kicked out of Safe for her forays above to the city streets. In one, night shadows come to Safe and it is thought that they followed Ariel back home. That is part of the ongoing conflict between Ari and Matthew. Above is a good book, you just have to be prepared to hear in graphic detail how the mental health system has failed people in a hospital setting and about the abuse they have undergone or in some cases simply believe that they have suffered.
I think I picked up the book and thought it would be like watching an episode of the old Beauty and the Beast television series which makes the whole notion of living apart from the rest of society seem very special, very romantic, even though it is fraught with danger. Above does not romanticize the ordeal of a life apart; it shows the grim and gritty side and of course that's why it is labeled an "urban fantasy." There is a relationship between Ariel and Matthew but it is fragile and full of difficulties that will not get better with time, and the characters are aware of that. Ariel has been abused at home and then at the hands of a boyfriend she chose not to leave. We are not assured of a happy ending to any of the situations in the book, in fact the opposite.
I don't read lots of fantasy. I am new to the genre, unless you count the Arthurian tales that I've consumed since childhood. Above is a dark fantasy, full of the realities of urban life and people who have had bad experiences in the treatment of their mental illness. Homelessness and substandard food and clothing are typical of the details in Above, as well as severe unchecked and unmedicated mental illness. The fantasy comes in small ways really, Ari's butterfly wings, the gills on Matthew's neck that have no use but that he inherited from his mother. Matthew's father had lion paws and while Matthew does not, his nails have that catlike quality. Jack's hands glow and he brings the lights to their underground village and that's about the end of the dreamlike stuff.
Bobet is a good storyteller. I would read her again, but next time I would be more prepared for the reality of the book and take the book's marketing with a grain of salt. A bestselling author calls the book "utterly magical" on the front cover of the book. I would not go that far.