Ascenders: High School for the Recently Deceased

Ascenders

This review is brought to you as part of the Virtual Book Tour for Ascenders, hosted by Lady Amber’s Book Tours.

Ascenders was written by C.L. Gaber and first published in 2015. It is a paranormal young adult novel which follows a teenage girl as she discovers that there is more waiting for her after death than just heaven and hell. The novel forms the first part of a planned series but, at the time of writing, no further instalments have been announced.

Walker Callaghan’s life has been turned completely upside down. Without warning her mother has decided to up sticks and move to Michigan, forcing Walker to leave her friends and school without chance to say good bye. Her new town is just plain weird. There seem to be hardly any adults in the neighbourhood and the school has no structure – advising students to just explore what interests them rather than focus on grades and college entrance exams. Even the faculty is odd, seemingly made up of people who are dead ringers for deceased celebrities.

It’s not long before Walker realises that ‘dead’ is the operative phrase. She hasn’t moved house – she was killed in a road accident and has passed on. As the human brain isn’t completely developed until a person is twenty-four, all teenagers first travel to a middle realm when they die. The Academy is designed to help the recently departed to develop into who they would have done in life before they can move Up or Down to whatever lies beyond.

The Academy only has one rule – do not attempt to return to the land of the living. As Walker grows closer Daniel Reid – the handsome yet moody boy that she sits with in class – she learns that he intends to do exactly that. Daniel’s younger brother didn’t pass over with him and instead has become trapped as an earthbound ghost. Drawn slowly into Daniel’s obsession with saving him, Walker must make a difficult decision. Does she love Daniel enough to help him rescue Bobby, even though it means she will face an eternity of punishment?

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Ascenders is one of those novels that really does make you stop and think. It’s an incredibly emotional novel that explores the tragedy of death from both sides – the teenager who has passed on before their time and the parent that she’s left behind. The story has several strong themes but I felt that at its core it was a tale about hope and comfort. It tells the reader again and again that life is precious and should be lived to the full. No one knows exactly how much time they have left and they should live each day as though it’s their last. At the same time, it also offers comfort to people who have lost loved ones. It says that death isn’t something to be feared and is really just another part of life.

While it may sound like Ascenders is a religious novel, it really isn’t. Although the premise is faintly Christian and the terms heaven and hell are occasionally thrown about by the characters, it’s never made clear what lies beyond the Academy. The reader never discovers exactly what happens to a soul when it moves Up or Down. If fact, the novel actually draws more from Egyptian Mythology (the passage of the Ka through the afterlife), which was an interesting idea for the plot to explore. It helped give the story a unique edge over other similar work, making the world truly feel like the author’s own. And, really, what a world! The very best thing about Ascenders was Gaber’s magnificent world building.

The world in which Ascenders was set just felt so solid and real. Everything slotted together neatly and was so well presented that it was easy for the reader to grasp. While I felt that the first couple of chapters were a little clunky, as soon as Walker settled down in her first class I was captivated. The use of deceased celebrities as teachers in the school was rather fun. While some of these were fairly obvious (Kurt the music teacher and Heath the drama teacher), others were so subtly introduced that I almost missed them (especially the small Indian man who teaches philosophy). I even felt a little sentimental during the brief cameo from Robin Williams – the feels! While I did enjoy playing guess-the-celebrity, I did wonder if a teenage reader would pick up on all of the references. While they’re likely to spot Kurt Cobain, some of the characters (Walter Cronkite, John Wayne Gacy and Johnnie Cochran) are a little less relevant to teen culture.

While I did absolutely love the plot and setting, I do have a couple of small issues with the story. First (and most importantly) there were some problems with the pacing at times. Although Ascenders is tremendously easy to read and generally flowed rather well, it was prone to a some rather hefty exposition dumps. By far the worst of these was the chapter where Walker revealed everything that she knew about the Academy’s rival school (the Institute for Troubled Teens), halting the story for 20+ pages as she described the layout, inner workings and key inmates of a place that had only been briefly mentioned in the story. Surely there is a way to incorporate this into the book that’s a little easier on the grey matter?

My other issue (and this is purely personal) is that I thought the novel would have worked better if it didn’t reveal the fact that Walker was dead on the cover. While it rather clumsily exposited this to the reader in the prologue, Walker herself doesn’t figure this out until 13% of the way through the Kindle version. Because of this, I felt that the opening of the story lacked any kind of tension or mystique. While the novel does certainly get this back, especially over the very exciting final hundred pages, it would have been nice if the reader had been initially left in the same position as Walker – bewildered, nervous and intrigued by the strange things that happen on her first day at the Academy.

The characterisation of the principal cast is incredibly strong. The relationship between Walker and Daniel builds slowly and very realistically as the story progressed. Both of them felt just like real people – full of complex emotions and displaying very different personalities. Walker in particular stands out as an incredibly strong heroine. As the novel is entirely told from her perspective, we get a real insight into her mind. Through Walker, Gaber writes a very strong and likable seventeen year old girl. She’s strong willed and witty, yet also full of self-doubt. She lacks physical strength (especially when it comes to sport) but still tries her best so as not to disappoint her friends. She tries to do what’s best for everyone but is still prone to the odd selfish thought. All in all, she came across as a very balanced and thoroughly likable character.

Daniel offset this quiet nicely as he was a little darker and more angsty. Although he initially comes across as a bit of a jerk, the reasons for this become very clear once you learn his backstory. While his dedication to Bobby is really admirable, it did also show how rash he was as he never gave much thought to his other siblings. Consumed as he was by his mission, he never really seemed to stop and think how the others would cope if he was to disappear.

Beyond Walker and Daniel, the rest of the cast is unfortunately a bit forgettable. While the secondary cast is huge, none of them really play that big a role in this story (which is kind of a pity as I would have liked to have seen more of Bertha in particular). The only other character that I feel that I should commend is Walker’s mother. Although she doesn’t appear much in the tale, her relationship with her daughter is really moving. The lengths she goes to help Walker adjust are heart-warming and their final scene together is just moving beyond belief. While most of the tension in the story comes from the mission to rescue Bobby, the real emotion is in the depths of the relationship between mother and daughter – a love that transcends life and lasts for all of eternity. It’s a truly positive message and I think it’s going to be the part of this novel that stays with me the longest.

Anyhow, this review’s getting long so I’ll wrap up. Although it contains the odd information dump and a secondary cast that’s a little unmemorable, Ascenders is a fantastic opening to the series. It’s very easy to read, filled with emotion and contains an incredibly strong principal cast. This is definitely a novel that I’d recommend and I’m looking forward to reading more of Gaber’s work in the future.

Ascenders can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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  1. Trackback: The Sobeks – Part 3 | Arkham Reviews

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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