Review: Penance by Paula Richey and Thomas Plutarch
Penance is an energizing young adult superhero novel, featuring superpowers, aliens, an extraterrestrial sex trafficking ring, and the imminent invasion of earth! This first installment of the Teen Heroes Unleashed series is wholesome and entertaining.
This review contains minor spoilers.
Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed Penance. I encourage you to check it out!
Penance Publisher Description:
Penance Copper is tired of being a tool for evil.
She’s been working for Acid ever since she was small. She had no other choice, he owned her. Even with her superpowers, she’s never been able to escape. But at least he only has her steal. Never anything worse than that.
Until he orders her to use her powers to kill the superhero Justice for investigating trafficked girls.
Penance doesn’t want to be a murderer. She uses the opportunity to run away from Acid and make a new life. One where she can make up for everything she did on Acid’s orders.
But events larger than Penance are spinning into action, and soon she is embroiled in an intergalactic encounter with an alien boy named Kail, who is perhaps as lonely and broken as she is. Even if he is infuriatingly arrogant.
The first young adult series in the shared Heroes Unleashed universe launches with the Teen Heroes Unleashed series. Readers will love hardworking, sassy Penance as she tries to learn to use her superpowers to save the world instead of to steal.
Can Penance and Kail find the missing girls and save the Earth from an alien invasion? Or will Acid find her again and punish her for running away?
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One of the typical attributes of YA fiction is the age of the main character. It is highly unfortunate that most YA fiction seems determined to reflect the worst of that age group, resulting in unappealing view point characters. Penance is not one of these.
Authors Paula Richey and Thomas Plutarch did not make Penance overly emotional or stupid in order to appear young. Instead, her inexperience is communicated through her eagerness to learn and her tendency to make herself involved in creating solutions to problems as she sees them. This proactive attitude is much more sympathetic than moody or sullen, and much more believable than unexplainably charismatic and rebellious.
Penance does rebel, of course. But once again, her rebellion is mature. It is not the acting out of a child wishing to be acknowledged as an adult as much as it is a young woman becoming an adult by taking responsibility for her own beliefs and behaviors. As a result, she rebels against the evil she had been part of and seeks to do the right thing.
Kail, the male lead, is also sympathetic. His respectful, goal-oriented outlook is easy to understand and like. It is a refreshing change from snarky and rash. He, too, sets an example of working proactively, even when situations are out of his control.
The non-antagonistic adults in this YA novel are reasonable people. They are not negligent or stupid, rather their understanding of the situation is actively sabotaged. This makes them effective and trustworthy cavalry in the later acts of the story.
They also display a desirable trait: everyone is able to offer help, admit when they need help, and accept help from others. These heroes do not need to take on impossible odds alone in order to be heroic, and this results in more believable conflicts which in turn deliver better emotional pay-offs.
Furthermore, it almost completely avoids the always frustrating and ultimately pointless discussion wherein adults deny teenagers agency by insisting that they cannot help and should remain “safe.” Penance and Kail are sent to a safehouse at one point, allowing for some welcome down-time interaction between the leads, but it was clear that they would eventually return to action.
The pacing of the story is lively. Even when Penance is bored, the audience is not. There is enough tension and expectation to drive the story forward, and the occasional point-of-view switch to a minor character is tolerable as the emphasis remains on the action.
This is animated and striking, effective without dragging in long sequences. No one character is overpowered, so the stakes remain high for each conflict. Penance has great powers, but she is also inexperienced and doesn’t always fully understand them. Her greatest success is actually not won through physical confrontation at all, but an application of head knowledge and relationship growth.
The action is enthusiastic, and it complements the rest of the story elements, rather than overshadowing them.
On the surface, most books are labeled “Young Adult” fiction due to the age of the main character, but there are two fairly consistent elements that appear in most YA novels.
The first is, of course, romantic tension, particularly of the trials and elations of first love. Penance is charged with the atmosphere of unspoken romantic attraction, which serves to layer additional tension within the story. Its unresolved nature will certainly contribute to readthrough as the series continues.
However, what makes Penance a distinctly YA story is the theme of self-discovery. Both Penance and Kail struggle with self-worth, identity, and belonging throughout the story. These are common for young people moving into adulthood, and thus they have an important place in YA literature.
That being said, Richey and Plutarch use the standard theme to point the reader eloquently towards Christ.
Penance converts to Christianity early in the story, but it takes place “off stage,” so to speak. The reader sees her exposure and initial interest, but the actual moment when she takes the leap occurs while the story is in Kail’s point of view, away from his experience.
This makes Penance’s conversion far more tolerable than typical “Christian fiction,” which is generally defined as having a conversion of a main character as a major plot point. Changing hearts is a miracle of the Holy Spirit, and thus difficult to portray convincingly in fiction, especially when the author is preachy and determined to resolve a character’s every doubt.
As for Penance, the reader sees her searching and then trusting. It is enough that she reached a decision in that moment and is determined to see it through. She still has doubts and lots of things she doesn’t know or understand about God, but that is an unadorned, realistic depiction of Christianity, which leaves room for character growth.
The placement of the conversion early in the story emphasizes this. Penance’s faith becomes the answer to her questions of self-worth, identity, and belonging, while Kail’s trust in the false god of his culture is betrayed, leaving him unsure of his place in the world.
Check Out Penance!
Penance is a fantastic superhero novel for readers looking for congenial young characters to admire and aspire to, who engage in clearly praiseworthy efforts to protect others with their powers. I look forward to seeing more from the Teen Heroes Unleashed subseries of Heroes Unleashed!