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Review: The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

replacement yovanoff aus Review: The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas is a classic story by noted speculative fiction author Ursula K LeGuin, and is one that is bound to resonate with most readers for some time afterwards. Omelas is a utopian society in which everything seems to function in not simply an orderly, but in almost an enlightened manner. But the crux of the story is that the glory of Omelas rests firmly on the continued torment of a single child. The question posed by the story is a seemingly simply moral dilemma: would you, could you walk away from Omelas?

A similar theme crops up in Shirley Jacksons terrifying short story The Lottery, in which an individual is sacrificed arbitrarily, but under a veneer of democracy, to ensure the towns harvest will be plentiful. This notion of a participative or willing scapegoat or sacrifice is also apparent in classics such as Dostoyevskys The Brothers Karamazov, and arguably crops up in existentialist works such as'The Outsider by Camus (see our review), and of course is rife throughout various biblical stories.

I was, however, slightly surprised to see it appear in The Replacement, newcomer Brenna Yovanoffs debut YA.


At a glance, Mackie Doyle simply looks rather like an emo who has taken the requisite angst and pallor a little too far: hes anaemically pale, swoons at the sight of blood, recoils at the notion of consecrated ground, and plays, of all instruments, the bass guitar. But while these various eccentricities and affectations may not seem especially abnormal in the wider scheme of teenagerdom, Mackies actually doing his best to fit in. But Mackie has a secret: hes not at all who he seems, and despite his familys careful manoeuvrings and there-there platitudes, he knows that things are about to come to a head.

Mackie is a changeling, the (in)human equivalent of the notorious cuckoo bird, and his time in this world is fiercely limited. Assaulted on all sides with constant reminders of his Otherness, Mackie finds himself seeking out information about his true identity, and in doing so, finds himself caught up in a chilling tug-of-war between the world he has come to call his own, and the world that is truly his.

My thoughts

Having encountered some of Yovanoffs short fiction in my various online travels, I had certain expectations for The Replacement, and I must admit that I was disappointed. Where the fiction by LeGuin, Jackson, and Dostoyevsky outlined above teases out in sophisticated, subtle detail the social and moral complexity wrapped around the notion of scapegoat, and thus the other, Yovanoffs outing is superficial, confused, and lacks the quiet, terrible insight of these works. Rather than allowing the reader to work to tease out what might otherwise be an oblique mystery, those elements that should be hints and allusions are signalled with a literary waving of arms: the town name of Gentry, for example, is wincingly blatant. But to take up the typical notion of the teenaged outsider and to imbue it with the moral and ethical dimensions of the aforementioned is an interesting approach, and despite the novels shortcomings, Im glad that Yovanoff took this risk.

To its credit, The Replacement starts out fairly promisingly, and one expects a quiet, challenging read that might well subvert some of the current YA tropes and trends. The concept of the changeling, while age-old, is one that Ive not read recently in YA, and is one that should provide a good deal of fresh material to be mined, alloyed, and moulded into something rather beautiful. However, Yovanoffs world-building begins almost immediately to teeter under the weight of unashamed handwavium. Mackies ability to live in the modern world despite a desperate, life-threatening allergy to iron is one example thats never adequately explained. And when were suddenly introduced to the Morrigan, her cruel sister, and a number of creepy dead things, theres a definite sense of narrative and world-building imbalance. As a reader who tends to appreciate narrative symmetry, I found this difficult to work with.

The characterisation is similarly nascent: its there, but never fully explored. Mackies friend Roswell, for example, is utterly, unquestioningly faithful, but one cant help but wonder what kind of friendship exists between the two if Roswell has, in an entire childhoods worth of friendship, never asked exactly whats up with Mackies extraordinarily bizarre behaviour. The abruptly positioned love interest, Tate, too, is similarly problematic, as is the plotting leading up to their sudden profession of love and adoration (which hinges rather heavily, and creepily, on Tates would-be dead sister). The remainder of the characters feel as though theyve been deliberately positioned to be in the position of greatest potential conflict when it comes to Mackies narrative goals: his father, for example, is cast in the role of local pastor, while his mother has her own (confusingly rendered) secrets. Because of this almost painful polarity between Mackie and the rest of the cast, many of the characters become completely interchangeable, and when the baddies and the evil underworld were introduced I found myself checking to see whether a chunk of the book had somehow fallen from the binding.

While Yovanoffs prose is often assured, its still searching for maturity, and there are some prose-level and stylistic choices that I felt didnt work with the novel. Perhaps most notable for me was the decision to (one images to avoid the royalty fees associated with quoting song lyrics) describe the words of Leonard Cohens famous Hallelujah. There are other similarly grating lines throughout the book that really could have benefited from some editorial intervention in order to lift the overall feel of the work.

On the plus size, though, it is nice to see a self-contained narrative that doesnt leave the poor YA reader waiting for months (and for the necessary allowance accumulation) in order for the next book in the series. 'I did also appreciate the fact that Yovanoff avoided the ubiquitous plot-point of the teenaged love triangle, choosing instead to focus more closely on the main narrative thread, and I enjoyed Yovanoffs efforts to bring in a number of strong and pivotal female characters, even if they werent as well-rendered as I might have liked.


As a debut novel The Replacement avoids the well-worn ruts of paranormal YA, breaking out to tread some new ground across the literary meadow. While the novel itself isnt my cup of tea, suffering somewhat from an unevenness of plot and a cursory approach to characterisation, thematically it raises some interesting points for discussion. Still, if youre after a subtle, complex approach to the same, Id recommend instead any of the novels and short stories mentioned in my introduction.

Rating: star Review: The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoffstar Review: The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoffblankstar Review: The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoffblankstar Review: The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoffblankstar Review: The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

With thanks to Simon and Schuster Australia for the review copy.

Purchase The Replacement [Amazon | Book Depository UK | Book Depository USA]


  1. Oh and I had such high expectations of it too . Thank you youve saved me some time!

  2. Stephanie /

    Thanks, Jacq, and sorry to be the bearer of bad news! I do have some more YA to get through over the holidays, so hopefully Ill have some more positive reviews forthcoming. I did recently enjoy Van Badhams Burnt Snow, thoughI thought it was a very promising debut. :)