Only a Monster: A Review

Only a Monster by Vanessa LenSixteen-year-old Joan Chang-Hunt has a lot to look forward to this summer. She is once again staying with her mother’s eclectic family in London but this year is even better. Not only does she have a dream job at the historic Holland House–she gets to work alongside fellow nerd and crush Nick.

Going on a date with Nick is truly a dream come true. Or at least it should be. Unfortunately, the day of the date does not go as planned.

Instead of the start of a perfect summer, Joan finds herself in a nightmare as she learns more about her family–and their secrets.

Joan comes from a long line of monsters. Actual monsters with horrifying powers. Powers Joan might have herself.

Monsters are the least of Joan’s problems when she realizes that Nick is a hero–a monster hunter from the stuff of legend whose only goal is destroying monsters like Joan. And her family.

Desperate to protect her loved ones, Joan is willing to do anything even if it means working with a snobby stranger who happens to be the equivalent of monster royalty. Aaron Oliver is insufferable but he also knows how to navigate a world of actual monsters and heroes and maybe, just maybe, how to help Joan survive it too.

Joan is a monster. Nick is a hero. Everyone knows how that story ends. But Joan also knows that if she wants to keep her family safe it’s time for a rewrite in Only a Monster (2022) by Vanessa Len.

Find it on Bookshop.

Only a Monster is Len’s debut novel and the start of a trilogy. Joan is biracial (her mother is white and her father Chinese Malaysian) with other main characters assumed white although there is diversity among the monster families and secondary characters.

Distinct world building including a sprawling network of monster families and magical powers ranging from perfect memory to time travel create a rich landscape for Joan’s adventures as she struggles against enemies and even time itself to try to save her family. Ethical questions of what separates so-called heroes and villains inform Joan’s character arc. These moral questions also lend nuance to male leads Aaron and Nick as as their own backgrounds and development factor into the plot.

Readers will appreciate Len’s eye for detail as she brings both present and 1993 London to life while also expanding Joan’s knowledge of the monster world. In a community where everything from clothes to mannerisms carry loaded meaning Joan is doubly aware of her status as a biracial teen and–more dangerously in her current circumstances–as a half-human, half-monster girl in a world that usually sticks to strict binaries.

Only a Monster is a fascinating urban fantasy where nothing is as it seems. Well-drawn characters, action, and numerous surprises make Only a Monster an unforgettable read. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: In Every Generation by Kendare Blake, Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, This Savage Song by V. E. Schwab, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

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