Book Review: Tabula Rasa by Kristen Lippert-Martin
Tagline: The Bourne Identity meets Divergent in this heart-pounding debut.
Back Cover Copy: 16-year-old Sarah has a rare chance at a new life. Or so the doctors tell her. She’s been undergoing a cutting-edge procedure that will render her a tabula rasa – a blank slate. Memory by memory her troubled past is being taken away.
But when her final surgery is interrupted and a team of elite soldiers invades the isolated hospital under cover of a massive blizzard, her fresh start could be her end.
Navigating familiar halls that have become a dangerous maze, with the help of a teen computer hacker who’s trying to bring the hospital down for his own reasons, Sarah starts to piece together who she is and why someone would want her erased. And she won’t be silenced again.
On a purely entertainment level, this book is a lot of fun. We open in a hospital room where some type of dangerous procedure is being done. The lights flicker. Mysterious stuff is left in the hands of Sarah. Then a blizzard hits and all hell breaks loose. There is a cat and mouse game in a tight location with a fairly minimal number of players. Like the Bourne Identity, it’s a lot of fun with a touch of mystery. The action sequences are mesmerizing, especially when our teens stumble upon a group of war survivors in the hospital who they must interact with in very delicate ways in order to help them understand that they are not the enemy.
The plot, however, starts to unravel as we realize who Sarah is and why, exactly, it is that a fleet of mercenaries have been sent in to hunt her down and extinguish her. In the end it just didn’t pack an emotional punch; Sarah herself, who she really is and what has happened, doesn’t seem to be threatening enough to justify all the hullabaloo that came after her. It’s a lot of expensive, life threatening, secretive assassination attempts for – well, nothing that seems worth all of this effort.
The James Bond Villain Effect
Tabula Rasa also suffers from the James Bond Villain Effect. You know how in a James Bond movie (yes, I’m old, keep reading) the villain has Bond right there in his trap and if he would just kill him already he would win but NOOOOOOOOOO the villain has to prove his villainy by discussing his plans? Yeah, that happens here. There’s a big ole’ info dump in a room full of people held captive by the villain and it would have worked much better if Lippert-Martin could have revealed all of this information more organically in the story. And there is no tension in this scene because we all know that how these scenes end.
That One Time, When a Character Said Incredibly Racist Things and It Just Didn’t Make Sense in the Context of the Rest of the Book
And then there was this disturbing piece of dialogue that happened at the beginning of the story that just whipped me right out of the story. The set-up: Sarah has just been intercepted by the teen boy computer hacker with an agenda of his own as mentioned in the back cover synopsis. He offers her an MRE, which is a pre-packaged, dehydrated meal that survivalists and the military use.
The boy: “Make me something, too. Not the beef enchiladas, though. They taste like Mexicans.”
Sarah: “Aren’t enchiladas supposed to taste Mexican?”
The boy: “No, I mean they taste like actual Mexicans. Unwashed ones.”
Then he realizes that he is talking to a girl who probably does in fact have some Mexican heritage in her, not that she would know because she has no memory of who she is. After an awkward conversation about whether or not she could be Mexican, they both decide that maybe he should stop talking now. He replies, “Yes, maybe I should, before you decide that I’m some huge racist jerk and not just an awkward idiot who was trying to be funny.” (pages 70 and 71).
It was a very odd exchange of racist dialogue that didn’t seem to fit his character and in fact never comes up again. It was completely irrelevant and unnecessary to THIS story as I read it and was so jarring that it took me right out of it. The author may have been trying to introduce a way for our characters to discuss Sarah’s background since she was literally a blank slate, but it would have been nice if she had done so without perpetuating a damaging stereotype. It should be noted that this is an ARC so maybe some of this dialogue has changed.
But Yes, Teens Will Like It
In terms of action, there is plenty of it here and as I mentioned, it’s a fun read. But when you get right down to the guts of it, the character development underwhelms, the motivation underwhelms, and the James Bond villain is a definite weak spot. The thing is, I think none of that will matter to teen readers who just want to read an action story with survival elements, which it delivers in spades. The action is good, there are some tense scenes, and I wanted both of our main characters to survive. So I give this one a very mixed and conflicted review.
Tabula Rasa by Kristen Lipper-Martin comes out in September 2014 from EgmontUSA. 978-1-60684-518-9.
I received a copy of this ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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