The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Author: Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Series: The Naturals (#1)
Read: January 31st
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Release Date: November 5th, 2013
Genre: YA mystery
Rating: ½

In short: as tight and fascinating as Barnes’s plot itself is, the clichéd characters brought this book down for me.

Goodreads: Seventeen-year-old Cassie is a natural at reading people. Piecing together the tiniest details, she can tell you who you are and what you want. But it’s not a skill that she’s ever taken seriously. That is, until the FBI come knocking: they’ve begun a classified program that uses exceptional teenagers to crack infamous cold cases, and they need Cassie.

What Cassie doesn’t realize is that there’s more at risk than a few unsolved homicides—especially when she’s sent to live with a group of teens whose gifts are as unusual as her own. Sarcastic, privileged Michael has a knack for reading emotions, which he uses to get inside Cassie’s head—and under her skin. Brooding Dean shares Cassie’s gift for profiling, but keeps her at arm’s length.

Soon, it becomes clear that no one in the Naturals program is what they seem. And when a new killer strikes, danger looms closer than Cassie could ever have imagined. Caught in a lethal game of cat and mouse with a killer, the Naturals are going to have to use all of their gifts just to survive.

I feel pretty bad when I think about The Naturals, because the mystery itself was really creepy. So creepy that I began to regret reading it so late at night and flinched when I was in a room alone. The tense atmosphere, the suspense…Barnes gets that brilliantly, just like in her newer series, The Fixer. But the biggest difference between the two is that The Fixer has an amazing, unusual cast of characters. The Naturals? It has all of the YA clichés that I’m getting so tired of.

≫ THE PLOT:

Four words, but I stared at them so hard that my vision blurred and I could only make out three letters.
What in the world had I done to attract the attention of the FBI?

Cassie lives a fairly normal life—if ‘normal’ means hiding in the midst of her father’s enormous family and trying to forget the day her mother was murdered. But she’s always felt like an outsider, and carries her mother’s teachings and her own observation skills with her wherever she goes. And then the FBI reaches out to her. It turns out she’s what they call a Natural, someone with skills above and beyond a normal person when it comes to reading other people. Cassie’s specialty is profiling, something her mother trained her to do from a young age. She finds herself whisked away to a ‘school’ of sorts, where she and four other Natural teenagers train with agents and look over cold cases, somewhere she can finally belong. And of course, there’s also the fact that the FBI’s chasing after a serial killer who operates just the same way as whoever killed her mother…

Like I said, the main mystery was written brilliantly, and the bits in between from the perspective of a mysterious ‘you’ were so, so chilling. Barnes handles the plot twists and tension of a thriller wonderfully. But Cassie spends much of her time thinking about two boys, and basically going through the struggle of every YA girl in a love triangle. Yawn. The fact is made even more frustrating because it’s clear the story could be so much better than petty drama.

≫ THE PREMISE:
The FBI, working with teenagers? Sounds a little bit…unbelievable, right? To be fair, The Naturals doesn’t take this too far. The kids aren’t allowed to work on any ongoing cases, and the bureau is reluctant to involve them in most official things. They’re sort of a secret project. And despite the fact that they have ‘natural’ abilities, they do have to go through training nearly every day. And despite the fact that Cassie mopes about her love triangle issues, the Naturals aren’t too dumb when it comes to serious issues. For the most part. Their abilities aren’t shown to be completely infallible, which I liked. They’re also pretty intriguing, because their origins aren’t explained at all—are they paranormal, or just a result of nurture?

≫ THE PROTAGONIST:

My dad lived half a world away. My mother was missing, presumed dead. I was everyone’s problem and nobody’s.
Teenager, presumed troubled.

Cassie was…confusing. On the one hand, she was a good eyepiece into the world. She felt rather like a blank character, which means she’s generic enough for you to identify with but not so generic that she feels like cardboard. (I don’t want to make this comparison, but Harry Potter is often cited as a great blank character.) On the other hand? Mary Sue vibes. I think this is mostly because of the way Cassie’s abilities are introduced to us: she guesses the breakfast preferences of a complete stranger based on his appearance. Yeah, that seemed a little far-fetched. Then there was the whole love triangle thing. Honestly, Cassie didn’t make idiotic decisions throughout the book; the sparks of immaturity through the book were mostly from the other teenagers. But she spends an annoying amount of time vacillating between her two love interests, and you know how I feel about that. Cassie, people are dying! I’m overall on the fence about her.

≫ THE OTHER CHARACTERS:
Again, I could feel the potential here. While the two agents-slash-babysitters, Briggs and Locke, were actually developed quite well, the teenagers were annoying—and then they had sudden moments of brilliance. I know what you’re thinking: that’s totally what teenagers are like in real life! Nah, it didn’t feel true to life, it felt frustrating as hell. A girl can only take so much hot-and-cold! They had moments of profound stupidity…

“For your entertainment this evening: Truth or Dare.” She paused, raking her eyes over the rest of us. “Any objections?”

Me! I object! Seriously, truth or dare? Cassie means to use this as a way to get information about the others, but instead, love triangle drama ensues. Yay. But on the other hand, they had moments like…

“Sometimes,” he said, “when I’m in a social pickle, I like to ask myself, WWJAD?” I raised an eyebrow, and he explained. “What Would Jane Austen Do?”

Briggs was not amused. “You may leave the room, Lia.”
Lia clasped her hands together. “Oh, Mother, may I?”

“Whatever you have to say,” Michael drawled, “you can say in front of me.”
I gave Michael a look.
“Whatever you have to say, you can say in front of me, unless Cassie wishes to speak to you privately, in which case I completely respect her right to do so,” Michael corrected himself.

There’s the trademark Jennifer Lynn Barnes wit I love! But it was wrapped up in such infuriating characters. There’s Michael and Dean, the two love interests, snarky and broody respectively. They would have been so wonderfully entertaining if they weren’t a part of a love triangle, really. Then there’s their weird enmity; I remarked on this jokingly during my read, but it doesn’t actually make sense. Why are they (Michael in particular) so awful to each other? Are we supposed to read that as simple love triangle drama? We also have Lia and Sloane, one a lie detector, the other a whiz with numbers. Both the girls felt pretty two-dimensional, unlike both boys who feel much more rounded. (I do appreciate the fact that the blonde was the nerd and the Asian was the pretty girl, but subversion is not character development.) Also, there’s a weird line between slut-shaming and normal description that the book just dances on when it comes to Lia. I’m still not quite sure what to make of it, because while there’s no explicit slut-shaming, I think there’s a negative tone. Ambiguous, basically. Taken at face value the Naturals’ dynamic would’ve been so fun, like that of The Fixer gang. But all that love triangle drama and not enough development made the teenagers fall flat.

≫ THE ROMANCE:
I don’t even know what to say about the love triangle, except that it’s exactly what you’d expect. It’s tiresome, it’s annoying, and it takes up too much of Cassie’s internal monologue. And I feel like there’s no solid reason for either romance too. I mean, both of the guys are good-looking, one is really funny and the other is broody but Cassie can ~relate~ to him… The thing is, if something like this had happened in real life, it wouldn’t be unbelievable for Cassie to have feelings for one or both of the boys. But books with romantic subplots have a way of making the romance seem a bit all-encompassing and soulmate-y, and while there were (thankfully) no I-love-yous, there was the idea that Cassie was somehow intrinsically connected to her love interest(s). Love triangles, bah.

≫ THE ENDING:
That. Climactic. Scene. Fast-paced, explosive, wonderful. The mystery shines, and the final showdown is almost worth being annoyed by teenager antics for the entire book.

≫ TO SUMMARISE:
I think I will get around to reading the other books in this series, but not with terribly high expectations. Read it only if you know how many clichés you’re going to run into.

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