Sunday, January 20, 2013

Review: LEVEL 2 by Lenore Appelhans

In this gripping exploration of a futuristic afterlife, a teen discovers that death is just the beginning.

Since her untimely death the day before her eighteenth birthday, Felicia Ward has been trapped in Level 2, a stark white afterlife located between our world and the next. Along with her fellow drones, Felicia passes the endless hours reliving memories of her time on Earth and mourning what she’s lost—family, friends, and Neil, the boy she loved.

Then a girl in a neighboring chamber is found dead, and nobody but Felicia recalls that she existed in the first place. When Julian—a dangerously charming guy Felicia knew in life—comes to offer Felicia a way out, Felicia learns the truth: If she joins the rebellion to overthrow the Morati, the angel guardians of Level 2, she can be with Neil again.

Suspended between Heaven and Earth, Felicia finds herself at the center of an age-old struggle between good and evil. As memories from her life come back to haunt her, and as the Morati hunt her down, Felicia will discover it’s not just her own redemption at stake… but the salvation of all mankind.
I must admit that my expectations were not high going into this book. I don't really do afterlife books, and I certainly don't do angel/fallen angel books. They're just not my thing. The religion or lack thereof usually makes me cranky, as does the thought of angels getting goo-goo-eyed over some human, as is wont to happen.

The bad news is that I did not enjoy Level 2 as much as some people did. No raving here. However, the good news is that I liked it much better than I thought I would.
In a way, Level 2 is a dual-narrative story that alternates between dead drone Felicia in the afterlife and living girl Felicia on Earth. Thanks to the unique construction of the afterlife (drones spend their time accessing their own and others' memories), we get to relive key moments in the last year of Felicia's life as well as experience her struggle in the afterlife as she wrestles with trying to understand the rebellion growing around her.

I thought Appelhans' construction of the afterlife as we first understand it was interesting. Clearly, it didn't align with what I believe to be true, but that's why it's labeled fiction, right? The storyline takes the old cliche of your life flashing before your eyes to a whole new level. (Ha! Level. I'm funny even on accident.) People are grouped like bees into hives, each tucked into a separate chamber to watch their lives play before them for eternity. In Felicia's hive are other people like her - young females who died in accidents. Her hivemate Virginia died in a freak cheerleading accident, while another, Bekah, died in a house fire.

However, her orderly, boring afterlife is rocked when a boy breaks into her hive. And not just any boy. Julian, a dark, mysterious and distinctly untrustworthy boy from her life on Earth. Turns out that the drones are having their memory energy harvested by fallen angels (the Morati) who will then use it to break into Heaven. Cue Bruno Mars.

Of course, Felicia is the key to the rebellion. Isn't that always the way? Along for the ride with Julian are Mira (who vacillates between being witchy and being kid) and Eli (who's the boss and a straight-up scary jerk). It takes a good portion of the book to figure out what's going on, because the threesome don't seem to want to tell Felicia anything at all. Also, a great deal of time is spent in Felicia's memories on Earth.

I was expecting the memories to drag, but they really weren't bad. Yes, a few of them were a bit too on the nose (the Underground Church game memory comes to mind), but I liked getting to know Felicia. In her memories, we jump around between her time pre-exile with her family abroad where we get to meet her best friend Autumn and afterlife companion Julian and her life post-exile in the States with her gramma and perfect boy crush Neil. Pre-exile Felicia is plagued by nightmares and a bit reckless, especially when she's sneaking around with Julian behind Autumn's back. Post-exile Felicia is more cautious and even shy, especially around worship leader Neil.

A great deal of the post-exile memories center around church, either in theme or in location. I cringed at the first mention of a youth group, as most writers either portray youth group kids as snobby, holier-than-thou brats or wild-child hellions. Ms. Appelhans, I'm pleased to say, did neither. Neil is a little too perfect, yes, but the rest of the youth group, lightly sketched though they may be, were just normal kids. They go on campouts, they play games, they sing songs, they form crushes. The only thing I didn't appreciate was the more heavy-handed, antiquated behaviors Ms. Appelhans brought in near the end. Yeesh.

I think, though, that while I found the construct unique and the writing solid, I failed to truly enjoy Level 2 because of two issues: my inability to connect and my inability to suspend disbelief. I never really cared about any of the characters, not even Felicia. I don't know why. I would enjoy getting back to the book when I had a spare moment, but I can't say my heart ever started racing. Julien was too untrustworthy and one-dimensional to warrant much of my attention, while Neil was a bit more fleshed out but too perfect. Their "love triangle" was too clear-cut. Should Felicia follow her head and go for the sweet and caring Neil or follow her libido and dive after sexy Julien? Blah. Mira and Eli were barely a blip on my radar.

As for my disbelief, I kept hoping Ms. Appelhans would pull out something that would really wow me. I so despise stories where the main character is The Center of the Universe for no apparent reason. I even set about constructing a reason for myself, one that was fairly exciting and novel. I figured all would be revealed at the end and I would have a predictable yet ultimately satisfying twist. Fortunately, a reason is given for Felicia being The Center of ALL. Unfortunately, the explanation caused within me even more scoffing and disbelief. Also, when we finally learn the details of Felicia's exile, I was surprised to find an element that completely came out of left field. That said, it completely came out of left field and was never explained. Therefore, more disbelief.

So you see my dilemma. On the one hand, I didn't have high expectations. In fact, I had expected to be fighting the urge to DNF part way through. Instead, I found myself willing and even somewhat eager to return to Level 2 to see what I would learn next. However, I don't know why. The pacing was off, the characters didn't thrill me, and I found myself scratching my head/shrugging in apathy more often than not.

My suggestion? Check out a few other reviews like the ones here, here, or here to find someone who can make up their mind one way or the other. I have a feeling I'll be puzzling out this one for a while yet.

Points Added For: A non-dorky youth group, a wonderful father-daughter relationship (LOVED!), an interesting premise.

Points Subtracted For: Awkward pacing, Felicia being really slow on the uptake, characters I couldn't connect with, Felicia being The Center of All Things.

Good For Fans Of: Love triangles, afterlife stories.

Notes For Parents: Some language, making out, underage drinking.

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