Never A Hero by Vanessa Len (Only a Monster #2)

Despite all of the odds, Joan achieved the impossible. She reset the timeline, saved her family – and destroyed the hero, Nick. 

But her success has come at a terrible cost.

She alone remembers what happened. Now, Aaron, her hard-won friend – and maybe more – is an enemy, trying to kill her. And Nick, the boy she loved, is a stranger who doesn’t even know her name. Only Joan remembers that there is a ruthless and dangerous enemy still out there. 

When a deadly attack forces Joan back into the monster world as a fugitive, she finds herself on the run with Nick – as Aaron closes in. 

As the danger rises – and Nick gets perilously closer to discovering the truth of what Joan did to him – Joan discovers a secret of her own. One that threatens everyone she loves. 

Torn between love and family and monstrous choices, Joan must find a way to re-gather her old allies to face down the deadliest of enemies, and to save the timeline itself. 

Vanessa Len’s stunning Only a Monster trilogy continues with this second instalment, a thrilling journey where a secret past threatens to unravel everyone's future.

COVER ART: Eevien Tan
COVER DESIGN: Jessie Gang 
YEAR: 2023
LENGTH: 510 pages
AGE: Young Adult
GENRE: Fantasy

Queer Rep Summary: Gay/Achillean Secondary Character(s).

Joan's actions the end of ONLY A MONSTER created a version of the timeline where those she came to love and trust don’t remember what they went through together, and several don’t even know who she is. The actions of monsters and heroes need context in order to be intelligible, but the ways the timeline was changed have removed that context. Joan and Nick meet early on, drawn to each other yet again, despite Joan's efforts to stay away from this person who is achingly close to someone she wants, but doesn’t remember what the other Nick did to her family or what they went through together. Normally, I dislike stories where someone is arbitrarily not giving someone information that they need to know and which would change the context and emotional valence of the situation. But, in this case, there isn’t really a good time to tell someone that they were tortured and rewritten over and over until they were fine murdering anyone with a particular characteristic. That is something so detached from current-Nick that by the time he even has the context to understand what that would mean he knows too much for Joan to feel safe telling him about it. Her trepidation is completely reasonable, and it’s true to her as a character and to her understanding of Nick even in this changed version. Similarly, Aaron has a very good reason to hate Joan on sight, even if that anger is misplaced once its origins are understood.

Something I appreciate is that Joan cares intensely for both Nick and Aaron without any attempts to frame it as a choice between two guys. So much is in flux, and their stories are so complicated that I could be happy with an end stage for the trilogy, where she’s together with either, neither, or both of them in some fashion. She cares about their well-being, but not specifically in relation to her. This is very obvious early on with Nick, where she’s been trying to stay away from him so he could have a normal human life, not a hero. For Aaron, she’s trying to understand his history, and why exactly he’s so hated. She seen good and bad sides of him in the previous timeline, but she finds him understandable and relatable in ways that are difficult to articulate to the others. Her efforts to convince Ruth of Aaron’s potential goodness are repeatedly stymied by Ruth’s loyalty as a Hunt, and by her insular tendencies, disliking the very idea of trusting members of other families. 

I like Jamie and Tom as a couple. There’s a lot of care and attentiveness between them that comes through even though the narrative isn’t told from either of their perspectives. Jamie has the Liu power of remembering, which in his case means he remembers how he was tortured in the previous timeline. Tom doesn’t remember his own efforts get Jamie back, but he has lived with Jamie’s nightmares as they  intensifying in step with what previous iterations suffered.

One of the nice things about a great book where only a handful of characters remember what happened in the previous one is that it’s very easy on me as a reader who read the first book a year ago. I vaguely remembered what happened in ONLY A MONSTER as I began NEVER A HERO, remembering the ending, who most of the characters were, and what was driving Joan. The timeline reset creates this interesting zone where someone who wanted to align more with Nick’s perspective could try starting with NEVER A HERO, but they wouldn't understand what Joann is talking about. This does mean that this is one of the few trilogies I’ve read where someone could have a good and interesting experience starting with book two, but it’ll be a fundamentally different kind of story experience. 

The main mysteries left from ONLY A MONSTER are the identity of the villain who turned Nick into the hero, as well as the shape of her current plan. NEVER A HERO does a great job of answering both, with the characters piecing together their best understanding of what’s happening, and then eventually getting clarification during the villain speech. This is a new storyline from the previous book because the timeline change means their tactics and goals must be different. I’m not sure if anything is technically both introduced and resolved in this book, as the wobbly and overlapping nature of the narrative in the timeline means that things are answered which were questions in the first, and questions are raised here that have yet to be resolved. Joan’s narration is consistent with the first book, the biggest change is that unlike the first time, she already knows how monster powers work. 

I loved everything about this! I became very emotionally invested to the point that it was stressful to read at times because I didn’t know how things would resolve. The ending works very well for the second book of three, and I want to know what happens next.

Graphic/Explicit CW for kidnapping, confinement.

Moderate CW for xenophobia, grief, blood, violence, torture, murder, death.

Minor CW for child death, parental death.

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