Valerie Simons knows the city’s gang wars are dangerous—her own brother was killed by the Boars two years ago. But nothing will sway her from joining the elite and beautiful Herons to avenge his death—a death she feels responsible for.
But when Valerie is recruited by the mysterious Stags, their charismatic and volatile leader Jax promises to help her get revenge. Torn between old love and new loyalty, Valerie fights to stay alive as she races across the streets of San Francisco to finish the mission that got her into the gangs.
When I heard that this book was an Iliad retelling set in San Francisco in a time of gang violence and gang wars, my interest was piqued. A Thousand Fires is described to be a retelling of the Iliad, a story that follows biracial Philipino-American teen who, upon turning eighteen years old, joins a gang to find her little brother’s murderer and to avenge his death. Although the story’s premise showed promise and sounded interesting as heck, A Thousand Fires wasn’t only just disappointing on many fronts but also, unexpectedly, bewildered me – and not in a good way at all.
A story that is muddled and muddied by poor execution
Unfortunately, I did have some issues with the execution of the storytelling, and, also unfortunately, I do believe that it did mar the story. First, the story throws you into the fray with little to no exposition; ordinarily I like that sort of boldness and that push to be immersed and to catch on with what was going on. A Thousand Fires begins with Valerie who has just turned eighteen years old. When teenagers turn eighteen in this story, they are often recruited to join one of the three gangs in San Francisco: the Herons, a family gang and the wealthiest group; the Boars, who are chaos-loving and violent; and the Stags, a small and elusive group who want to end the wars. At first, I thought it was interesting and I had a lot of questions that kept my interest and curiousity piqued.
However, hours into the book, I soon began to realise that I wasn’t going to get any answers, beyond breadcumbs, to my questions. For instance, my question of why there are gang wars to begin with? Explained half way through the book (which was too late for me, and by then there was a lot of other stuff in the story going on that it seemed tacked on in an awkward place). My other question of why teenagers who turn eighteen are poached and recruited to the gangs and why there is a one year commitment period? Not answered. What happened to Valerie’s little brother? Explained somewhere in the 80%-ish mark.
And I totally get the need to leave a little bit of mystery and intrigue to entice the reader to continue on, but unfortunately the snippets of story dedicated to creating intrigue made the story vague and confusing instead. It was challenging to get invested in a story that withheld crucial details about why the story was being told in the first place. Therefore, rather than a story that builds momentum to culminate into an extraordinary and unforgettable finish, A Thousand Fires sputters and stutters frequently making it difficult to see the point.
Underdeveloped motivations and lacklustre characters
A distinct issue that arose for me while reading A Thousand Fires was that I found it very difficult to connect to Valerie’s motivations. For a story that is entirely centered on a character’s quest for revenge, the story lacked emotional depth and complexity to convince me that she needed revenge; that her desire to be her own form of justice would push her to do something dangerous and risky as wanting to join the gang wars.
In revenge stories, I want to share, or at least sympathise, with the character’s burning need and desire for revenge. I want to understand why, even if they are bad decisions, the character makes the decisions she makes for the sake of revenge. Unfortunately, the story in A Thousand Fires assumes the reader’s sympathy without build-up or laying the foundations to make the climax of the story explosive and meaningful. Furthermore, without the emotional groundwork underlying Valerie’s motivations, the climax was anti-climactic. Worse, it failed to elicit any emotional response from me; there wasn’t the horror or gratification or discontent of her success. More important than the climax, however, was that because Valerie’s motivations for revenge felt tepid, I found it really challenging to engage with the events of the story. Granted, the story does diverge at some points to explore Valerie’s other experiences of being in a gang, but the other events felt meaningless and failed to contribute to the build-up across the story.
I was also a little disappointed by all the characters. Often when I read a story, regardless of how I feel about it in the end, I always come away liking at least one character. Unfortunately, I found that I didn’t quite like any of the characters in A Thousand Fires – none felt memorable or left an impact. Though the characters get some development, it wasn’t quite enough for me to connect to them, to empathise with their back stories, and appreciate the roles (either working with or against Valerie) in the story. Usually I have decent memory when it comes to characters, but ask me about the characters in A Thousand Fires in a week’s time? I will regrettably struggle to remember.
Prominently features an underdeveloped, messy, and toxic romance
Ah, and now the not-so-fun part. Granted, the stuff above is important but if those were the only problems, I might have liked this story a little more. However, the issues mentioned above do not hold a candle to the awful and toxic romance in this story, which made issues of storytelling and underdevelopment look like non-issues.
Reader, I generally believe that if a romance makes me groan a long and dramatic ‘noooooooooooo!’, the sort that echoes across a sleepy town – I’m inclined to say that the romance is probably not awesome. (There is nuance to this statement, but let’s take it at face-value for now because I don’t think there is any nuance to the romance in this book.)
I’m going to be forthright: I hated Jax, the leader of one of the gangs that Valerie ultimately joins. I’m not typically a reader that will dock a star or rating just because I dislike a character (because sometimes disliking a character might be intended!), but Jax’s characterisation and his very existence in the story genuinely spoiled my reading experience of A Thousand Fires.
Let me explain why (and you know I mean business when I use bullet points):
- Jax’s behaviour was volatile and his behaviours were inconsistent, putting all the people in his gang on edge. He would oscillate between extreme expressions of aggression to calm to displaying affection and concern unpredictably. This is abusive and manipulative.
- At one point of the book, he pushes Valerie against the wall and threatens her because she disobeys him.
- Jax’s expectation of unquestioning and utmost obedience and compliance from his gang members felt really really iffy to me.
- At another point, Jax punches a fellow gang member because they consider leaving the gang.
- This was the one that made me strongly consider whether to shelve this book or not: When Valerie goes to her room and turns on the lights early in the book, she finds Jax going through her things (to check whether she can be trusted, or whatever), in the dark, and in his hands are her underwear. (She calls him out on it, but considering how creepy this is? Not enough.)
So here’s the thing that kept me reading: even though all the signs indicated that Jax was poised to be the love interest, Valerie does call him out on his bad and creepy behaviour. She does challenge him, when she is able. (But, then again, the power dynamic between leader and recruit? She didn’t have many opportunities to challenge him.) I sincerely hoped that the story would surprise me and subvert the expectation that Valerie and Jax would get together – because it would have been so clever! And yet, the reason why I screamed ‘nooooooo!’: Valerie and Jax do end up together. They profess their love for each other (well, she professes it to him, I don’t even think he reciprocates but please do correct me if I am wrong) and they have (fade-to-black and consensual) sex. Other than the fact that their relationship had no substance, no development, and no build-up (and made no sense!), their romance was just so toxic and iffy.
To be clear: The story does not glorify or romanticise the things that he does above, and I genuinely do not believe that his bad behaviour is framed as sexy or romantic or something to be condoned. And yet, the storytelling does not do enough to challenge and question his behaviours; for Valerie to call him out on it was not enough. Perhaps there’s nuance or complexity here, but I genuinely did not understand the nuance or what, specifically, was nuanced. Furthermore, the fact that Valerie gets together with him in the end? I was baffled and confused; the messages in this story were very unclear and, to be honest, messy.
MY CONCLUSION: NOT RECOMMENDED
I sincerely do regret having such strong criticisms of a debut book, particularly when a majority of my qualms are typical ‘debut mistakes’ (I hate calling it that but I lack a better name). Nonetheless, I cannot in good faith recommend this book to anyone. On a more positive note, Price is a good writer though I think there is a lot of room for growth. Nonetheless, I’ll be curious to see what other stories she will share with us in the future.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A teen joins the gang wars in San Francisco to find and take revenge on her little brother’s killer.
Perfect for: Readers who like revenge stories and don’t want to read something too deep – I guess?
Think twice if: If the issues raised in my review concern you.
Genre: young adult, contemporary
Trigger/content warning: self harm, trauma, blood mentions, murder, death of a child, physical violence, gun violence, suicide ideation, suicide attempt
This book gave me flashbacks to the Dark Ages where people unironically loved Edward Cullen and didn’t see his abusive behaviours, so I am not thankful for that.
- Have you read A Thousand Fires? What did you think?
- Have you read a book that portrayed toxic relationships well?