(Just as a warning, I pretty much spoil the whole story.)
Benvolio is my favorite character in the original Romeo and Juliet. I love him for being the only sane man in the play. Despite being a Montague, he tries to stop the fighting, wishing for peace instead. When faced with Romeo's lovesick angsting over Rosaline, Benvolio tries to talk sense into him. When people need a truthful account of what has happened, they turn to Benvolio. And even when Mercutio, one of his best friends dies, he doesn't let anger take over and try to take revenge. He's the only important member of the younger generation to survive to the play's end. And I love him for all that he is in the play.
Now why is any of that important for this review? Well, I was surprised to find that Benvolio is actually in this book. I wish he wasn't.
We don't discover this until the end, but it turns out that Ben, the love interest of Juliet, is the reincarnation of Benvolio. He is nothing like Benvolio. In fact, he honestly reads more like the original version of Romeo. He falls in love with Juliet at first sight. He's usually a nice guy, until something makes him angry, in which case he'll jump headfirst into a fight without thinking, similar to how Romeo jumps into a fight with Tybalt after Mercutio's death in the play. He starts going on about how he never knew love until he met Juliet and plans their lives together forever within days. (This book takes place in a shorter time span than the original play does.) Basically, Ben is nothing like the original Benvolio, but is very much like Romeo. And because of my love for the original Benvolio, this travesty of his character just made me mad when his identity was revealed.
But putting aside my irrational love for the original Benvolio, I would have disliked this book even without that. It was just an added bonus for reasons why.
The start of this book was fantastic. We get introduced to Juliet, a person who fights to protect lovers, even though she's twisted by hate for her former love on the inside. Her conflicting emotions made her interesting and compelling. We start with her being summoned to protect two soul mates, although she has no clue who they are at first. And immediately she runs into Romeo, her former love who betrayed her and now works for the opposite, seeking to tear apart the soul mates. Right away, Romeo attacks Juliet, and she desperately tries to get away. So we've got a cool idea here—the forces of good and evil at battle, one side trying to protect the rarest form of love (the love of soul mates) while the other seeks to tear soul mates apart. Soul mates that are torn apart then join the unending fight and must do battle against their former love for all of eternity. Just think of the emotional conflict you can get out of that!
Then Ben shows up. Love at first sight. *Sigh*
This is a girl who had her soul mate betray her. Kill her. A soul mate she's been locked in battle with for centuries now. Someone she fell in love with at first sight, only to have the relationship end in death after five days. And you're telling me she falls in love in the exact same way. Where did my beautiful, broken, hate-filled Juliet go? The one who says that sometimes the thought of love leaves a bad taste in her mouth? I wanted to read her story. I'm not opposed to her learning to love again, but I expected some more inner conflict with it. Sure there's conflict with Juliet thinking Ben is one of the soul mates she is supposed to protect, but not the kind of inner conflict at whether she can truly love again that you'd expect from her. She has some minor thoughts along those lines, but they pass pretty quickly. Ultimately, it really didn't seem to be like much of a barrier, which is just such a waste of potential to me.
This book had a lot of wasted potential. The whole Ambassador/Mercenary conflict could really have been elaborated on a lot more. It would have been cool to see some past examples of how Juliet and Romeo's soul mate protection/destruction worked because we didn't really get to see it with this story.
Heck, the whole conflict with Romeo and Juliet was ultimately wasted. We're initially lead to believe that Romeo killed Juliet for immortality and that he's totally evil. And for a while, the story supports that. But then we get inside his head and find out that he's basically stuck in a living hell and has to follow the orders of the higher-ups or it will get even worse. He's denied the senses of smell and touch. His ability to feel pleasure or happiness or much of anything is taken away from him. We find out that the Mercenaries came to him when he was hopeless—he was banished from his home and family and scared that he and his new wife would starve to death or be killed. The Mercenaries offered him hope. Then the reveal that he never actually killed Juliet—she committed suicide, but she refused to acknowledge that and blamed him for murder instead. All Romeo did was fake death. The moment Juliet stabbed herself with the dagger, he was at her side and tried to undo everything. And finally we learn what exactly the Mercenaries promised him—Juliet's eternal happiness. So basically the horrible villain we were initially promised turned out to be a guy in love who mistakenly made a deal with the devil so that his wife could have eternal happiness, but realized too late that he had been lied to and then had to spend centuries in service to those people in eternal torment. Oh, and he's just as madly in love with Juliet now as he was back then. Yeah... I just feel sorry for the guy.
Honestly, I think if the book really didn't want Romeo to be a villain, then it should have gotten rid of the whole Juliet/Ben love and made the story be about redemption and forgiveness for mistakes—how your mistakes don't ultimately define who you are, how it's never too late to change, and how there is always hope, even when it's not immediately evident. Romeo and Juliet could have worked at learning to love again while dealing with the centuries of hatred between each other and working together to escape the confines of the opposing organizations they have been bound to. If the book really wanted to do a new love for Juliet, it should have made Romeo more of a true villain and then have it focus on the internal emotional struggle Juliet faces—learning to love again after the total betrayal of her soul mate.
Speaking of soul mates, we're told early on that soul mates are rare. Really rare. And that soul mates are two halves of the same whole, like Romeo and Juliet. And yet later in the book, we find out that Ben and Juliet are also soul mates. By the book's own assertions, Juliet shouldn't have two soul mates. We had even gotten this nice little speech from Juliet talking about how there were plenty of good loves out there that just aren't soul mate level. That could have been a cool line to follow—a story where you don't need to be soul mates to be happy together. But nope, they're soul mates, even though Juliet has Romeo as a soul mate and that didn't end so well.
Other than the start of the book, the other fantastic parts were the scenes with Ariel's mother. Juliet is in the body of Ariel and works to improve Ariel's relationship with her mother. I really liked their scenes. They were nice. I'd like to take a moment to appreciate the wisdom of Ariel's mother:
"Ariel...violent people usually have a good excuse for why they're violent. But even a good excuse is just an excuse."
Fighting to "protect" a girl is so often romanticized, and it's nice to have this book say this. Too bad Juliet ignores this piece of wisdom and romanticizes Ben's violence. Yes, I know that Romeo started the fight in the book, but once given the opportunity, Ben very quickly gave into beating Romeo to a pulp. And it's not his first incident. He was arrested for breaking a man's nose. Sure Ben has the excuse of trying to protect that man's pregnant girlfriend from being beaten, but I have to wonder if he couldn't have found a way to protect her without resorting to violence. Juliet herself sees glimmers of violence in Ben at various moments throughout the story. Ariel's mother made that statement about Ben, but Juliet immediately dismisses the idea in relation to Ben because Ben is a good boy, failing to realize that a good person can still have a serious problem or do bad things. I wish the book had actually stuck with the lesson on violence, rather than ultimately ignoring it.
Sadly, the ending of the story also makes that awesome relationship growth between Ariel and her mother completely pointless by killing Ariel while Juliet is still in her body. Sure we suddenly randomly get alternate universes so Ariel is alive in one, but not the main one. In the main one, her mother has just outlived her only daughter. Ariel has just died in front of her best friend with whom she had just had a pretty big fight. The story tries to make the alternate realities seem like a wonderful happy ending, but I'm left thinking about the horrors that have just occurred in the main reality with multiple dead and a school shooting. Juliet gets sent to a reality where Benvolio randomly wanders into her tomb when she wakes up because Romeo wrote him a note saying that he married Juliet, but then chose to elope with Rosaline who is pregnant. And they immediately fall madly in love. If you have to randomly create an alternate universe (and a very messed-up one at that) to give your character a happy ending with her love interest, that may be a sign that she just shouldn't have a happy ending with her love interest.
Oh, I also found Gemma, Ariel's best friend to be another case of wasted potential. She had major issues from a messed-up family, and her relationship with Ariel wasn't always the most positive, but she wasn't all bad. Until she suddenly went psychotic for no reason and just turned on Ariel. She went from being a character I could really understand to one that just had me going, "Wait...what?" And despite her being the soul mate that Juliet was trying to protect, Gemma really dropped out of the story near the end. Her whole soul mate story happened off-screen, which is weird since it was Juliet's mission. Not that I really liked the idea of her romance. Student/teacher (even if the teacher in question was only a student teacher) relationships don't tend to be my thing.
This story had a ton of potential and there are multiple routes it could have gone that I would have found really interesting. None of those routes were the insta-love story that the book ultimately turned out to be.