Sarah Tarkoff follows up her debut YA novel Sinless with Fearless (2019), the second installment in the EYE OF THE BEHOLDER trilogy. I didn’t enjoy Sinless and this trilogy’s middle book didn’t get its hooks in me either, carrying over a lot of the issues I had with book one and creating some entirely new ones that don’t bode well for the trilogy as a whole.
Grace Luther remains preternaturally lucky, which is a good thing for this series, because otherwise her ineptitude and impetuousness would make for a very short book with a swift and unpleasant ending. She’s currently employed by the Prophet Joshua and his Guru, Samuel, as an undercover agent at NYU, where she’s been tasked with reporting on one of her professors, who’s suspected of fomenting dissatisfaction with the Great Spirit’s message. She’s also working for the same resistance group as before, using her proximity to Samuel to spy on him and help the resistance gain access to Prophet Joshua’s computer mainframe. Through a series of coincidences, Grace has sudden cause to believe that the story she’s been told about her mother’s post-Revelation death isn’t true, and her efforts to unravel the lies put her in such great danger that she must flee to Turkey, then Israel-Palestine, then to South Africa, where the potential to completely destroy the Prophet Joshua’s control awaits.
As all of this is going on, Grace is constantly being followed by her former best friend Macy’s older brother, Zack, who Grace knows is working directly for and reporting to Joshua. (Whether Zack is stalking her or simply being over-protective seems to depend, in Grace’s mind, on how cute he is in any given moment.) Jude, who went into hiding at the end of Sinless, reappears right when Grace is in the most trouble and conveniently provides her the means to escape to Turkey, where she meets a literally-underground dissident group who aim to destroy the Great Spirit’s religion and return the world to its pre-Revelation status, with a few changes here and there to benefit their own religious and political agendas.
Since Grace has little to no agency of her own and behaves with about as much purpose as a dandelion seed on the breeze, she’s more than happy to take on whatever seemingly-impossible task an authority figure gives her so long as she believes it’s also what Great Spirit wants for her, leading to situation after situation in which her life is in some degree of peril and, against all logic, she either lands on her feet or some outside entity removes obstacles preventing her from moving the plot forward. Additionally, the new method by which Joshua means to cement his hold over the entire world receives the barest explanation, even though everyone who knows about it agrees that it’s tremendously dangerous and must be stopped at all costs.
Fearless continues the conceit that Grace is relaying all of these events to the masses via letter from Arlington Federal Prison, and the novel’s conclusion gives some indicators as to how she might have eventually ended up there, though how, when, and why she’s being allowed to tell her story remains unclear. If the shifting religious-political landscape she’s unwittingly reforming is in such jeopardy, and if she’s such a troublemaker for both the resistance and Joshua, I can’t conceive of many reasons why her point of view is being disseminated rather than silenced by either party. If these books were written from the perspective of a follower of the legendary Grace Luther, I could so much more easily accept breathless tales of Grace’s fearlessness, luck, and trans-continental exploits, along with the fortuitous machinations setting everything into place, because there would be an understandable sense of some mythologizing and heroine-worship.
For all of the references Tarkoff has taken from Christianity, the overall treatment of faith and religion leaves readers without a middle ground between fanatical believers of any stripe, whether those followers believe in Joshua or want to see the old religions restored, and fanatics who believe that ten years of the Prophet Joshua’s reign have been enough to completely revolutionize global society and make room for an entirely new way of doing things. Fearless suffers everywhere from lack of nuance, particularly in Grace’s over-reactionary behavior and refusal to think even twice about potentially reckless actions before following every impulse she feels.
I had hoped that, once the circumstances of this world and its players were set up in Sinless, there would be room for expansion and improvement in Fearless. But this book feels as much like a spec script for television or film adaptation as its predecessor, and while I have no reason to think the story wouldn’t do well there and satisfy its target audience, it’s just not executed successfully on the page.