Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2
Fame, fortune and power. These mark the boundaries of who’s in and who’s out of the gritty world of the Los Angeles club scene in Alyson Noël’s newest novel Unrivaled, the first in her Beautiful Idols series.
The novel follows the interconnected stories of three teens aspiring for fame, fortune and power, each of them finding themselves competing in a club promoting contest for connections and the promise of a life-changing cash prize for one of the winners. Layla dreams of becoming a reporter and needs the money for journalism school. Tommy dreams of being a musician and needs the money to get on his feet and his career on track. Aster dreams of becoming an actress and escaping the clutches of her overprotective family who wants her to marry and start a family instead of a career.
However, the competition is cutthroat and club owner Ira Redman has more than a few deceitful tricks up his sleeves. Besides fighting each other for gets at their clubs, each of the teens also find themselves entangled in the life of Madison Brooks, the top starlet in the Hollywood circles. When her life begins to spiral out of control, Layla, Tommy and Aster find themselves caught in Madison’s web. And then, one night, she vanishes.
The first novel in a new series presents several challenges, the first being the necessity of backstory and set-up. And that’s exactly what the first hundred pages of this novel felt like. The opening chapters are dry and info-dumpy. A prologue sets up the mystery of Madison’s past and disappearance. Then reader learns about Aster’s controlling family, Layla’s inherently flawed relationship with hot surfer Mateo and her financial pinch, and Tommy’s crumbling dream after leaving his Mid-American hometown. Details are given about the contest and the initial hostility between the main characters is established. This set-up is important, but it drags and comes off as boring.
However, it’s worth sticking with the book because once I stuck with it, I wasn’t able to put this book down. As the stakes for the contest are raised and the characters find themselves deeper and deeper into the world that Noël describes with exceptional skill and detail, this book becomes un-put-downable. It became the book I wanted it to be when I first heard about it, full of suspense, twists and intrigue.
None of the characters are particularly likable, but all of them are simultaneously flawed and relatable. The challenges to Layla’s journalistic integrity spoke to the difficulties of being a young writer and having to choose between clicks or conscience. Tommy’s aspirations to be a musician felt somewhat underdeveloped, but the fact that is a series leave hope this will be remedied in future books. Aster was perhaps the most developed character in the novel. At some points, her wild story overpowered the others. Madison’s character felt less one-dimensional than most Hollywood actresses in YA books, but the hints at her past life weren’t enough to make her completely three-dimensional. Once again, that’s a problem that can be solved through the series as a whole. Only time will tell, but there is certainly potential in this series.
The plot twists were believable and interesting in this slow, but overall decently paced novel. Ira Redman is perhaps one of the seediest club owners I’ve ever encountered in a book, but his wit and complexity add depth to the novel. More development of relationships with secondary characters like Layla’s dad, Aster’s younger brother Javen and Madison’s PR flame Ryan Hawthorne are also needed, but once again, these are issues that can be addressed in future books. Unrivaled just left me wanting more by the end.
Speaking of endings, the ending of this novel left me on the edge of my seat and wishing for the next book just to find out what happens. The fast-paced turns in the final chapters have a bit of a whiplash-effect and one can only hope that Noël will build off this momentum in the second installment to her series.