Book Review: Burning by Danielle Rollins

Burning is a YA supernatural thriller written by Danielle Rollins, who you may also know as Danielle Vega, author of The Merciless series and Survive the Night. Burning tells the tale of Angela, a young woman doing her time at a juvenile correction facility, with her sights set on getting out and seeing her little brother again. Angela and the other girls at Brunesfield have settled into a routine, but their routine is disrupted when a new girl named Jessica shows up, and she seems to have some strange abilities. Along with Jessica, they also get a mysterious new director named Dr. Gruen who seems to have a very specific interest in Jessica—and when Jessica takes a liking to Angela, she has a specific interest in Angela, too.

Though the book has an interesting premise and a pretty dark and creepy set up, I found that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed some of the author’s other work, such as The Merciless and Survive the Night.

While some of the vibes in this book were definitely different from Rollins’s work under the name Danielle Vega, there were a few trademarks of her writing which remained: the creepy setting that adds so much to the story that it acts almost as an additional character, the distinctly eerie supernatural elements, and a decent amount of twists in the plot.

I definitely enjoyed the setting of Burning. Rollins/Vega always does a great job of making the setting sufficiently creepy and bringing it to life and working it into the story. In her other work that I’ve read, she’s done creepy, abandoned houses, dark, eerie subway tunnels, and shady Catholic schools. Seeing her bring a correctional institute to life was interesting and I loved seeing her take a different place and imbue it with the darkness and eeriness that she uses to bring her stories to life. Her descriptions of the setting and the main character’s obvious familiarity with the institute really shone through and helped make the story that much more believable, as it was easy to feel like you were really at Brunesfield experiencing the creepiness.

I liked a lot of the characters in this book, with my favorites being Issie and Cara, Angela’s roommates and two best friends at Brunesfield. Issie exemplifies the idea of “don’t judge a book by its cover”—though she’s big, tough, and nearly completely tattooed, she is also kind, loyal, and checks in on the well-being of her friends. I loved Cara, Angela’s other best friend, for her sharp tongue and take-no-shit attitude.

There were a few things I didn’t like about the book, too, though. Although there were a lot of twists and turns throughout the novel, I found that none of them were remarkably surprising, whereas a lot of Rollins/Vega’s other work totally caught me off-guard with the twists (The Merciless had my jaw practically on the floor, as did a few moments in The Merciless III). Maybe it’s just because I’ve read too many spooky books, but I was a little disappointed in the fact that I was able to call most of the plot twists chapters ahead of when they actually happened. Most of the time it seemed like what was happening “behind the scenes” or what was supposed to be secretive was actually really obvious, which just made me frustrated with the characters as I wondered why they couldn’t see what was really going on.

The other thing I didn’t like about this book was the romance element of it. The majority of the time I love having a good romance element in a book, no matter the genre. However, in this case, the little romance between (tiny minor spoiler alert here) Angela and Ben Mateo, one of the guards at Brunesfield, felt not only unnecessary, but also a bit cliché. It seemed like the typical “clean cut character meets rougher around the edges character” moment, and boom, opposites attract. While Ben Mateo was a fairly well written character, enough so that I could see why Angela would be attracted to him, it just felt like a shell of a romance.

What bothered me way more than that, though, was the fact that the whole romance just seemed really unnecessary, and perhaps even only existed for the sake of convenience at some points, with Mateo giving Angela additional information or even letting her into parts of the facility she wouldn’t normally have access to. I actually had the same complaint about Charlie in The Merciless: there was a bit of a romance built up with him, but it didn’t really serve much of a purpose, and then he kind of just disappeared with only a one sentence explanation as to why. The romance between Angela and Mateo felt the same. Angela is a pretty fierce character on her own, and I just didn’t feel she needed a romantic interest to move the story forward. I would have rather seen her pursuing the mystery on her own, being a badass, and staying focused on the tasks at hand without the distraction of this cliché hook up she has going on (which, by the way, kind of also seems to come out of nowhere, though I was less concerned with that because I suppose some romances do happen like that).

Despite my complaints about the book, I did like some of the characters, I felt the setting was just about as strong as it is in her other books and really sufficiently portrayed the sense of isolation and dread, and I liked the overall concept of the book a lot. Pyrokinesis is really interesting, and the idea of a little girl with such an ability potentially wreaking havoc on an isolated location, as well as the mysterious director who shows up with her, is definitely compelling. I’d probably rate this book a three or three and a half out of five stars. I don’t think it’s up to par with Rollins/Vega’s other work, but it’s still a concept that hasn’t been done to death in YA fiction, which I greatly appreciate.

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