Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I present to you, The Pain Merchants by Janice Hardy. I got an ARC of Janice's debut from Janice herself after I came second or third (can't remember) in a competition she hosted. It arrived a week later, and I devoured it in four days. Then I bought myself a retail copy from Borders when it was published.
Right ... Let's take a minute to delve into Merchants, shall we?
Fifteen-year-old Nya dwells in Geveg, a onetime beautiful city devastated by war, its people battered into pathetic semblances of what they once were – affluent, vibrant, and happy. Enemy soldiers forever patrol the streets of Geveg, inculcating order, constraining the locals to a life of servitude while foreigners take their wealth, food, homes, lands and pretty much everything that is rightfully theirs. Sometime during the war, Nya lost her family save her younger sister, Tali. This heartbreaking ordeal compels our heroine to slaving away at odd, sometimes dangerous jobs (one of them has her at risk of losing her limbs to crocs) and having to rely on petty thievery for food when these jobs are in short supply.
In Geveg, you either fall into one of three general classes of people:
 A Baseeri, which suggests you're rich, you've got food, a roof over your head, and little to worry about – after all, your army invaded Geveg.
 A Healer, which means, even though you're of Geveg heritage, you get to spend your apprenticeship days at the League, good food provided three times a day, and a nice bed to sleep on.
 An ordinary Geveg, which means, well, you're screwed – you'll probably work at the docks and lose a large chunk of your butt to a fat crocodile. Tough, mate.
Fortunately, Tali is a Healer. This makes Nya's day-to-day survival antics a little less demanding and crazy, as she only has to look out for one stomach – hers. And sometimes Tali aids Nya by sneaking food from the League to her when she comes visiting (Healers are rarely allowed beyond the League grounds). Still, the stomach is renowned for being a demanding and greedy baggage, especially when it belongs to someone living in a city that has little money to offer. Little money = Little to no food. Your math teacher must have mentioned that in class at some point.
Nya's voice is cleverly fashioned and engaging, and you immediately get a sense that she's the type of person who looks at bad situations through a window of mild humour and opportunity, a somewhat rare attribute encompassed by most YA characters today. Usually, characters in Nya's position – orphaned at a young age, had to look after and provide for her baby sister, is almost always hungry every day – are portrayed as rigid (I don't care about the world. I care about me and me alone), or regretful (I hate my mum. How could she die and leave me all alone?), or vengeful (I'm going to slaughter my enemies my awesome powers! Raaaaaaaaaaar!), or whinny (What am I gonna do? I hate this food. It tastes like wee-wee. I want Kelloggs Cornflakes. I don't want wee-wee!).
That is not to say that most YA characters aren't properly rendered (they are), and I'm not suggesting that Nya laughs at every single bad thing that happens to her. She's just a girl with a big heart who tries to make the best out of anything, good or bad. And as for being funny, it's not like she does it on purpose. Ever had a friend who did or uttered something amusing without meaning to? Yeah, that's Nya.
Take for example: the book opens with a rather hilarious scene that depicts Nya showcasing her not-so-impressive pilfering talent. She tries to steal some eggs, and less than six brief paragraphs into the story she gets caught. Now, whenever Nya finds herself in a sticky situation she recalls an adage her grandmother told her, one that fits her current dilemma and can offer a possible solution. Sort of like when you were a kid and a stranger walked up to you and you thought, Mummy said never to talk to strangers, and you were suddenly on your guard. In aforementioned scene, Nya recollects: 'As Grannyma used to say, if you're caught with the cake, you might as well offer them a piece,' and proposes to her captor, 'Join me for breakfast when your shift ends?' She wasn't trying to be funny; she honestly did want to offer some of her spoils, because she reckoned, hey, if I give him some, maybe he'll let me go.
The young, dashing guard rejects her kind proposition, though not without a smile, and is forced to apprehend Nya. Of course, Nya has no intention of doing time in jail. She bolts. He chases. Then things get very interesting when the guard falls and injures himself, and Nya, out of compassion, shifts his injury from him and pushes it into Heclar, the horrid owner of the eggs Nya tried to steal. And here lies, perhaps The Pain Merchants strongest appeal.
Nya is a Shifter (or Taker). Now, Shifters are a lot like Healers, the main difference being that Healers can only shift pain from person to pynvium (enchanted metal with the capability to store pain), while Shifters can only shift pain from person to person. Healing as a power in YA fiction is nothing new. Healing as presented as such is something that hasn't been done in a while. Everyone's too busy writing Twilight lookalikes they forgot to think for two seconds and give creativity a chance. If I could, I'd give Janice Hardy a gold statue.
You might be wondering: if Nya can shift pain, why isn't she at the League with Tali, where she doesn't have to steal and do ridiculously hard labour? Well, you see, Shifters are quite useless when it comes to the healing business, which is actually a massive, thriving business in Geveg and all over the book's world. People come to the League and pay ample sum of money to have their injuries and pains taken from them. Healers put the pain in pynvium, and when a strip of pynvium is exhausted it is sold to the Pain Merchants. The Pain Merchants go on to forge weapons out of the pynvium – like a sword that has pain stored in it. I stab you and you feel not only the pain from your wound, but also the pain stored within the pynvium blade. Yeah, you know what that means – sucks for you, mate.
Moreover, and more importantly, Shifters are very, very rare. They are as rare as dinosaurs. So, imagine you're a dino and you peak out of your hiding place, exposing yourself to the public. Imagine the public scrutiny that would follow – scientists clamouring to carry out a myriad of tests on you; the government seeking to utilise you as a weapon. Yeah, imagine that. Just imagine. Are you imagining? Good.
OK, you can stop imagining now.
Thus, Nya must keep her ability hidden. But The Pain Merchant wouldn't be a cool book if word about Nya's unique skill didn't slip out, right? Her act of compassion exposes her secret, and soon dangerous people are after her. Even worse, her sister mysteriously vanishes and it could be Nya's fault.
When it comes to character development, Janice Hardy is at her best – a true master. I would expect nothing less, considering her blog is peppered with intellectual advises on writing. Nya is that wonderful friend you have that would rather risk her neck to save lives than commit any wrong, except when absolutely necessary (like stealing eggs to eat). But stealing eggs is a petty crime, acceptable even, when you examine Nya's circumstances. The real test of will and character begins when Nya is asked to use her power to commit acts so grievous they make her literally sick. The flip side? Not only will said acts provide her with enough money for months-worth of food, it would also help her find her sister.
There is a lesson to be acquired from this book, and it is everybody has a price. I don't care how good you are. I don't care if you're the bloody pope. Everybody can be bought at some time with something.
There is a budding romance in Merchants, but it doesn't grow as much as I think most female readers would like. Nothing like that Edward-Bella stuff here, guys. In a way, I'm happy. I think it's realistic. Nya has so much to do that it would make no sense for her to constantly droll over the lead male. There's no love-triangle as well. Thank God!
Janice's writing is graceful, flowing from point A to point B and onwards with no problem at all, and she ramps up the action with every passing chapter. Merchants is structured almost to flawlessness: there is a great opening that grips you, a middle that throws you around, and an end that shatters whatever theories you thought might explain certain things. I won't go as far as saying Janice Hardy is JK Rowling. But I will say, like Rowling, Janice puts excellent plot and character development first, and does both of them justice in the end.
Now all that's left is for Janice to complete her trilogy in style, and not to do a Harry: make Nya win simply because she's the heroine, like Harry beat Voldemort because he was the hero and not because he was better or qualified. Yeah, I said it. Voldemort was the better magician. Voldemort would kick Harry Potter's ass any day. But in the end, through some lame-ass technicality Voldemort missed (which was a total cop-out by Rowling), Voldemort commits suicide – he fires a killing curse which ricochets off Harry's Expelliarmus and kills him. I want Nya to defeat the Duke by sheer intellect and strength.
Of course, no book is perfect, not even The Pain Merchants. My reasoning for this is, when I was a kid my dad told me that all human beings are flawed, and as such, our creations inherit our flaws in one form or another. Some people will love Janice's debut, some will not. That's why it isn't perfect. As for me, I'm totally sold. I loved The Pain Merchants – loved it from the very moment I read its first words, and I love it still.
I'm holding my breath for the next instalment.
World Building: 9/10
Final Score: 9/10