The August 5 by Jenna Helland

Although listed as teens, this read much more like a middle grade book – complete with heavy handed sermonizing/moralizing and a very abrupt happy ending. For what we have is a fantasy with serious messages about white European colonization of the 18th and 19th century. It’s about socio-economic enslavement (rather than racial) and clearly it is aimed at the British. As well, statements about hubris and the sins of the fathers as well as women’s rights are added for kicks. But very lazy writing/world-building and two-dimensional characters really let down the messages contained within.


In a place where the native population is starving under the harsh rule of a century’s old conquest, fifteen-year-old Tommy Shore’s father is an estate holder and politician – and controls much of the large island on which Tommy lives. Tommy’s twin brother Bern is very much his father – a bully and a sociopath. Meanwhile, downtrodden Tamsin Henry’s father is leading a revolt across many cities (including the one near Tommy’s estate) to bring justice to the poor (the cottagers). When a demonstration goes wrong and Tamsin’s father is captured (one of the August 5 – the five who led the revolt but were caught and imprisoned), Tamsin is injured while abetting her father’s destruction of key warehouses. Tommy finds her and saves her – and they will meet up again later in the big city as Tamsin fights for her father’s release before he is executed. Tommy’s father is putting plans into place to take over the moderate government with his stricter one – and ensure that the poor truly stay under his estate’s control. It will put both 15 year olds at opposite ends of the struggle.

Although the blurb makes it sound like Tommy and Tamsin will meet up and fall in love despite the circumstances of their parents, the two really only see each other briefly and there is no romance. Tommy is an extremely passive do-gooder who is there to take offense to his father’s/brother’s greedy and selfish actions. Tamsin, meanwhile, goes off half-cocked through most of the book, acting fully on emotion rather than logic. Each character has a grounding influence – for Tamsin it is pacifist friend Gavin and for Tommy it is the nanny who raised him – a cottager herself who gave him a moral compass. Both Tommy and Tamsin pretty much operate in their own circles and each will learn hard truths about their parents.

Unsurprisingly (this is a novel written by a woman), the female characters are more complex, grounded, and decent, than the ambitious, misguided, and high handed male characters. In the whole book, we have only two ‘nice’ male characters (Tommy and Gavin) and a whole lot of aggressive men. They are coupled with a lot of sad, frustrated, ‘trying to do the right thing’ women (there are no ‘bad’ female characters – only male). That imbalance is coupled with a few statement pieces about women not being allowed to attend school and being fit only for being wives (which felt more like a reason to show off how good-hearted Tommy was than as a social injustice in need of reform). There was a lot of tell and not enough show throughout and the book needed more complexity to really spark.

The worldbuilding was frustrating. We’re given the scenario that the Cottagers are downtrodden and suffering – but we don’t see any of it. We’re TOLD a lot but never actually see much of the problem. Nor do we get an idea of what the Estates sell or what the Cottagers or city folk actually do – other than a few tradesmen here and there who smuggle inflammatory newsletters. With the African slaves we had cotton and rum, with the Irish we had the farmers, and even with the American colonists, we had tea and other imports being taxed unfairly. But there’s no basis for the world in The August 5 and so it all feels so nebulous, undeveloped, and unreal. The world needed so much more thought about the economics if statements were going to be continued to be made. E.g., in the very least, Tamsin should have been starving and poor and desperate – but she seems as content as Tommy.

I’ll be honest – creating a fantasy with fantastical names and settings but then using Anglo-Saxon names feels disingenuous and lazy to me. There really is no reason to use names like Tommy and Bernard Shore, Michael Henry, etc. Authors don’t have to dumb down books to make them more accessible to kids these days- adolescents and teens have more than enough brain power to handle non-Anglo-names. Heck, even changing the names a bit to be something like Tamas instead of Thomas and Bennard instead of Bernard would have been far more interesting than bland Tommy and Bern. It works in an alternate universe setting but this is straight fantasy.

The heart of the book is the realization by both Tamsin and Tommy that their fathers are not what they thought; rather, they are men blinded by ambition and hubris. But that message comes too late to really make the read more interesting. The story is very straightforward, lacking the nuance and complexity which would make readers think about the ideas being presented. In this case, there is a lot about The August 5 that could have been both more explored and less explored. Subtlety in message but more emphasis on character complexity would have gone a long way to making this a better read.

I didn’t dislike the August 5 but I never got into it either. My 12 year old got bored quickly as well – Tommy wasn’t interesting enough and Tamsin was, to quote my daughter, always “running around like chicken little.” On the plus side, the topics covered do make good conversation starters (though on a VERY basic level) about British/Dutch/Spanish colonization/conquering of England/Ireland, the Americas, East Indies, and of course Africa. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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