7 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: Once We Were by Kat Zhang

Once We WereTitle: Once We Were

Author: Kat Zhang

Genre: Speculative Fiction, Dystopia, Young Adult

Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: September 2013
Hardcover: 352 Pages

“I’m lucky just to be alive.”

Eva was never supposed to have survived this long. As the recessive soul, she should have faded away years ago. Instead, she lingers in the body she shares with her sister soul, Addie. When the government discovered the truth, they tried to β€œcure” the girls, but Eva and Addie escaped before the doctors could strip Eva’s soul away.

Now fugitives, Eva and Addie find shelter with a group of hybrids who run an underground resistance. Surrounded by others like them, the girls learn how to temporarily disappear to give each soul some much-needed privacy. Eva is thrilled at the chance to be alone with Ryan, the boy she’s falling for, but troubled by the growing chasm between her and Addie. Despite clashes over their shared body, both girls are eager to join the rebellion.

Yet as they are drawn deeper into the escalating violence, they start to wonder: How far are they willing to go to fight for hybrid freedom? Faced with uncertainty and incredible danger, their answers may tear them apart forever.

Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Hybrid Chronicles

How did I get this book: ARC from the Publisher (BEA)

Format (e- or p-): Print

Why did I read this book: I loved the first book in the Hybrid Chronicles, What’s Left of Me – in fact, it was one of my favorite books of 2012. Once We Were was one of my most highly anticipated books of 2013.


I protested.

Somehow, I’d made it out onto the street. I could hardly remember how I’d gotten there. It was evening. Warm and darkening quickly. Cars zoomed past. Where was I? Right. Jackson’s apartment. Where was that?

Addie said.

In the very last second, I scrambled to reach out for her. I treid to grab on to her –

But she cut away from me. The nothingness dropped, sharp and sudden and painful as a guillotine.

Eva and Addie. Addie and Eva. For the fifteen years they have been alive, Eva and Addie have shared the same heart, the same face, the same limbs – hybrid, two souls in the same body. While hybridity is perfectly normal in kids, everyone is supposed to “settle” as they leave childhood behind; the dominant soul, Addie, should take over while the recessive soul, Eva, fades away. As they grew from toddlers to children, though, Eva refuses to fade away, drawing the attention of parents, peers and public officials. Hybrids are unstable and threats to society, and Eva’s existence lands the sisters in a government experimental hospital, in which unsettled children are experimented upon by scientists looking for a “cure.”

Thanks to friends, new and old, Eva and Addie escape from a cold, cruel medical fate. But their freedom comes at a cost, as now they are fugitives, lying low in the apartment of one of the members of the resistance. As the days and weeks pass, though, Eva grows restless – so when Sabine, another hybrid survivor, comes up with the idea to take action against the government’s experimentation and demonization of hybrids, Eva is all for it. As Sabine’s plans grow more violent, a rift grows between sisters Eva and Addie – tired of being overlooked, Eva longs to lash out, to spend time with the boy she’s falling for, to experience true freedom. Meanwhile, Addie is frustrated with Eva’s selfishness and reluctant to go along with her plans. As the stakes grow higher, the sisters must learn to listen and live together, now that they are both dominant souls, and question how far they will go to help their fellow hybrids.

The second novel in the Hybrid Chronicles, Once We Were picks up immediately where What’s Left of Me leaves off. Like the first book in this intriguing and original series, author Kat Zhang crafts a beautiful story about two sisters, struggling to find their place in a world that rejects them. More than that, Once We Were embarks on a darker, deeper journey than its predecessor, poking at larger and more serious themes. The question of growing up and growing apart from family is a strong uniting theme throughout the book, as we see the relationship between Addie and Eva fray and change. Personally, with my younger sisters, I know how hard it can be to get along with the people you love – the very thought of sharing a body with someone else, with almost every thought and experience shared is horrifying. I love the added layer of complication and frustration in this second book, as Eva and Addie approach life together as equals for the first time – and I love that in this book we see them develop as separate characters. True, Once We Were is narrated by Eva (a narrative choice I love, by the way), but as the excerpt at the beginning of this review shows, Addie gets her say, too. For all that these sisters have shared every experience and the same flesh, they are very different. I like that a lot.

The other intriguing theme in Once We Were, to me, is the decision of action in the face of oppression. Sabine’s plans – setting off explosives to frighten bystanders and tossing out posters to make a point, creating explosives to bomb a hybrid experimentation facility – are increasingly violent. The question arises: what is acceptable? Are their actions that of terrorists, or of righteous liberators? Where is the line drawn? The political metaphor in Once We Were is actually quite brilliant – the Americas are completely closed off from the rest of the world, technologically backwards, but they have valuable natural resources that other, more developed nations need. In return for these resources, the rest of the developed world – filled with hybrids! – turns a blind eye to the discriminatory, hateful actions of the Americas towards their hybrid population. (Does this ring any bells?) Needless to say, I very much appreciated this clever inversion, which hopefully will engage young readers to start thinking about issues of apathy, of economic sanctions, of terrorism v. resistance in a new light.

While there are many things to love about Once We Were, there are some significant drawbacks, too. The book is very much a middle novel, and takes a very long time to get off the ground and running. In fact, there’s very little actual story until just over halfway through the book. And, while Kat Zhang’s writing is beautiful and lyrical as ever, there’s also a slight tendency towards the melodramatic in Once We Were (though on the whole Zhang’s prose is incredibly effective).

Ultimately, slower moving plot and lack of series development aside, I was very, very pleased with Once We Were and I cannot wait for the next book in the series. Absolutely recommended, especially for fans looking for something new and different in the YA dystopian market.

Notable Quotes/Parts: You can read the first 70 pages of Once We Were online HERE.

Rating: 7 – Very Good

Reading Next: Raven Flight by Juliet Marillier

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  • AnimeJune
    September 14, 2013 at 9:48 pm


    I tried the first novel, but was kind of thrown by the concept of hybrids which I thought wasn’t explained very well. I got why the Americas thought hybrids were unstable, but the novel never really explained what was supposed to be *good* about hybrids. They still only get half a life and it still sounds super awkward to time-share the same meat suit.

    Does this second novel explain the advantages of being a hybrid?

  • Anonymous
    September 15, 2013 at 9:52 am

    I think it does (although not in depth)! There’s a creation myth that’s discussed at one point in which god created man and one displeased him, so he cleft that man of his second soul, leaving him to wander incomplete forever. Two souls are seen as whole, better and smarter because there are two minds behind every decision and job. This book also explores how hybrids (healthy, equal hybrid souls, not one dominant & one recessive function) work as one unit, how one soul can sleep while the other works or does things that require privacy from the other (eg romantic liaisons).

    I hope you give the book a try again! I really, really love this series (but totally understand its not for everyone).

  • Thea
    September 15, 2013 at 9:54 am

    Whoops, that was me!

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