Today I’m finally bringing you a review of How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao, one of my most highly anticipated books of 2021. Ever since I heard about this book I’d been wanting to get my hands on it, so I’m very happy that I finally got to read it. But, did this dark academia with Asian MCs live up to my expectations? Let’s find out.
About the book
Genre: Young adult, dark academia, thriller
Representation: Asian cast, bisexual secondary character, sapphic secondary character
Content warning: Death
Summary: Nancy Luo is shocked when her former best friend, Jamie Ruan, top ranked junior at Sinclair Prep, goes missing, and then is found dead. Nancy is even more shocked when word starts to spread that she and her friends–Krystal, Akil, and Alexander–are the prime suspects, thanks to “The Proctor,” someone anonymously incriminating them via the school’s social media app.
They all used to be Jamie’s closest friends, and she knew each of their deepest, darkest secrets. Now, somehow The Proctor knows them, too. The four must uncover the true killer before The Proctor exposes more than they can bear and costs them more than they can afford, like Nancy’s full scholarship. Soon, Nancy suspects that her friends may be keeping secrets from her, too.
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When I first heard about a dark academia book that featured a full-cast of Asian characters I was immediately intrigued. As you might know from my post of dark academia books I want to read, I love this genre; however, it has historically been dominated by white authors and stories, so I was very interested to read such a story from an Asian-American lens. How We Fall Apart had many great aspects and, in my opinion, it gracefully delivered what it promised: a mystery that will constantly have you on the edge of your seat.
Firstly, what was probably my favourite part of this book was how academia was treated. I’m used to reading dark academia novels where the academic aspect takes a backseat, but here, the academic pressures that the characters face are a main factor that allows the story to be pushed forward. Without the academic aspect, the mystery simply wouldn’t exist. We experience the story through Nancy’s eyes—an Asian-American scholarship student in a very prestigious private institution—and because of this we see her struggles and the enormous amount of pressure she’s under to perform to the highest standard. We also see how this burden takes a toll on her mental health and overall quality of life.
However, it’s not only Nancy that faces this. We see glimpses into her friends lives and how they all deal with their fair share of pressure that drives them to extremes. These characters were all very interesting, and I do wish we had met them a bit more in depth. But from what we learn, we can never be quite sure of what these people are capable of to reach their goals. For exactly the same reason, I think that Nancy is such an interesting narrator. Despite her constantly telling us she’s innocent, her demeanor and our glances into the past make it difficult to tell whether she’s a reliable narrator or if she’s twisting the truth.
The dual timeline is very well constructed and utilised to have us constantly guessing and keeping us on the edge of our seat. I thought the constant jumps in time were a very intelligent way to keep up the pacing of the story. You couldn’t put the book down because there was always some new information about to be revealed that you didn’t want to miss—this is why I read the second half of this book in one sitting, unable to even change positions.
The writing style is another aspect that made the story flow easily. It wasn’t unnecessarily convoluted or complicated. Instead, it was a rather simple prose which fitted this novel perfectly. It was very accessible and comprehensible and definitely something that will make this read available to a wide range of audiences.
Finally, the grand reveal. I must admit that I wasn’t the biggest fan of this—whether it is because I had guessed who the culprit was beforehand or for another reason I can’t tell. However, I don’t believe that this took away from my overall enjoyment of the novel. I had just as much fun as the next person in the process of getting to the reveal and having my suspicions confirmed.
To conclude, How We Fall Apart was a very enjoyable dark academia read. Not only was it a well-crafted story of the perils and pressures of academia—especially in regard to Asian youth—but it was also a gripping mystery. One that, thanks to its narrator, dual timeline, and writing style, had me glued to the page. I would recommend this to any fan of dark academia or anyone who would like to learn more about the pressures that some Asian-Americans students face to reach the high standards imposed by society. All in all, this was genuinely a great time.
About the author
Katie Zhao is the author of The Dragon Warrior series, How We Fall Apart, and Last Gamer Standing. She grew up in Michigan, where there was little for her to do besides bury her nose in a good book or a writing journal. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a BA in English and a minor in political science; she also completed her master’s in accounting there. In her spare time, Katie enjoys reading, singing, dancing (badly), and checking out Instagram-worthy restaurants. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Have you read this book? What was your favourite part? If you haven’t, do you plan to? If you have more dark academia recommendations, leave them down below!