*This review will contain spoilers!*
"This alliance is madness."
"Which is exactly why we need to go."In 'Alienated', it's been two years since the aliens of the planet L'eihr made contact with Earth, and steps are finally being taken to forge an alliance between the two planets. This alliance takes the form of a school exchange trip: Cara Sweeney, valedictorian of her high school, has been paired with a high achieving L'eihr, who will live at her home and attend school with her for a year. After that year, she will go to L'eihr to undergo a year in their education system. The humans will get to know the exchange students and after they learn more about L'eihr they will hopefully trust the planet enough to form a mutually beneficial alliance.
Only three exchanges happen: America, where Cara lives, China and France. This is one of the only issues I had with the entire story - if you're trying to forge an alliance between planets, I think it needs to occur on a larger scale, with more than three students being involved. Maybe if there'd been ten or twenty it would have made more sense: it just seemed far too niche to me.
Moving on from that one slight complaint, I actually really loved the plot and the science behind the world that Melissa Landers crafted. Cara gets paired up with Aelyx, much to the chagrin of her boyfriend Eric. Eric is a member of HALO - Humans Against L'eihr Occupation - a terrorist organisation who are determined to make the alliance fail, ranging from using persuasive techniques to a terrifying level of force. Cara is disgusted by Eric's bigotry so ends their relationship, but her best friend Tori is also unable to trust Aelyx, leaving Cara completely alone.
Meanwhile, Aelyx and the other two exchange students, Syrine and Eron, also don't want the alliance to succeed. Humans have destroyed Earth, so they don't want people moving to L'eihr and ruining their beautiful and well-preserved planet. In an attempt to stop the alliance being successful, the students plant something called sh'alear: a parasitic tree that stops the growth of all crops near it. By sabotaging the environment, Aelyx hopes that the humans will link the destruction to the arrival of the L'eihr and will send them home to their planet.
However, neither Cara nor Aelyx anticipates the relationship that happens between them. When Cara starts falling for Aelyx she starts caring a lot less about the opinions of people around her, and when Aelyx realises what he's feeling towards Cara he tries to stop the sh'alear plan.
I'm happy to report that their relationship is brilliantly developed: there's no insta-love here! Cara is automatically attracted to Aelyx, but she doesn't fall madly in love with him within a week of knowing him: it takes a lot of deep conversations and time, which is something I appreciated. The same can be said for his feelings for her - Aelyx has despised humans his entire life, so when she breaks down his barriers he's conflicted and doesn't have a clue what he's feeling. It made his character a lot easier to relate to, because he's quite arrogant and aloof - he's very certain that the L'eihr are better than humans and he's not afraid to voice humanity's failings - so it's nice to see him experiencing emotion.
The themes in this book are very easy to extrapolate and apply to other situations, as the xenophobic and racist attitudes towards the L'eihr are terrifyingly realistic. Every day in the news there will be another terrorist group attacking someone somewhere, and that's just with all of us being humans: if aliens did happen to come to Earth, I think that physical violence and murder wouldn't be too surprising in the slightest. It really does make you open your eyes and look at the state of humanity and how we interact with each other, but it also makes you think deeply about how we treat the planet. This book might be a YA novel, but it deals with a lot of subjects that need to be talked about more with younger people: if we can get all teenagers to start tackling global warming and racism from a young age, in ten years there could be a huge shift in attitudes and procedures.
The other thing that I really loved about this novel was Melissa Landers writing of Cara's parents. It sounds ridiculous, but a lot of YA novels completely disregard the parents: they don't give them back stories or strong relationships, they don't get names and they don't get personalities. It's completely the opposite in this book, because Bill and Eileen are brilliant characters in their own rights, and I really enjoyed their interactions and the relationship between them and Cara. Eileen definitely stole my heart the most, particularly when her book club kicked her out because of her connection with Aelyx: "They keep pushing to read that unedited fan-fiction book with all the spanking!". Melissa's writing is very funny, and there were multiple points where I laughed out loud - that doesn't happen often, so I really enjoyed that aspect of the book.
The second novel is set up beautifully: at the end of the book, Aelyx is remaining on Earth to help with the alliance while Cara is on her way to L'eihr to begin her exchange year. There's a lot of potential for where the series can go, and I'm looking forward to reading the second installment and getting more of Cara and Aelyx as individuals: I really like both of their characters, but the majority of their interactions were with each other, so it'll be good to find out if they're as strong on their own.
I was very, very close to rating this book a 5 star, but the illogical choice of only having three exchange students really did bug me throughout. That's the only thing that I didn't like about the book though, so if you like alien novels I'd definitely recommend this one! This one will especially appeal to fans of the show 'Star-Crossed', which only ran for one season: it's fairly similar to the plot of that TV show (even down to the aliens having a secret plant which cures cancer) so it's definitely worth a read if you enjoyed the series!