For months, Cass Meyer has heard her best friend Julia, a wannabe Broadway composer, whispering about a top-secret project. Then Julia is killed in a sudden car accident, and while Cass is still reeling from her death, Julia’s boyfriend and her other drama friends make it their mission to bring to fruition the nearly-completed secret project: a musical about an orphaned ninja princess entitled Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad.
Cass isn’t one of the drama people. She doesn’t feel at home with Julia’s drama friends, and she doesn’t see a place for her in the play. Things only get worse when she finds out that Heather Galloway, the girl who made her miserable all through middle school, has been cast as the ninja princess.
Cass can’t take a summer of swallowing her pride and painting sets, so she decides to follow her original plan for a cross-country road trip with Julia. Even if she has a touring bicycle instead of a driver’s license, and even if Julia’s ashes are coming along in Tupperware.
Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad is a story about friendship. About love. About traveling a thousand miles just to find yourself. About making peace with the past, and making sense of it. And it’s a story about the bloodiest high school musical one quiet suburb has ever seen.
I completely fell for this beautiful story which has some very emotional scenes and some truly laugh out loud moments.
Cass has been friends with Julia ever since they were young and their friendship is a strong one between two very different and complementary personalities. Cass is very introverted and loves maths while Julia is into theatre and music and anything arty. If Cass is mostly withdrawn, Julia is full of life and bubbly. Julia has a boyfriend and a group of theatre friends and she makes Cass feel included in this group.
Then one day Julia dies in a car accident and Cass’s world falls apart. She realises that without Julia, she doesn’t have friends anymore, not even the theatre group who are so different from her. When they decide to complete Julia’s secret project – a hilarious musical with ninjas – Cass offers to help create the set, until the group hires Heather, Cass’s nemesis and the girl who has been bullying her at school, in the role that would have been Julia’s, the ninja princess. They have a huge fight and Cass decides to go on the road trip she had planned with Julia for the summer. She is bringing Julia’s ashes with her without telling her friends or even Oliver, Julia’s boyfriend. Cass will not come back the same after this trip.
The book is divided between Then and Now, Then when Cass decides to go on the road trip and Now when she comes back home. Even though this is a short book, it includes several serious themes and I liked how the serious aspects were counter-balanced by the slight craziness of Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad and that Julia’s personality always present in the book.
Cass is a very interesting, though not always likeable, character in this story. She is very introverted and even though her parents love her, Julia is the one that matters for Cass. Cass is bullied at school and doesn’t have any other friends – not that she is interested in making any anyway. Cass didn’t have much in her life, but she had Julia who made everything ok. The loss of Julia hits Cass hard, so hard that she isolates herself from everyone else.
Cass never really tried to understand her feelings for Julia – they were close friends and that was it. But when Julia started seeing Oliver, Cass began to feel a bit jealous. Of course there are rumours started by Heather that Cass is a lesbian and everyone assumes that Cass had always been in love with Julia, but Cass never realised this herself. Even though she toughened a bit because of this and she always had Julia to defend her, Cass withdrew herself even more.
Her progressive realisation of who she was and of her sexuality comes with the painful reality that the object of her affection is dead. Emily Horner describes this very sensitively throughout the book. Contrary to many YA novels where the characters *know* they are gay, this book shows what it’s like to question one’s sexuality. Not everyone knows which gender they are attracted to since age 4 when they had a crush on their kindergarten teacher. Some people, like Cass, need to fall in love with someone to realise this and it’s such a shame that people always feel the need to know immediately and label people. Some people need time to get to know who they are and Cass’s story shows this brilliantly.There are some truly beautiful passages about friendship. I have tears in my eyes just thinking about the end of Cass’s road trip and how the love they all felt for Julia brought this group of friends together. There’s a really positive message in this and it’s definitely the type of book people need to read to understand how some things may affect people deeply. The part of the story with Heather reminded me a lot of 13 Reasons Why
by Jay Asher and how one person’s actions may have very serious consequences. I won’t spoil the story for you but Heather’s character is very interesting and a fantastic counterpart to Cass. The novel also shows how much people hide from others and how much a person can change. This is definitely not a story where evil people are and stay evil and nice people are and stay nice. It is a story where people get to know themselves and decide which type of person they would like to be.
I loved the settings of the novel, be it Cass’s epic road trip on bicycle through America or the set of Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad. I will be looking out for Emily Horner’s next books as I loved everything in this one and the story has stayed with me for months.
Cass’s story genuinely touched me, it is a beautiful coming of age story where one person loses everything and manages to find herself. It brings a very positive message about themes like bereavement/death, friendship and identity/sexuality. The characters are believable and full of flaws, but that doesn’t make them either fundamentally bad or selfish, only utterly and inescapably human.