A.S. Santos’ Student Paranormal Research Group (SPRG) series was a wonderful discovery last year, starting with “Voices in the Theater.” It came highly recommended by my friend Honey, and was also a finalist in the 2nd Filipino Reader’s Choice Awards, so it was one of the first titles I purchased on my Kobo Glo, followed closely by its sequel, “Corpse in the Mirror.”
Published by Flipside, the SPRG series is a young adult paranormal series featuring Samantha Davidson, who has the uncanny ability to hear other people’s thoughts, as well as voices of the departed and unearthly. She’s just moved to the Philippines and enrolled in university, where she joins the newly assembled SPRG.
In “Voices in the Theater,” the SPRG is investigating reports of hauntings at the Little Theater on campus, and Samantha is affected more than anyone else in the group. As Samantha struggles with controlling her paranormal abilities, she also finds herself on the road to self-discovery, as she starts to come to terms with her past, explores her own questions about faith, and forges new friendships in the SPRG.
Set months after the events in the first book, “Corpse in the Mirror” finds the SPRG tackling a new case, one that ties in with one of their own members, Richard, whose condominium building is disturbed by otherworldly phenomena. Samantha, whose abilities have gotten stronger since joining SPRG, faces new dangers in this book, both of the earthly and unearthly kind.
I have not read a ghost story in a while, and these books were a welcome diversion. They’re very readable and the SPRG reminds me of the Spirit Questors from the all the Spirit Quest Chronicles I’d been hooked on back in high school and college (NB: I wanted to be a Spirit Questor in those days, but when I had the opportunity to join an actual quest a few years ago, I discovered just how much of a chicken I really am!).
The stories are told from Samantha’s point of view, and while I wasn’t entirely sold on certain motivations the author chose for the character (if you’ve read the first book, you’ll know what I mean; I just thought that bit was too drastic — there are other way ways to inflict trauma on a character — only for it to be tied up too neatly in the end), the rest of her character was compelling and that was what prompted me to continue reading the series. I like how Samantha’s emotions roll right off the page, and as a young adult she runs through a lot of them — from confusion, doubt, and fear all the way down to the lighter side of the spectrum: compassion, gratitude, fondness, giddiness, and love. I think Samantha’s character hits the right groove by the second book, and I was glad to have kept reading.
Another thing I loved about the series is how real the setting is — I could perfectly visualize the scenes, whether it was at the university theater, the coffee shop, Samantha’s bedroom, Boracay, or the haunted condo unit. There are times Filipino authors go extreme, either going for underbelly (as if Manila were purely back alleys filled with unsavory denizens) or whitewash (a perfect bubble that might as well have been set in Sweet Valley, California), but for this series, the author transports the reader to everyday places that are easily recognizable, successfully tying in all the paranormal occurrences with the reality that the reader knows.
Speaking of the paranormal, that part of the book is two-fold. There is, as mentioned, the ghost aspect in the hauntings tackled by the SPRG, which sent chills down my spine. I don’t read a lot of horror these days and those parts scared me — I had to read the books in broad daylight. The other subplot (which converges with the other from time to time) is what appears to be angels vs demons. It’s something I could have gone without, although now that I’ve read this far, I’m curious to see what Samantha’s role (yet to be revealed) is in this brewing battle of good versus evil.
The books are listed as YA paranormal romance, but I like how the romance aspect isn’t at the core of the story with the paranormal as the backdrop (as a lot of paranormal romances tend to be). While Samantha explores the possibility of romantic relationships, I appreciate how her character isn’t in a hurry to hook up with anyone just yet, and I like how this has been open-ended so far. I’m rooting for one of the guys, though (^_^) and I hope that ship sails in the next book (please?).
All in all, I think the SPRG series is a welcome addition to the local book scene. I’ll definitely grab the last book in this trilogy!
Voices in the Theater, Kobo ebook, 3/5 stars
Corpse in the Mirror, Kobo ebook, 4/5 stars
Both books available on Kobo.