Today I take off my librarian hat and set it aside. I want to talk to you as a reader. As a fan. In particular, I want to talk about three very specific books: Masque of the Read Death by Bethany Griffin, Rotters by Daniel Kraus and Embrace by Jessica Shirvington. These are all each, in their own way, dark, dark books. The kind of books that haunt you. And I just, well, need to talk about them. So come talk about them with me.
Please note: you read this post at your own risk - spoilers abound! (You have to read that spoiler warning with a dark and sinister voice in your head. And maybe add in a "mwahahaha" and twirl your mustache.)
We begin our journey in a world haunted by plague and inspired by Poe: Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin. This is seriously a dark book. There is such an oppressive darkness cast over this world that it truly haunts you as a reader. Griffin was clearly inspired by Poe and succeeds in creating a work that would make him proud. This is a world haunted by a deadly plague, constant fear of contamination creates a stifling environment of fear and desperation: Darkness. We eat in it, talk in it, we sleep in humid darkness, wrapped in blankets. There is never really enough light in this basement, not if you truly want to see. (Masque of the Read Death, page 13 in the ARC). In terms of atmosphere, Griffin succeeds in flying colors of red to build a world so dark it is hard to imagine the sun even still shines.
Herein, though, is the thing that bothers me. You see, there is a love triangle. Our main character, Araby, is pursued by two men. Will, is the bouncer at the Debauchery Club who checks to make sure you are free of the contagion before you can enter its premises. Elliott is the brother of her best friend, the twisted leader of a group that is seeking to regain control of the land from an even more twisted leader who happens to be his uncle. Elliott is a deeply complex character, haunted. And yet Elliott is a sinister presence with what often comes across as self serving motives. Somehow, it seems that Araby is sometimes considering the possibility that she could fall in love with him. Granted, this is of course all up in the air at the end of book one. But as a reader, I had a hard time understanding how he could even be a possibility, how you could overlook the clearly dangerous tendencies that coursed through his veins.
In comparison, Will seemed like a hard working, selfless young man trying to survive in a twisty world. In the end, he makes a decision with horrific ramifications for our heroine, but to be fair - it is done out of what I consider to be reasonable duress. Am I wrong to look at this underlying motive and so easily forgive him his actions?
In the end, I feel that Griffin accomplished what she set out to do as a storyteller. When you turn the last page of Masque of the Red Death, the darkness lingers, questions hang thickly in the air, and you hope young Araby will finally forgive herself and allow herself to live more fully in the world. Although to be honest, there does sometimes seem to be little reason to, especially as a new more deadly plague sweeps across the land. But this post doesn't give justice to the world building and character development that occurs in Masque. When I say it is dark, I mean it is epically dark in really satifsying ways. And twisted. But again, twisted in epically satisfying ways. Also, it should be noted, that MotRD is a good addition to the popular Steampunk genre. So if you are looking for dark and twisty, this read is definitely for you. And then come back and talk to me about Elliott.
As dark as Masque of the Red Death is, I wonder if it will haunt me as much as Rotters by Daniel Kraus does to this day - and it has been more than a year since I read it. Rotters is the story of Joey, who eventually becomes a grave robber. Yes, I really did say a grave robber. I recently had a mini-Tweet chat with Kraus and asked him, "what makes you wake up one morning and say - I'm going to write a book about grave robbing?" His response was that it took him about "3,000 mornings" before he was truly comfortable saying that.
At the beginning of Rotters, Joey's mother dies and he sent to live with a father he has never known. He arrives, alone, in the middle of the night to a house with no electricity, little food, and a man with a hostile disposition. Slowly Joey gets drawn into a world where he and his father sneak out into the middle of the night and rob graves in order to sell their wares and survive. It turns out that there is a highly intricate world of grave robbers with established territories, grudges to bear and axes to grind.
As Joey slips into the dark and dirty world of grave robbing, he finds himself an outcast among his peers. At one point Joey does an act so haunting to get back at his schoolmates for the constant bullying and taunting, you wonder what kind of nightmares Kraus could possibly have to think up such scenes. In fact, I admire this act of boldness on the part of Kraus as an author because he does the unthinkable: he takes a likable character and turns him into an unlikable one. Joey's slow descent into this world is an interesting read, albeit a disturbing one.
So what's my issue with this one, you ask? I can't help but think that Children's Services would act differently then they do in the real world then they do in Rotters - at least I genuinely hope that they would - and that if they did, they could have changed the course of Joey's story arc. Of course, that wouldn't work for the story. But would children's services really put him on a bus to arrive late at night to live with a man he has never met? And would there be the lack of follow-up that occurs in this story? One genuinely hopes not.
In the end, Rotters is also another example of successful storytelling. I cared about Joey and was angry about his descent into the character he becomes and was thankful for the possibility of hope in the end. I appreciated the world building that occurred in the development of the grave robbing world. I wondered how true to life it was and what kind of research Kraus did for this story (he was vague in our mini-Tweet chat.) It is a book I still think a lot about. It truly haunts me. (There is information about Rotters at the Randombuzzers page.)
Our final dark tale revolves around the world of fallen angels, definitely not new to teen lit. SPOILER ALERT! Embrace by Jessica Shirvington is the story of Violet Eden, who eventually finds out she is some type of angel. In this world there is a hierarchy. She is pursued by two men, Michael and Phoenix. Phoenix falls somewhere on the hierarchy and has a special ability: he is an empath. This means that he can in effect push his feeling onto others as well as feel what they are feeling. He is also the source of my issue.
You see, to me, the ability to mess with someone's thoughts and feelings is the greatest violation I can imagine - and this does not go unspoken in the book. But what does happen is that at one point Phoenix and Violet have sex and it is never clear to me, as a reader, if Violet does this of her own free will or if Phoenix is somehow enhances her desire by using his ability. If he is, then isn't that basically rape? If Violet is not fully consenting of her own free will - if he is in any way using his powers to even enhance her feelings - then it would be rape. I wish, as a reader and as a teen librarian, that there would have been more discussion about this concept in the book. I wish that they had used the word rape. At the end of this book, which is book 1, Violet does recognize that Phoenix's ability to influence her is a bad thing and she walks away from him - which I appreciated as both a reader and as a librarian. But this issue of rape is a question that I would really like to discuss. Have you read it? What do you think?
In the end, I think that all three titles are well written books that are successful in telling the stories they set out to tell. I think those that like to read a dark book - and I am one of those people - will be satisfied readers - and I was. I think that Masque of the Red Death and Rotters tell unique stories. They present interesting, complex characters that are not always likable or - I hope - relatable. They are truly interesting entries into the world of the macabre. And I think that fans of angel stories will be satisfied with Embrace; in many ways Violet is a strong female character that brings Buffy the Vampire Slayer to mind. These are all definitely for the more mature end of the YA spectrum.
So, have you read any of these titles? What did you think?