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Book Review: Killer Instinct by S. E. Green

Killer Instinct is described as Dexter for teens, and yet somehow it fails to draw you in the same way that the Dexter stories do. I will say that Dexter is very popular with several of my teens and I can see them clamoring for this book based on the subject matter alone. Read on for my full review.

Tagline: “Everyone has a dark side”

A Brief Recap

Lane is a teenager that knows she is a little off kilter, she has “urges”. Her parents both work for the FBI in the serial killers division (plot convenience number 1). She has a brother and a sister. She spends time regularly at the local animal shelter. She has few friends, actually she has one friend who happens to be an expert computer hacker (plot convenience number 2). She is emotionally stilted, quiet, a loner, of high intelligence. In fact, go down your serial killer checklist and it’s all there. Except it’s not really shown to us organically in the story, no Lane tells us, because Lane is a serial killer expert.

Early in the novel, Lane decides that her niche will be to get justice for all those wronged by criminals, and when she is caught in the act the press labels her the Masked Savior. So she gets to try and scratch her dark tendencies and feel good about it, yes just like Dexter.

When we first meet Lane, she has killed no one. But she really, really thinks she wants to. And then an infamous serial killer, the Decapitator, makes his/her yearly reappearance and draws Lane into a little game of serial killer cat and mouse.  As she investigates the case (made all the more easy because her mom is heading up the investigation and brings the files home), Lane learns that this time it is personal and parts of her past were hidden from her. I suspected several people along the way and was truly surprised by who the actual serial killer turned out to be, and I’m not entirely sure it fits because we didn’t see very many hints of it along the way.

A Deeper Look

There are, for me, the inclusion of a couple of problematic storytelling choices that contribute to what is commonly referred to as rape culture. Rape culture is defined as “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.  Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.” (Marshal University Women’s Center)

In the beginning of the book, Lane is watching the trial of a serial rapist. He is found innocent due to lack of evidence (of course, because aren’t they always) and she then pursues him in the act as her first act of vigilantism. This whole sequence was semi-graphic and potentially triggering, and it was a non-essential plot point. All we needed here was some type of serial crime that Lane could be drawn into. I felt that the inclusion of sexual violence as the go to crime reinforced negative cultural messages that suggest that sexual crimes against women can be used casually as a storytelling device and how easy it is for us to accept this notion as readers because we are so systematically used to it that we don’t even pause to consider its inclusion. My concern is that constantly seeing these types of sexual crimes as a storytelling device makes it easier for us to accept and glance over these crimes in the real world because we become enculturated to them. This is not a book about sexual violence that asks us to consider the immediate and after effects, but it is a book that uses an instance of sexual violence to propel this girl’s journey as she explores her personal inner darkness, so any crime would have done. It is also important to note that a majority of rapes are not in fact executed as these are by individuals who target strangers and crawl through their bedroom windows with a weapon; most people who are raped are actually raped by someone known to them and they continue to have a hard time getting their cases taken seriously because stories like these fuel the narrative that this is the only type of rape that is truly rape. In fact, 73% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim according to RAINN.

Of course you can also argue that since Lane goes after this man to get justice that it doesn’t, in fact, condone the sexual violence. But again, any type of crime would have sufficed as her catalyst. I would argue that anytime that sexual violence is used as a more casual story point without really exploring the ramifications and impact of said crimes then it is contributing to rape culture. And yes, I know that there are people who would argue this point.

There is another disconcerting scene which involves what appears to be a clear case of slut shaming. Slut shaming “is a concept in sexuality. It is a neologism used to describe the act of making any person feel guilty or inferior for certain sexual behaviors or desires that deviate from traditional or orthodox gender expectations, or that which may be considered to be contrary to natural or religious law.” I’m sorry but the definition is from Wikipedia. But I am of two minds about this scene:

     “My sister’s a slut. It’s common knowledge she’s already had sex several times, and according to gossip she gives okay hand jobs but is excellent at fellatio. 
     I walked in on her having sex last year. She didn’t miss a beat as she kept riding the guy and glanced over to me in the doorway.
    She’ll end up pregnant. Watch. Or with an STD. Sometimes I wonder whatever happened to the little sister I carried two blocks home after she wrecked on her new bike.” (page 34, may be subject to change as this is a pre-published ARC).

Here’s the deal: that reads as straightforward slut shaming. She even uses the word slut. BUT, she is also clearly a sociopath with emotional and intimacy issues, a tendency to OCD behaviors which include not liking bodily fluids, etc. – so she isn’t necessarily a reliable narrator. You could argue that since we are receiving this message through the filter of Lane, showing her psychological issues, the book as a whole is not slut shaming. The problem is, Lane’s language in this scene follows the cultural norms of slut shaming, so many readers will take at face value that Daisy’s behavior makes her a bad person.

In the end, I don’t recommend this book because I thought it failed to tell the story in a way that really drew the reader in, because of the problematic elements mentioned, and because the story is not unique and, in my opinion, it has been done better in some more recent books. For example, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga tells the same story in a way that really demonstrates the internal conflict of Jazz, the son of a notorious serial killer who fears he will end up like his dad; Jazz’s story really manages to draw you into his darkness and still elicit compassion. In a slightly similar vein, I also highly recommend The Naturals by Jennifer Lynne Barnes, similar plot points as Killer Instinct except the main character is not prone to the same urges as Lane. Having said that, this may be the only YA title that looks at this type of darkness inside of a female character. And I do believe that more casual readers just wanting to read more psychological thrillers will probably be satisfied. Kirkus called it a “zippy, gripping psychological drama” (Kirkus Reviews March 01, 2014).

Christie brought this ARC home from ALA Midwinter for me because she knows I like psychological thrillers. As a pre-published ARC it is possible that things may change in the editing process. Coming in May 2014 from Simon Pulse. ISBN: 9781481402859. Ages 14 and up, some mature content including sexual violence and violence.

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