Graphia, $8.99, ISBN 978-0-547-97043-1
This is it, the last book in Jackie Morse Kessler’s Riders of the Apocalypse series, Breath. You can read this one as a standalone story, but I believe that doing so without reading the previous books in the series may very well dilute your enjoyment of those books. Also, doing this may set up unrealistic expectations about those books. This one is a very different book in terms of atmosphere and structure, with the previous book Loss coming close to being similar.
The previous books have a troubled teen as the anchor protagonist, but Breath has Death has the protagonist. The teen here, Xander Atwood, exists more to complement and challenge Death in this story. While he does play a significant role in this story, he’s not going to be the guy many people remember by the time they reach the last page. The rock star here is Death, a character openly modeled after a romanticized ideal of Kurt Cobain.
Xander is an emo teen, but Death is the emo superstar here. Not that I blame Death – he has existed for so long, being one of the first beings that walked this world when it first came to be, so much so that if anybody has the right to be depressed, it’s that guy. Anyone forced to listen to everything that dies – animals, insects, people, probably even protozoa – whine about his or her life pretty much every other minute will go crazy within the first year, so I’m cutting Death some slack here.
In this story, Death decides that it is time for him to take a bow after one last performance. The thing is, if Death dies, so does everything else in this world. How odd that Xander, a teen who just happens to have an interesting connection to Death, may end up being the only person that stands between existence and extinction of the entire world. Can these two morose personalities come to some kind of middle ground?
Breath is the closest the author has ever come so far to presenting a story that is a hybrid of sorts between a The Twilight Zone episode and Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat. Death has a mocking and deceptively sanguine exterior, but deep down the guy is a walking rack of My Chemical Romance CDs. Just like Lestat, Death doesn’t make a big issue out of his deep-seated issues: instead, he turns everything into a mesmerizing performance that appeals to me. It is as if I’m reading Anne Rice for the first time, before I get bored and jaded by all the emo theatrics present in bandwagon-hopping books that followed Anne Rice’s vampire series, the way I find Death such an intriguing personality.
The other three Horsemen of the Apocalypse make an appearance, with mixed results. Missy, who is now War, seemed to regress as a character, and it’s disappointing to see her in a oh-so-tedious catfight match with the other female in the gang, Famine. Yes, yes, females hate one another and can’t get along, can we just move on to something less clichéd? On the other hand, Famine gets fleshed out more, and she comes off as a pretty sympathetic, if not entirely heroic, character. Deep inside, she’s still a lost and scared teen, and I can certainly relate to that.
Now, Breath is quite a slow story, as it focuses more on Death’s feelings, thoughts, past, motivations, and desires. Despite the fact that I thought the polka version of Smells Like Teen Spirit is superior to original version by Nirvana, I personally find the whole thing riveting – I read the entire book in one sitting. Still, I feel that the ending feels a bit too upbeat where Death is concerned. I like the closure for War and Famine – Pestilence’s story arc is over in his book, so he’s sort of just being here in this story – and Xander oddly enough only becomes interesting when his own closure arrives. For Death, however, I can’t help feeling that he has just moved back to square one by the last page. The idea of Death repeating this emo show every few centuries kind of makes the entire story feel less special.
Breath lacks the scorching teen angst that is present in the previous books in this series, as it’s emo overload on the menu all the way from start to end. But there is Death, some beautifully poetic scenes, and oh yes, there is Death. I read this book when I was in the hospital while undergoing some pretty painful medical procedures, and I actually felt comforted by it – a story about emo people wanting to die and what not. So yes, this book definitely works for me.