Graphia, $8.99, ISBN 978-0-547-44528-1
Wow. My reaction to Rage, the second young adult fantasy novel in Jackie Morse Kessler’s Riders of the Apocalypse series, is so raw and visceral that there are times when I feel as if all the old wounds in my psyche had been ruthlessly reopened by the author using a scalpel.
No, I don’t want to make this review all about me, but my own teenage years were not exactly sunny and nice. There were moments of humiliation, of doubts – was I really as much a loser as they all called me? – and, hidden away deep in my heart during those years, an explosive rage borne of the desire to lash out at those jerks and also of the helplessness, of being trapped, with no one to confide in. As Tori Amos would say in her emotionally charged song Little Earthquakes: and I hate, and I hate, and I hate andIhateHATEHATE the way we fight, the way I’m left here, silent. Reading this book has me feeling all that anger, despair, and frustration for the heroine. It’s not a pleasant feeling, but the fact that Ms Kessler succeeded in capturing that painful slice of adolescent angst in a way that I find so, so real and painful to read – that is glorious.
Melinda “Missy” Miller has it bad. The boy she has a crush on and lost her virginity to ends up being one of her many tormentors in school, her sister is embarrassed of her, and she has no one to turn to. Her parents are caught up in their own matters that they have no idea what Missy is going through. Meanwhile, Missy is feeling alone and isolated. In a typical defiance felt only by those who have no one else to turn to anymore, she tries to tell herself that she doesn’t care what people think even as she cuts herself to find succor from her daily pain. Then one day, she gets an unlikely visitor: Death, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. There is a vacancy for the position of War, and guess who is the lucky lady chosen to fill that position.
With all that rage slowly balling up inside her, Missy is a walking time bomb. Yet, being given great powers to hurt her tormentors may just be her salvation. No, this is not a sequel to Carrie, although I have better warn you: Missy goes through pure hell in this story, so much so that I know readers who feel cheated that Missy doesn’t wield her big magic sword and cut down everyone in her path. A part of me feels cheated as well, heh, but then again, we can always read Stephen King’s Carrie for that kind of catharsis. This story isn’t about revenge. It’s about survival, about Missy making through her ordeals without being even more badly damaged in the process.
As I’ve said, Rage is a brutal read. It hits too close to home, reopening scars that I thought had healed, and, in that few hours when I am reading this book, putting me into Missy’s shoes and making me relive all that pent up rage at being unable to do anything to end the chain of humiliation and abuse suffered at the hands of one’s peers. This book is a raw read because Missy’s situation doesn’t feel exaggerated for the sake of drama – it’s an exhausting and degrading vicarious drowning experience at the bottom of the high school social hierarchy. I especially like how Ms Kessler opts to take this story down a different route from the expected “Missy gets special powers and cheerfully rips apart her enemies as the reader cheers her on” cliché. The end result is not as satisfying, but it’s perhaps something that readers who are in the same leaking boat as Missy need to read and believe.
But as much as I laud that effort, I feel that the execution could have been a bit better. As it is, by the last chapter, the story feels like it has dramatically morphed from a painful memoir set to every single track in Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes into Pink’s Fuckin’ Perfect. Not that this is a bad thing, since I actually cried when I watched the music video for that song – oh, don’t laugh. Still, the transition from bleakness to hope in the space of one chapter is too abrupt, giving the last chapter a tinge of a Hallmark movie.
Still, that’s just a minor complaint. I’m going to put aside Rage for now because I’m just drained emotionally after reading this book. But you can bet that I’d be revisiting this book soon. The vicarious beat down that leaves me feeling wonderfully bruised all over is the sign of a story that succeeds in reeling me in, emotionally and intellectually, and damn if it doesn’t feel great.