Review: Bent Heavens – Horrific, Depressing, and Super Compelling

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Title: Bent Heavens
Author:
Daniel Kraus
Publisher:
Henry Holt and Co.

Genre(s): “YA” Horror, Contemporary
Subject(s): Alien abduction, torture

Release Date:
Feb 25th, 2020
Page Count: 304 (hardback)

Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

 

 

Liv Fleming’s father went missing more than two years ago, not long after he claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Liv has long accepted that he’s dead, though that doesn’t mean she has given up their traditions. Every Sunday, she and her lifelong friend Doug Monk trudge through the woods to check the traps Lee left behind, traps he set to catch the aliens he so desperately believed were after him.

But Liv is done with childhood fantasies. Done pretending she believes her father’s absurd theories. Done going through the motions for Doug’s sake. However, on the very day she chooses to destroy the traps, she discovers in one of them a creature so inhuman it can only be one thing. In that moment, she’s faced with a painful realization: her dad was telling the truth. And no one believed him.

Now, she and Doug have a choice to make. They can turn the alien over to the authorities…or they can take matters into their own hands.

CW: Depictions of physical torture, mutilation, (spoiler: human experimentation, body horror)

 

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Okay, listen.

This isn’t a nice book.

In fact, it’s a pretty damn depressing book.

It’s a book that roams the dark and shadowy place that Mufasa warns about. Nothing good can come of chasing it but death and singing hyenas.

Which is why I’m here, on my knees, asking you to chase read it.

Contradiction, thy name is Bent Heavens.

This is my third Daniel Kraus read (well, two and three-quarters–I still have to finish Zebulon Finch) and here’s what I’ve gathered about the guy so far: when you leaf through the pages of Dictionary: Daniel Kraus Edition, you’d find burnt holes under the entries “comfortable,” “pleasant,” and “simple.” Kraus doesn’t do soft. He doesn’t do pretty. Interpersonal horrors and intimate darkness–darkness made almost beautiful by its closeness–are spaces in which he thrives (which is why he works well with Guillermo del Toro, I suppose). He has a knack for taking discomfort and instinctual revulsion and turning them into compelling art.

Calling this book “art” might be an arguable point for some, but it is definitely compelling.

The first half is pretty slow, focused on the psychological ramifications of having a father who went missing and returned, telling everyone he’d been taken and experimented on by aliens, and then promptly disappeared again. It’s a stripped-down, realistic take of your typical abduction plotline; less of flashing lights and crop circles, and more of the abductee’s obsessions and fears and the toll they have on his family. It sets up the lonely and insulated environment for the main character quite well.

The second half is where things get truly heavy.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: this story has alien torture. Not as graphic as I’d thought it would be, but still pretty graphic. One of the characters quotes and takes inspiration from George W. Bush’s policies on torture of al Qaeda prisoners, and they become the springboard for everything that follows. And there’s a lot that follows: an exploration of prisoner/prison guard psychology; the ease with which people dehumanize and justify their dehumanization. What happens when tragedy meets anger in an echo chamber, Kraus asks, and then proceeds to muddy waters by slipping weariness into the mix. And more so than the anger, the latter is what really stuck with me. Atrocities you commit because you’ve been ground down and you’re exhausted and it’s easier to let someone else’s rage fuel you than to scrounge up your own and realize you’re not that angry–at least, not enough to brutalize. No. Much easier to give someone else the reins and follow.

I think passivity is a difficult trait to portray, as you’re fighting against reader expectations of what a protagonist should be, with popular media teaching us to love active characters and scoff at the inactive ones, but the author does a brilliant job of it. There are scenes that ride the edge of suffocation and frustration, and I would’ve hated them if they weren’t written so honestly. At the same time, I hated them because they were written so honestly.

The prose is the biggest complaint I have. I wish Kraus had used the first-person POV; it’s where he works best, and it would fits the narrative better, making the introspective scenes more, well, introspective. But maybe that’s exactly why he didn’t use it. Because he wanted a buffer between the readers and everything that happens with the characters. A deep dive into Liv’s emotions might have been too raw. Regardless, the third person POV combined with Kraus’ style–surplus descriptions and use of adjectives–has the unfortunate side effect of making things comically overdramatic at the wrong moments. And while the dialogue is mostly fine, sometimes it gets a little cringey:

“You’re a barrel of monkeys today.”
“I didn’t ask for this ride.”
“Will you take ten chill pills?”

My second complaint isn’t really a complaint, just another rendition of Why the Hell Is This Marketed As YA. I’ve looked at Kraus’s books in the past and thought, “I’m not sure what age group this belongs to,” and that feeling is doubled here. It’s very mature, despite the high school characters, and the themes would feel more at home in an adult horror/thriller.

If nothing else, though, I recommend it for the ending because it’s probably the most bonkers thing I’ve read in a while. I’d call it entertaining if I didn’t feel bad about finding it entertaining. Horrifically delightful? Delightfully horrific? It’s like watching a train plummet straight into a ravine, and then seeing a land kraken erupt out of nowhere and bash the locomotive to pieces. And you can only laugh at the chaos inbetween whispers of “What the fuck.”

So yeah. Not a nice book.

It’s twisted and claustrophobic and heartbreaking and–

And I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

So, come on, Simba. Take a walk on the dark side.

 

(Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review)

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Review: Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers 3) – A Cozy Space Soap Opera

Record of a Spaceborn Few

Title: Record of a Spaceborn Few
Author: Becky Chambers
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release Date: July 24th, 2018
Genre(s) and Subject(s): Space Opera, Aliens, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 368 (paperback)
Goodreads

Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

 

 

Becky Chambers’ third entry in her highly-acclaimed Wayfarers series opens with a catastrophic accident and a mass funeral. Thousands of people, including our main characters, come together in the wake of this tragedy to weep for those they’ve never even met. And this prologue really kind of sets the tone for the rest of the story. Celebration of life in the midst of death. A community coming together for support and healing.

I’ve seen the Wayfarers books compared with Mass Effect and Firefly, two very popular space opera franchises. And while I can see a few similarities in this book–humans tentatively coexisting with aliens, spaceships serving as homes–Spaceborn Few doesn’t have the sprawling, galactic feel of Mass Effect or Firefly. What it does excel at is homing in on all the minutiae of a person’s everyday life and blowing them up to dramatic proportions. In that respect, it reminded a lot of NBC’s drama series This is Us, complete with all the warm and fuzzy family dramas. These aren’t galaxy-spanning conflicts but microconflicts that don’t extend beyond one person, one family, but are just as meaningful, if not more.

We follow the lives of five characters who reside in the Exodus Fleet (either temporarily or permanently), which is a series of ships that set out from Earth generations ago in an attempt to carve out a new, better chapter for humanity.

Tessa is a mother of two and works at the cargo bay where she keeps track of the goods coming in and out of the Fleet. Her perspective was my favourite, as her interactions with her children, Aya and Ky, are so endearing and nauseating sweet (in a good way). 

Isabel is the oldest character of the group (she has grandchildren!). She’s an archivist who’s playing guide to an alien researcher who has come to visit the Fleet for the first time. I loved their little debates on the differences between human social nuances and alien ones. They serve as a celebration of the best of human culture but also an embracing of the “other.”

Sawyer is in his early twenties and unlike the other characters, he’s a newcomer to the Fleet. He’s come here to trace his family’s roots back to the place where it all really began (post-Earth) and to experience all that the Exodan culture has to offer. And boy, is he ever excited.

Eyas is a caretaker, and her job is to prepare dead bodies and bury them as fertilizer throughout the Fleet’s gardens. It’s a job that she loves but it does make for a lonely life, as many people are confused and repulsed by the idea of being intimate with someone who literally handles death on a daily basis. With Eyas’ POV we also get positive explorations of sex work, which I wholly loved and appreciated.

Kip is a teenage boy and the youngest of the cast. At sixteen he’s already tired of life on the Fleet and wants out badly (cue the Beauty and the Beast lyrics: “I want so much more than they’ve got planned”). Trouble is, he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life once he graduates.

There isn’t much of a plot. And I know some people will physically recoil at the very idea, but let me tell you, I’ve never been more entertained by a story with such a heavy focus on gardening, cooking, corpse-preparing, long distance phone-calling, and other such mundane activities. It’s as domestic as it gets and there’s comfort to be found in that.

Most of all, though, the story made me feel good. About humans. About being a human. About sexuality, relationships, and all the uncertainties that life likes to throw at our feet. Record of a Spaceborn Few is my first glimpse into Becky Chambers’ writing and it sure won’t be the last.

 

Copy provided by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review

Review: Annex (The Violet Wars 1) – Kids VS Aliens

Annex

Author: Rich Larson
Publisher: Orbit
Release Date: July 24th, 2018
Genre(s) and Themes: Sci-Fi, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 368 (paperback)
Goodreads

Rating: 7.0/10

 

 

 
Annex bucks my recent trend of reading books that have strong beginnings and lackluster endings, because I struggled hard with the beginning of this one. The book presents a city that’s been overrun by aliens. The adults have been captured and turned into non-violent, still-breathing zombies, and the children are being rounded up and experimented on. In the midst of this chaos, we follow the lives of a surviving group of children known as the “Lost Boys” who are led by a teen named Wyatt.

I came into the book expecting a sprawling alien invasion epic set on Earth a la Independence Day, except starring children. The reality, however, was rather different. Let’s count the ways, shall we?

  1. The story gives you zero introduction to the invasion situation.

From the beginning, I felt like I was thrown into the middle of a story that was already ongoing and my brain was a whirlwind of questions. Who are these aliens? What have they done with the adults? Is the whole world completely destroyed? Why are they experimenting on children? The book just gives you a coy wink and a smile in lieu of answers, and this drove me crazy.

2. The first half of the book is more like a Peter Pan/Lord of the Flies mashup against an alien invasion backdrop. 

I don’t know why it took me nearly half the book to figure this out considering the kids literally call themselves the “Lost Boys.” There’s a lot of focus on the dynamics within this little makeshift family, especially between Wyatt and the two main characters, and much of the beginning is just a recounting of their daily lives as they dodge and fight aliens. The scope is very narrow– because these children know very little about the aliens, we know very little about the aliens.

Once I’d finally made peace with these two points, things started to get a lot more enjoyable. And there is a lot to enjoy in this story. Lawson does action scenes very well-dynamic and exciting–and his descriptions of alien-related creations are fiendishly creepy and imaginative. I especially loved the “othermothers”–creatures made by the aliens to resemble the kids’ mothers, if their mothers had metal insect legs. They gave me heavy Bioshock vibes–kind of like a mix of splicers and Big Sisters.

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The characters are a colourful bunch. We have Bo, an eleven-year old boy who recently escaped from the warehouse where the aliens are performing experiments on kids. Unfortunately, he was my least favourite of the cast as I found him lacking in personality and far, far too old for his age. Then there’s Violet, a fifteen year-old trans girl who’s grappling with the fact that she’s free to be whoever she wants for the first time in her life but still mourning the loss of her parents. Her desire for acceptance and love is is something you can’t not empathize with, and her sassy attitude quickly won me over. There’s also Wyatt, leader of the Lost Boys and a Machiavellian rendition of Peter Pan. He’s charming, manipulative, despicable, campy–sometimes all at once–and wholly entertaining. Larson’s eye for snappy dialogue really brings him to life.

Then around the halfway mark, we meet Gloom the saboteur alien, who is hands-down the best character in the book and one of the more interesting side characters I’ve had the pleasure of meeting this year. Picture slender man in a bowler hat with a facial expression that just looks off. Picture slender man in a bowler hat with the ability to shapeshift. Picture a shape-shifting slender man in a bowler hat with an unintentionally dry sense of humour and an overall endearing personality. That’s Gloom in a nutshell. Is he as awesome as he sounds? You bet. He’s a precious blend of creepy and lovable and he steals pretty much every scene that he’s in.

All in all, Annex turned out to be a fun, fast-paced story that’s very contained and at times claustrophobic. It just took me some time to get settled into it.

~

Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review