Doctor, this woman’s kidneys are missing
In my daughter’s high school, one of the year’s highlights for the theater crowd was Student Productions, short plays written/directed/performed by students. For the most part, they were either astonishingly good or astonishingly…not. My personal favorite was the one that the young cast saw as a step beyond X-Files in terms of thought-provoking, bloodcurdling, dystopian horror. We made it through various bits of eerie mayhem—including the alien birth (tastefully silhouetted behind a scrim, but I still recognized my daughter as the ‘mother’)—by not meeting the eyes of any other parents. Then the immortal line that sent shivers through the teenaged audience was delivered:“Doctor, this woman’s kidneys are missing!” Every parent in the auditorium lost it. We were gasping for breath, tears of laughter rolling down our cheeks. Our kids were just appalled.
That’s kind of how I feel about most YA dark fantasy that hovers on the edge of horror. I get why younger readers love it. But sometimes I just cringe. The many and fabulous tweets of @DystopianYA skewer the related genre of dystopian young adult novels in merciless parody, but also draw blood when it comes to YA fantasy tropes in general:
- Love triangle:
–I hate to say it, but as the Chosen One, I’d actually think more than two boys would be interested in me.
–Ermias or Anthem? Now I have to deal with that choice, on top of leading a massive revolution. Life as a teenager is hard.
- Nobody has parents:
–The mysterious bad thing that happened to my dad has something to do with things.
–I miss my sister, and the chickens from our backyard. Sometimes I even miss my nondescript generic unhelpful mother.
- Series production:
–to be fair, there was serious foreshadowing in chapter 4 of the first book. (–@greggwinsor)
- YA plot monkeys:
–The death of Disposable Side Character still haunts me.
–Disposable Side Character would have wanted you to go on.
- Love is the (only) answer, and will conquer all evil and magic (with lots of blood and gore but without the need for geopolitical or historical infrastructure that would be super-boring to describe):
–We take each other’s hands. I feel lifted by his love for me, and I know I can’t fail. The System will fall.
- Love interest (most probably with green eyes, and much hair-flipping):
–Anthem holds me in his strong arms. I feel his strong arms around me. He has strong arms. Strong arms.
But, as I’ve said before, the power of tropes is that they work. In the hands of a good writer, they work well. For example, take today’s review of Shelley R. Pickens’ Unhinged (The Haunting of Secrest #2). Despite containing examples of every one of these tropes, Unhinged is an entertaining contribution to YA dark fantasy.
Aimee, the sixteen year old girl who can see your every memory with just one touch, is fresh out of the torture room after risking everything to capture a killer. Despite her instinct to avoid contact with others, she tries her best to find a new normal at school—perhaps even a boyfriend. But for those who are cursed, happiness and normality aren’t easy to obtain. A bizarre illness spreads like wildfire through the school and causes those around Aimee to lose their sanity before falling into a coma. Slowly, all the people she loves succumb to this strange disease.
Alone and terrified, she must use her curse to find a way to save her family and friends. As she delves deeper and deeper into their memories, she realizes David, a delusional person from her childhood, is the bigger threat that could destroy her. Despite the danger that surrounds her, she struggles to solve the puzzle before it’s too late to help those she cares for the most.
But as David moves closer to eliminating her, one puzzle still remains. Will she be able to save herself?
*DISCLAIMER: This book contains themes of violence and may not be appropriate for all readers.
Is it clinical depression if you’re cursed? Aimee Richardson, a sixteen-year-old high school student, should know. After all, she’s been through hell. It killed her. But she emerged, still cursed but with a loving adoptive mother, best friend, and even a boyfriend. Life should be good, right? Well, not if she’s still doomed to experience the memories of people she touches.
Careful to wear gloves and avoid skin-to-skin contact, she keeps even those she loves at a distance. But when people at her school begin to fall prey to a mysterious “illness” that drives them to homicidal madness, she has to question even the precarious life she’s carved out for herself. Sixteen years of experience taught her to be suspicious of others, but when those she loves become the next victims of the plague, she’s forced to turn to two strangers for help. Brett, another student at her high school calls her his “dark princess” and seems driven to provide assistance. And Dr. Evans, a forensic pathologist, seems strangely familiar with the specifics of Aimee’s curse.
I haven’t read the first volume in this series, so there are a few details I don’t know. But for the most part, author Shelley Pickens provides just enough backstory to make Unhinged work on its own. As dark fantasy, magic in Unhinged is a curse. The threat is that it will be used to mind rape the populace into submission. Apparently, it can only be defeated by the most powerful thing in the (YA) universe—love.
I ignore the gun and look David straight in the eyes. “You’re right. You’ll never be my equal. Because you have no idea how to love.”
David laughs. “Love? Who cares about love? I’m about to be the most powerful man in the world. You can take your love and shove it.”
Aimee is, for lack of a better term, the Eeyore—the teen version of the gloomy grey donkey of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. She only wears black, reminds us with virtually every breath that she’s cursed (not to mention a social disaster), and has unrelievedly pessimistic trust and self-esteem issues. “But cursed people don’t get happy endings. Sadly, the cursed never live long enough to see them.” However, we also see a different Aimee through the eyes of the people who value her. And over the course of Unhinged, the Aimee we initially meet has to change and grow into the person everyone else sees, and who is willing to save everyone because she’s the only one who can. “Well, screw that. If I have to die to save the ones I love, than that is what I choose–no one else.”
The pace stutters a bit in places, with the story setup—numerous examples of fellow students and others succumbing to the “sickness”—being great for shock content but a bit repetitive. Although there are a surprising number of references to faces covered with various emotions and voices that drip things, the writing is for the most part clear, competent, and often lovely. Take, for example, Aimee’s reliving of her boyfriend’s memories from the first time he sets eyes on her:
“What I thought was the worst thing that could happen to him, he sees as the best. Perhaps we are all destined to fall for that one person that is able to see us as we wish we could see ourselves—perfectly imperfect.”
There are a few plot holes (nobody ever seems to just pull out their cellphone and summon emergency assistance), some gory scenes, and much foreshadowing for the next book in the series, but for the most part Unhinged is just what it sets out to be: a dark, occasionally gruesome, thrill ride and a great example of the genre. I would give it four stars and look forward to more from this talented author.
*I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Book Title: Unhinged (The Haunting of Secrest #2)
Author: Shelley R. Pickens
Genre: Dark Urban Fantasy
Length: 170 pages
Publisher: Amazon Digital (April 23, 2015)
Contact and Buy Links:
Shelley Pickens is a Spanish teacher by day and a novelist by night. She’s been in love with everything paranormal since she can remember. After years of teaching high school students, she decided to take her firsthand knowledge of young adults and apply it to her passion for creative writing and fantasy. When not teaching or writing, Shelley likes to spend time with her husband and two beautiful children in Atlanta, Ga. Her escape from reality is her love of complex thriller and science fiction TV series like Supernatural and Sleepy Hollow. In her spare time she is an avid watcher of little league baseball.