Summary: Will Burgess is used to hard knocks. Abandoned by his father, son of a drug-addicted mother, and charged with raising his six-year-old sister, Will has far more to worry about than most high school freshmen. To make matters worse, Mia Samuels, the girl of Will’s dreams, is dating his worst enemy, the most sadistic upperclassman at Shadeland High. Will’s troubles, however, are just beginning. (continue reading description…)
I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Janz’s books, so when I heard he had a new release coming from Sinister Grin, I knew I had to find out more. Even though the plot description didn’t immediately pique my interest, Children of the Dark blew me away.
At first glance, it seems like a coming-of-age story set in a small town, but it’s a deceptively simple coming-of-age story mixed with small town horror told through the fifteen year-old protagonist, Will Burgess. Janz is a master storyteller who knows how to make readers care about his characters and I’m glad I went into the book not knowing what to expect, because it made it all the more satisfying to connect with Will and all those he cares about.
Janz’s work has an addictive quality that always keeps me turning the pages. This is the kind of book that is so engrossing that it almost made me miss my subway stop a few times. Children of the Dark is incredibly absorbing and it sucked me in completely.
I thought the author painted a very nuanced, complex portrait of teenage boys (and girls, not to mention some of the parents involved who were just as immature and selfish as teenagers at times) and even though Will’s expressions and thoughts were a bit too mature for his age and social status, I felt Janz balanced this with a healthy dollop of teenage boy characteristics that felt authentic and consistent.
Will’s best friend is Chris, who, even though he’s far more well-off financially isn’t exactly one of the popular kids. Chris proves himself to have a noble heart, which made him likable. Rounding out the cast are Rebecca, Chris’s crush, and Mia, Will’s crush along with the two jocks that torment Will and Chris for much of the book, Brad and Kurt (as well as Eric Blades, another popular but delinquent teen).
The only major gripe I had with this book was the fact that at certain times the author spoiled his own plot. I don’t know if this qualifies as a trope or plot device, but it makes me batty when stories do this: “Little did s/he know that just around the corner, danger lurked in wait for him/her” or some variation on that. This book did feature the plot device/trope a few times, which irked me both as a writer and as a reader.
However, one of Janz’s strong suits is the relationships and interactions between his characters. He did a great job with his depiction of the strained relationship between Will and his pill-popping mother. He captured Will’s loathing and resentment of his mother mingled with his caring for her and showing her softer edges as well as her absenteeism. Will’s relationship with his younger sister Peach, in which he functions as a de facto father figure, was also done well and tugged at my heartstrings.
The setting is a small town that has a forested area of caves called Savage Hollow, and it turns out to be just as foreboding as the name suggests. We learn soon after a few sightings of creatures with green eyes that there are things called the Children that I won’t spoil, but what I will say is that this book is pretty much the creature feature type of horror at its best, except you’ll care about the characters.
It’s the rule of good storytelling that just as things seem to be looking up for the main character, like when people who can help him come along, the author takes those characters away and hurts everyone who means something to the main character. Will Burgess is no exception.
Then there’s the matter of the serial killer, known as the Moonlight Killer, Carl Padgett, to exacerbate the already overwhelming threat that the Children bring to the story. I have to admit that when he first showed up, I wrote him off as the typical serial killer without much depth, but I’m happy to say that I was quickly proven wrong. There were some very interesting things relating to him that I was not expecting, which made the story even more compelling.
One of Padgett’s most vivid features was this infuriatingly smart brain that really got under my skin because I have known people like him who, even though they may not necessarily be book smart, are very cunning when it comes to understanding human nature and how to manipulate that to their advantage. I have to say it was a mild relief to find out that there was a supernatural explanation for this, which, again, I won’t spoil, but it ties into the plot in ways that made it impossible for me to put this book down.
Janz knows how to tug at the heartstrings of readers and to cause maximum amounts of anguish. Without spoiling the plot toward the end, there is a Sophie’s Choice moment that I thought was incredibly emotionally resonant and for me, Janz has proven yet again what an evocative writer he is.
The ending, and the epilogue in general, were things I thought the author handled well because as I later discovered, Children of the Dark is a prequel of sorts to Savage Species, which I thought was interesting.
Make sure that Children of the Dark is on your reading list this year, because even though the year has just begun, this novel is hands-down one of the best novels of the year as well as one of the best in the genre, period.