Melissa Miller is not okay. For starters her home life is sort of a joke. Her parents are hardly ever available, emotionally or otherwise, because of their demanding careers so they think all is well on the home front. They have no clue that Melissa and her sister loathe each other, want nothing to do with one another. They don't know that Melissa is deeply troubled, in desperate need of help.
School is no better. Melissa's been a social outcast ever since her ex-boyfriend told everyone her big secret: she's been cutting herself for years. As she drifts from class to class she hears the lowered voices, the laughter. The name calling. "Melissa Miller is an emo dyke. Cutterslut. Freak.
The cherry on top? She somehow caught the attention of Death himself. During their first meeting he brazenly informs Melissa it's only a matter of time before she really messes up--cutting herself too deep and in the wrong place, bleeding out. He tells her the act will look intentional. Horrified by this revelation Melissa battles with the urge to cut and is successful for a few months despite the temptation.
It is when she is targeted by her peers, becomes the victim of a mercilessly cruel prank, she loses her resolve to not cut herself, accidentally taking things too far. In her most desperate moments Death appears to her once more, offering a deal: die or wield the sword of war; become a horseman of the apocalypse.
Sounds dark, heavy and a tad bit silly, no? Before I go ahead and answer that I want to explain my feelings about YA books that deal with serious issues.
I'd be lying if I said I haven't purposely been avoiding YA novels that deal with hard hitting issues like eating disorders, drug addiction, rape/sexual abuse, prostitution, suicide, and drunk driving. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I find such topics offensive--because I don't. It's because I don't want to submit myself to what might
amount to a novel-length public service announcement.
I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I saw every Very Special Episode of Growing Pains, Different Strokes, Family Ties, Saved By the Bell, and Full House. Every single one of those Very Special Episodes were ridiculous and entirely too heavy-handed in their delivery. Besides I already did my time. I survived adolescence. That's why, for the time being, I've chosen to forgo reading most YA novels dealing with hard-hitting issues, regardless of how good they may or may not be.
That said, I've always wanted to understand cutting. Understand why people do it, what the fascination is. Cutting wasn't a common practice while I was a teen, or--and I think this is most likely
--wasn't ever talked about. There were no After School Specials about cutting for us Gen-Xers, thank you very much.
So, back to the original question: is this book dark, heavy, and a little silly? My answer is yes. And no.
Horseman of the apocalypse storyline aside, the subject matter is quite dark but it's honest, it's real. Jackie Kessler holds nothing back, doesn't sugarcoat a thing. It's clear she did her research and I appreciate it. (How do I know? After I finished reading Rage I did a little research on cutting.). Far too often cutting is downplayed in the media, made to look like it's just a thing teenagers do to get attention and/or fit in. Another common misconception: all cutters are emo or goth. Kessler's character, Melissa, isn't emo or goth. She's just a girl who feels entirely too much but doesn't have a healthy way of dealing with her emotions. Melissa turns to cutting because it's a release of sorts.
Though I was somewhat skeptical at first, I ended up liking the whole horseman of the apocalypse storyline. Gimmicky or not it's a new, interesting and creative way to write about some of the serious issues teenagers deal with. It does not take away from the positive messages within the story.
Rage is the second book in the Horseman of the Apocalypse series. The first is Hunger, about a girl with a severe eating disorder who becomes Famine. In Rage the main character becomes War. At first I was unsure exactly what the connection was, why a cutter was chosen to become War. Why not a crazy violent rageaholic instead? Now all is said and done I believe Kessler made the right decision and was successful in making the connection. In fact I'd say she pretty much hit it out of the park.
As far as Kessler's writing goes: it's good, solid. I quite like Kessler's style of writing. It's clean. Every word has a purpose. Though this story deals with serious subject matter it doesn't take itself too seriously (example: Death looks an awful lot like a certain deceased alternative rock star). Everything plays out rationally, there are no cop-outs. Rage ends on an honest note, something I appreciate in YA fiction far more than anyone could imagine.
So, yeah, I'm going to go ahead and recommend Rage by Jackie Kessler. Four stars.
(My advanced copy of Rage was provided by Netgalley.)