YA Weekend: Bent Heavens by Daniel Kraus
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Young Adult
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. BYR (February 25, 2020)
Length: 304 pages
For so long, I’ve been on the lookout for a YA horror that truly terrifies me, and I think I’ve found it. That’s not to say author Daniel Kraus doesn’t make a few plays toward YA traditions in Bent Heavens, but after reading it, I certainly feel as though I’ve been through a hellish, insanity-inducing nightmare and barely made it back with my mind intact.
Our story stars Liv Fleming, whose father Lee went missing more than two years ago, shortly after he started becoming mentally unstable and claiming that he had been a victim of alien abduction. The resulting paranoia had led Lee to take his daughter and her childhood friend Doug out into the woods to set traps for the aliens, which never ended up snaring anything more interesting than the odd squirrel. Still, even with her dad gone now, Liv continues to go out with Doug to the woods each day to check on the traps, partly out of tradition and partly out of hope. Even though what Lee had claimed about his abduction seemed impossible, neither do the teens want to believe that the man, whom they had both loved and respected, had been completely out of his head.
But then one day, just when Liv was about to give up hope and take down the traps once and for all, she and Doug find a strange, monstrous-looking creature caught in one of them. With shock and horror, they realize Lee had been right, which now puts his disappearance in a whole new light. Desperate to find out what had become to her father, Liv reluctantly goes along with Doug’s plan to keep the alien a secret while they figure out how to communicate with it and force it reveal Lee’s whereabouts.
Much of this occurs in the first half of the book, where the content remains quite tame. It’s what happens later on—as the story descends into dark, uncomfortable and disturbing territory—that makes Bent Heavens such a chilling, skin-crawling read. The beauty in it, too, is that there is not just a single dimension to this terror. It’s difficult to describe without giving away too much of the plot, but I will say the reason why I thought this novel was so effective is because of the combination of graphic detail and an atmosphere of unease. Kraus doesn’t pull any punches, and many of the ideas in here are meant to make you squirm, or like you’ve just taken a sucker punch to the gut. One-part body horror, one-part psychological thriller, this novel is designed to explore the darkness of human nature and the lengths we go to justify certain choices.
Bent Heavens is a “mature” YA horror in that sense, one I would hesitate to recommend to everyone, let alone every teen, because there are moments that get too “real” for comfort despite the story’s speculative fiction undertones. So be aware, this book is not for the faint of heart, and if you do not want to read about themes related to pain, cruelty and torture, I would stay far away.
Personally speaking, though, the darkness was what I loved about this book, the bold way it was written, knowing the complex emotions it would stir up and not caring. In fact, in some ways I wish this had been a purely adult novel, so we could have dispensed with certain YA conventions such as the exaggerated, high-school-style affectations in the dialogue or over-embellished prose. Liv herself is pumped full of adolescent angst, and she’s also involved in a lot of petty school-related drama that ultimately served little purpose. Furthermore, there was a pitiful attempt to shoehorn in a romance when the story really didn’t need one. Bruno’s presence seemed entirely unnecessary, and by the end of the book you realize he was just there as a tool to further plot development. Worse was how underdeveloped his character was, and rarely do Liv’s thoughts of him go beyond ogling his good looks. There’s meaningful diversity and then there’s token representation, and unfortunately, Bruno’s shallow portrayal makes it feel like the latter.
That said, the overall storyline was solid and tightly paced, even with the aforementioned diversions and the needless hanky-panky with Bruno, because in the greater scheme of things, any flaws were just minor distractions. On the whole, Kraus did a phenomenal job tracing Liv’s evolution of thought, which serves as a reflection on the darker side of human psychology. Because of this, none of the main characters are going to feel all that sympathetic, but likely this is by design. And finally, there’s the ending, which admittedly had a twist that I saw coming, yet it was still so nauseatingly and viscerally awful and devastating that I think the intended emotional impact was still felt.
So yes, Bent Heavens is a book that will stay with me for a long time. I would recommend it—but with caveats. You’ll probably need to be in a certain frame of mind to read and appreciate it, but if a truly unsettling horror is what you’re looking for and the novel’s description piques your interest, I would give it a try.