Audiobook Review: The Bright Lands by John Fram
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 (Overall): 2.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Mystery
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Harper Audio (July 7, 2020)
Length: 12 hrs and 42 mins
Narrators: Luis Selgas
Football and horror. These are the two cornerstones that make up The Bright Lands, John Fram’s debut about secrets and the supernatural in a small, insular Texas town. It was an ambitious effort, I’ll give it that, but ultimately, I thought the novel struggled to evince both its main themes, which at times resulted in a rambling, clichéd plotline and uninspiring characters that failed to interest me.
More than ten years ago, former high school quarterback Joel Whitley left Bentley, Texas for Manhattan, New York after being ostracized for being gay in the small conservative town. But now he’s back, brought home by a series of worrying texts from his younger brother Dylan, himself a star quarterback who is feeling more and more disenchanted with the culture of the game that their whole town worships.
But then Dylan disappears, leading Joel to team up with Sheriff’s Deputy Starsha Clark for the investigation into the missing teen. The two of them have a history, having dated briefly before Joel came out and left town, not to mention the way Dylan’s case also brings back painful memories for Starsha of her own brother’s disappearance.
Interspersed through this main thread are also a profusion of other subplots, some that have greater significance than others, though admittedly more than a few are trivial in the greater scheme of things. Unfortunately, I thought this scattered focus was the book’s greatest flaw. Like a lot of debuts, I think The Bright Lands suffered from a first-time novelist’s eagerness to include as many ideas and themes he can think of without considering how that kind of overload will negatively impact the overall story. Mainly, it inevitably divides the reader’s attention between too many plot points and character perspectives.
On that note, I also had a hard time connecting with any of the characters, which is a shame because as much a I want to praise this book for its efforts in representation, its execution is seriously flawed. For one thing, Joel is supposed to be our main protagonist, but his characterization doesn’t get nearly the amount of development or page time he deserves as the story skips too often between different POVs. Other characters are also painted in broad strokes, relying heavily on hackneyed stereotypes especially when it comes to high school football players and cheerleaders, police officers, and generally southern townsfolk.
I was also first drawn to The Bright Lands because of its description of a small-town horror, but after finishing it, I feel I have to challenge that label. Yes, there are elements of the supernatural, but the story mostly reads like a mystery or a police procedural. There’s a lot more drama than action, and when you do get the latter, it’s more of the thriller variety rather than true horror. I was most disappointed in this of all because the premise itself had so much potential, but the ending was more of a head-scratcher than a jaw-dropper, and its so-called answers also left a lot to be desired. In addition, there were a few explicitly graphic scenes that just felt out of place.
And finally, with regards to the football aspect, we are told it is king in Bentley, but speaking as someone with minimal interest in sports, it would take a lot more showing rather than telling to create a realistic sense of setting, which the writing failed to provide. For me, this resulted in a greater feeling of disconnect between myself and the story, the world-building and character motivations. Consequently, I found myself struggling to get into the book while finding more and more excuses to take breaks from it.
The audiobook version was great, but could be better, and I can’t really fault the production or the narrator too much. I think too many characters and plot threads will make it difficult for any one person to keep voices and accents consistent, and it was confusing at times to figure out which POV I was following, but Luis Selgas did his best. Still, overall I can’t really recommend The Bright Lands as it such a disappointing case of unfulfilled potential.