Friday, May 27, 2011

And You Thought *Your* High School Experience Was Bad: A Review of Jackie Morse Kessler's Rage

Title: Rage
Author: Jackie Morse Kessler
Edition: Paperback
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2011)
Pages: 213
How I Came By This Book: This one came in on a cart full of new acquisitions one day when I was working at the library and I had the pleasure of going through them all. I'd heard things about the first book in the series, Hunger, and decided I'd check them both out.
Challenges: GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge

Synopsis: Missy didn't mean to cut so deep. But after the party where she was humiliated in front of practically everyone in school, who could blame her for wanting some comfort? Sure, most people don't find comfort in the touch of a razorblade, but Missy always was...different.

That's why she was chosen to become on of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: War. Now Missy wields a new kind of blade--a  big, brutal sword that can cut down anyone and anything in her path. But it's with this weapon in her hand that Missy learns something that could help her triumph over her own pain: control.

A unique approach to the topic of self-mutilation, Rage is the story of a young woman who discovers her own power, and refuses to be defeated by the world.

Review: After the disaster that was Hunger, I really wasn't expecting much from this novel, the second in Jackie Morse Kessler's Horsemen of the Apocalypse series. Well, I take that back. I expected a thin plot, poorly-defined characters, extreme over-usage of bad dialogue, and far too much self-pity on the part of the main character. What I found, instead, surprised me.

Kessler seems to have grown a lot as a YA writer since Hunger. Melissa Miller, or Missy, is a fleshed-out (although, yet again, completely undescribed) character who I found myself rooting for from page one. She was a lot more confident than the cloying Lisa from the last book and she was much more likable to boot. Her reaction to Death when she first meets him is what put her in my good graces: she slams the door in his face. At that moment I knew that she was a marked improvement over Hunger's heroine. Death says it best himself: "I don't know if I'm insulted or amused....Definitely amused. I like her." (p. 5)

Missy is strong, whether she thinks so or not. She tries so hard to keep herself from cutting and tends to win out over the strong urges she gets to do so. I have several friends who have a history with self-mutilation and was worried that Kessler would treat the subject in the same disrespectful way as she did anorexia in the last book. Instead, Kessler created a much more believable (and thorough) character history so that the reasons behind Missy's addiction to cutting, after a while, became understandable. She, like many teens, was bowing under the pressure from her parents and her teachers to exceed their expectations and found that she was unable to do so. Cutting relieved the pain she felt over not measuring up to what her parents wanted her to be.

Unlike Hunger, the other characters in the book seemed more realistic. Sure, the party scene towards the beginning of the novel read like every single high school movie I've ever watched--teens getting together to drink, screw, and cause mayhem--but with few exceptions, the dialogue, the behavior, and the personalities of these teens were much more true-to-life than in the last book. I have to say that the insults hurled at Missy were a little weak and some of them seemed unrealistic, but I can overlook that by saying that perhaps Kessler was attempting to show how ridiculous these kids were for taunting a girl who clearly had a problem.

I felt physically ill for Missy when she was betrayed by someone she thought she could trust, exposing her scars to the entire school. It was then that I really started to feel for her and to hope that things would turn out all right in the end. I never got to a point in Hunger where I felt like that for Lisa. I feel that Kessler's character-building skills have improved ten-fold, even if her dialogue still needs a little work. And I could definitely use more character description. Would it really kill you to at least give me a hair color, Jackie? Throw me a bone, here.

Death is, as usual, amazing. He's still just as funny and strange and fracking awesome as he was in the first book. Of course, I could be a little biased considering that I appreciate the fact that he looks like Kurt Cobain a little more than some of the younger readers might. Whatever. He's definitely the character to read these books for. Famine (a new Famine) and a going-crazy Pestilence show up at various points throughout the book and I'm definitely hoping that if there are any more books in this series that they get fleshed out some more. They could be really great characters if Kessler would put as much time into them as she did into creating Death.

The plot was definitely not as thin this time around, although there was a lot of repetition from the first book. Missy didn't have as hard of a time adjusting to her new office, which was refreshing, but there was still a showdown with Famine, still a trip to a grief-stricken part of the world that caused a change in attitude, still a family tension that, while better explained, was sort of weak. I'm guessing that if Kessler's growth as an author continues, however, that by the time her fourth or fifth novel comes out, I'll have very little to complain about. I hope.

There is one major thing that I have to complain about, something that almost ruined the character of Missy for me very early on. You may not think it's major, but for me, it was nearly a deal-breaker. On page 11, Missy and her sort-of friend Erica are talking in art class about a party that Erica wants to go to but that Missy doesn't. Erica asks her what she would wear if she went and Missy replies that she'll wear her normal black. Erica agrees that that's what she would be wearing, too. I'm fine with this so far. Black is a very natural color to wear. I've worn a lot of black in my time. There's a line, however, that made me want to throw the book down and scream:
Missy wore black because it was the color of her soul. Erica wore black because it was trendy. (emphasis added)
Really? Really, Kessler? Black is the "color of her soul?" That's the kind of phrase that makes me want to vomit, partly because it's overused, but mostly because it's so ridiculously dramatic. You know what, Missy? I'm going to guess that your soul is actually pink. Or...robin's egg blue. You know why? Because that's just as likely as it being black. Gah! Whenever someone says that, I want to jab my eye out with a fork. Those two sentences could have been taken out and it wouldn't have done anything to hurt the book. In fact, it would have improved it.

Other than that slip in judgement, I actually really enjoyed this book. It focused more on the action and the struggle to make up for what Missy has lost in being completely humiliated than it does on her having a self-mutilation problem. Missy plays soccer; she likes Marilyn Monroe. She worries about her depression and her cutting, sure, but it doesn't consume 50% of the book like Lisa's anorexia did. The ending was pretty decent and I was glad that Missy made the decision that she did in the end.

I can't give this book a five out of five because there were still some logistical issues that I had with it and because Kessler decided that "black like my soul" is an acceptable phrase that doesn't have the same effect as nails on a chalkboard. Rage does, however, merit a four out of five Gabriels. I'm actually looking forward to other books in this series, especially if Kessler continues to get better as a writer. It's sort of interesting to watch her growth and I'm hoping to someday be able to give her a full score.



  1. You and your death books. :]

  2. I do love them so. LOL

    Funny story, though. Jackie Morse Kessler actually read this review (and the not-so-nice one that I wrote for Hunger) and e-mailed me about them. She was so nice about it and was just explaining her reasons behind not using physical descriptions, but I had a mild freak out moment knowing that an author was actually reading my reviews. :) We ended up e-mailing back and forth for a bit and, while I stick by what I said, I'm really looking forward to future books by her.

  3. Oh!!! I'm so happy for you! The first time an author emailed me I freaked out. I pretty much told everyone and their mother. I was in a very sad state. And yet I was so happy. :)

  4. I was pretty psyched, too, in spite of also being terrified. :)

    Now if only Deanna Raybourn or Neil Gaiman would contact me, I'd consider myself a pretty successful blogger. LOL

  5. Soon enough. I just asked Neil Gaiman for an interview on my blog. If he responds I'll send him your way. Okay?

  6. I don't know if I'd even know how to respond to an e-mail from him. LOL

  7. I'm sure you could think of something. :]