Imagine you’re a fifteen year old boy bullied at school. You take care of your grandfather with Alzheimer’s, you’re secretly in love with your childhood best friend, and you avoid social networking sites because the last time you checked online, you met with a barrage of taunts and insults. Now imagine you find out that, because of a deal you unknowingly made when you were five, you are now destined to become one of the four Riders of the Apocalypse. Specifically, the current Pestilence is unable to Ride, and the power to spread disease and create plagues is in your hands. That’s the choice Billy Ballard faces in Jackie Morse Kessler’s Loss, the third book in her Riders of the Apocalypse series.
What a compelling concept! I was immediately attracted by the tough moral and emotional conflict promised by such a plot. I could see Billy go from playing the victim to possessing immense power, from fear to strength to (and much more difficult) realizing that true strength goes beyond the knee jerk revenge impulse. How far will he take his abilities? Will the bullied become the bully?
Unfortunately, Kessler opts not to delve too deeply into this aspect of the story. The back blurb tells us that Billy is horrified after he makes people sick, and so he decides the current Pestilence should take back his crown. This sets into motion the next part of the story, where Billy needs to track down the current Pestilence — now “completely insane […] poised to unleash a plague” — and stop him. Does this bullied teen have the courage and the strength to face Pestilence and save the world? This is a much more ordinary quest/young-hero type story, and quite frankly, much less compelling than the first part. I had hoped that the part where Billy has to face his own dark side would take up at least half the book. However, he’s such a good kid that he spends barely even a couple of chapters wreaking havoc before he’s plagued by guilt (sorry) and sets off to save the world.
Kessler plays it safe with Loss, and that disappointed me. This is not to say that I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. If you’re looking for an inspirational tale about how a bullied kid can overcome fear and become a hero, Loss has that. It even includes a lesson on how learning someone’s story can help change your perspective about them — Billy finds out about the past of the current Pestilence, and this new knowledge transforms the figure from Billy’s nightmares into an old man who inspires sympathy. Personally, I would’ve preferred more action. Most of Billy’s hunt for Pestilence takes place in Pestilence’s memories and consists of Billy learning about Pestilence’s past. Worse, Kessler includes in these memories characters from literature (names changed somewhat, of course) — they did play important roles in the story, but I just found it too cutesy a device.
I found Loss too preachy, even as an anti-bullying inspirational book. I think the reason it felt so heavy-handed was that Kessler couched the message in fantasy/adventure terms and that part fell flat for me. Not enough adventure. Death, incarnated as a pale, blond street musician, is the most fascinating character in this story, and Pestilence in the past is certainly a tragic figure. Billy is definitely sympathetic, and I love the scene where he stands his best friend up because the bullies are also in the pizza parlour and he doesn’t want to face them. They just weren’t given much to do for most of the book. Kessler also reminded us several times that Billy wasn’t used to fighting back. That would then be followed with either “so he curled up into a ball and took a beating” or “but this time he’d had enough.” Good in terms of message, but also too obviously trying to get that message across.
There were several scenes I liked, particularly the one where the grandfather stands up to death and the one where Billy makes the bullies sick. I also like the idea near the end of white blood cells fighting disease; I thought that was a cool spin, and wish Kessler had done more with it. Loss had several interesting snippets, but not much of an overall impact.
To be fair, I’m not the book’s intended audience. I do think it will resonate more with a younger reader (tween/teen). Personally, I prefer books that really explore a character’s dark side (e.g. Hunger Games trilogy, or Stuart MacBride’s crime novels), and I thought this tale provided the perfect opportunity. That being said, Loss does offer a bit of hope for kids who are bullied, or who may have been conditioned to think of themselves as losers — Loss shows that they have the potential to be heroes.
Out of curiosity, have you read any particularly amazing anti-bullying YA novels?
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