They called it the killing day. Twelve people dead, all in the space of a few hours. Five murderers: neighbors, relatives, friends. All of them so normal. All of them seemingly harmless. All of them now dead by their own hand…except one. And that one has no answers to offer the shattered town. She doesn’t even know why she killed—or whether she’ll do it again.So two things to know about The Waking Dark:
Something is waking in the sleepy town of Oleander’s, Kansas—something dark and hungry that lives in the flat earth and the open sky, in the vengeful hearts of upstanding citizens. As the town begins its descent into blood and madness, five survivors of the killing day are the only ones who can stop Oleander from destroying itself. Jule, the outsider at war with the world; West, the golden boy at war with himself; Daniel, desperate for a different life; Cass, who’s not sure she deserves a life at all; and Ellie, who believes in sacrifice, fate, and in evil. Ellie, who always goes too far. They have nothing in common. They have nothing left to lose. And they have no way out. Which means they have no choice but to stand and fight, to face the darkness in their town—and in themselves.
1) it’s beautifully written
2) it’s intensely, distressingly, drainingly dark
All of the content warnings.
It’s Beautifully Written
So, from a plot perspective, Waking Dark is pretty basic. I don’t really want to say much up front, because knowing where the story is going undermines some of the intrigue of what comes before, but suffice it to say, it ends up covering a lot of familiar territory. Plot isn’t what Waking Dark concerns itself with, so if you’re a plot-or-nothing kind of reader, this one might not be for you. The majority of the low-star reviews on GR cite boredom, and I can understand that, because Waking Dark really only cares about two things: character development and atmosphere. It’s not fast-paced action thrill ride, but I ended up being fine with that, because what Waking Dark does, it does very, very well.
The characterization here is fucking stellar, you guys. Once again we’ve got a book that juggled multiple narrators – six primary MCs + three or four others who get a sequence or two – except this time, each and every one of them is a complex, distinct individual with the weight of a life behind them. They don’t feel like plot devices or mouth pieces. They feel like people. People who exist, people you might know, people in all of their flawed, fucked-up glory.
The MCs, in particular, are wonderful teenage messes who’re allowed to do dumb, even straight-up bad things, without the narrative urging us to judge them for it. The book is a chronicle of their circumstances and reactions, the choices that they make in a terrible situation. It’s the sort of thing where I’d probably normally be frustrated by a gaggle of characters making dumb decisions because the plot requires it, but because the characters are so well-developed, even when the decisions surprised me, or seemed awfully convenient for the plot, I still understood them. Shit still makes sense.
The relationships were nicely developed, too. There was no insta-love in sight, and each of the characters had plenty of time to know one another – the good, the bad, and the ugly – so the bonds that formed felt both genuine and earned.
Then there’s the prose. Holy shit, what a fucking reprieve, let me tell you. The Waking Dark‘s prose is tense and moody, evocative and visual, with few-to-no awkward phrases to trip over or laugh at. The dialogue could occasionally get a little CW-mandatory-snark, but it’s 80% internal monologue, so you know, acceptable ratio. It’s atmospheric as fuck, too, which is always a treat to find in a YA horror. Early scenes are creepy and suspenseful and horrific and surreal, and the further the book pushes in to the madness of its set-up, the more ominous the atmosphere becomes. Once I hit the halfway point, the dread and foreboding were so palpable that reading it was genuinely emotionally exhausting.
This is probably the most important thing that I could tell you about The Waking Dark: it gets really hard to read.
So here’s the non-spoiler version: people do awful things in The Waking Dark. Like really awful. This isn’t super spoilery, because it happens almost immediately, but like a character-kills-a-baby awful. There is violence and murder and sexual threat everywhere in this book. All of the female characters, and both gay ones, are threatened with rape. There are numerous violent deaths and while there are no explicit rapes, there are two sexual assaults.
And I can’t defend any of that. That is the book. Terrible people doing terrible things. To get a bit more spoilery, we’re in Under the Dome/The Mist territory here – it’s all about the monsters that people turn in to, the way societies devolve, when they’re isolated from the world. Lawless violence and anarchy. It’s hard to read. It’s a set-up that I personally find incredibly stressful, and I don’t know if I would have read The Waking Dark if I’d been aware of where it was going to end up.
That being said, for a book that deals with the constant threat of sexual violence, I think Waking Dark handles it reasonably well. The impact on the female characters is never ignored. They’re never ex- or implicitly blamed by the narrative, even in situations where that would have been very easy to do. The rapist gets a fitting comeuppance.
The gay characters aren’t sexually assaulted, but both are subjected to physical violence because of their sexuality. The perpetrators are handled in the narrative, but it’s still there.
It’s ugly. Reading this book is agreeing to spend almost 500 pages steeped in the worst things people can do to one another. So you know, probably not for everyone.
From a Social Perspective
This book is white as fuck. There’s one biracial heroine, but her heritage is pointedly not a Thing, and after her initial physical description it never really comes up. There are two (white) gay characters, one main plus another side. I found that storyline to be one of the more fascinating and nuanced ones, but it does center completely around the character’s sexuality. That’s his arc.
There are no physically disabled people that I can remember, and only one prominent mentally ill one. His portrayal starts out fairly stereotypical and ends tragically, but there’s unexpected depth in his relationship with his children, and plot-affecting agency in the character himself.
There was less girl-on-girl-hate than I expected, which was a pleasant surprise. There were a couple instances of backstabbing frenemies, but they were not the focus, and the relationships that did get the pagetime were quite complex. There was not as much interpersonal bonding as I would have liked (as usual, I’d prefer a story like this with an all-female cast, please) but on more than one occasion, the female MCs fiercely defend one another from predatory men, which I found deeply gratifying. At least the four female leads didn’t spend the entire book at one another’s throats.
This is the part where we talk about the reveal, so SPOILERSThe reveal here isn’t fundamentally any better than Need‘s. The violence was ostensibly the result of a drug that was first slipped in to a random selection of the population’s flu shot (hence the initial murders), and later exposed to everyone in a massive containment leak after a storm. The drug itself has quasi-supernatural backstory, being a mineral-type substance released from people’s bodies after they die a violent death that accumulates when those deaths happen in the same place in great number. The setting (Oleander) is a town built over the ruins of an earlier settlement where everyone died horribly, making it a prime location for the mining and refinement of this substance. The villain of the piece is GMT, a shady government defense contractor that’s trying to weaponize it.
While I find the government contractor bit kind of boring, the nature of the drug gives it an interesting twice, and allows the story have it both ways: it was both a supernatural occurrence and government conspiracy! That being said, the rules for the way the drug is meant to work and the way that things actually happen in the book don’t mesh at all – it’s supposed to turn everyone into violent, indiscriminant, self-destructive rage monsters, but the people of Oleander are able to direct their violence and rationalize it away even to the very end. There’s some speculation in the end about whether or not the drug had any effect at all – maybe the people just gave in to their inner monsters – but it still doesn’t gel with the corporation’s theory.
Similarly, the defense contractor’s master plan – raze the town and kill everyone inside so that the drug can be contained – doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either, because wouldn’t that just create more of the substance itself? Though perhaps the idea is there would be no one to spread it.
END SPOILERSThe thing is, despite the mundanity and slightly nonsensical nature of the reveal, The Waking Dark still manages to roll out of it relatively unscathed, because the characters’ journeys and the ominous mood are interesting enough to sustain the story beyond it. For me, at least.
So yeah, The Waking Dark. It’s a rough read. There’s no shortage of triggering violence, and it’s definitely not for everyone. But despite my emotional exhaustion – or maybe because of it, because I mean, how often is it that you can say a book engaged you out that much? – I found the writing and storytelling strong enough to keep me reading. So if you’re the kind of person that is interested in an atmospheric, character-driven, depressingly horrific horror novel…yeah, go for it.