Book Review: Reaper
K. D. McEntire
K. D. McEntire’s novel Lightbringer was an interesting contemporary re-working of the story of Peter Pan, Wendy, and the Lost Boys by an author who had painfully obviously never read J. M. Barrie and whose reaction to learning that there even was an original book behind the various Disney cartoons would probably be some variation of “Srsly? LOL!” Part of the reason for this is simple cultural decay, and another part of the reason might be that McEntire herself – if her smirking, hair-dyed author photo is anything to go by – is roughly fifteen years old. That someone so young could write a book worth reading is surely accomplishment enough – remedial back-reading will have to follow in due course.
Lightbringer‘s sequel Reaper is now in bookstores (with an arresting cover by the great fantasy-art painter Sam Weber, also roughly fifteen), and potential new readers shouldn’t hesitate to dive right in – McEntire does a seamless job both catching up newcomers to her story so far and making it seem like no catching-up is going on. This is no mean feat, because Lightbringer ended with quite a bang (Reaper also features a perfectly-orchestrated ending – less pyrotechnic, but far more juicily manipulative). Reaper opens with our surviving main characters picking up the pieces and dealing with the fallout of the previous book. Main character Wendy has now become a Lightbringer, shepherding the recently dead into the light that will take them beyond this world:
The little girl couldn’t have been more than seven or eight when she’d died. Her clothing was nondescript – jeans and a plain white tee shirt, bare and dirty feet. The wisps of hair that tumbled out from beneath her grubby grey Giants baseball cap were dirty blonde and fine, tangled at the ends. She had a smudge across her left cheek, and Wendy had to fight the urge to lick her thumb and wipe the filth away.
“Um, hi?” Wendy said and the little girl flinched, staggering back a step. She was like a rabbit, all sinew and nerve, ready to flee in an instant.
(Even a quick passage like that serves well to demonstrate the strengths and the weaknesses of McEntire’s prose style: the fact that the poor little girl is described as a still photo from a stock Hollywood movie being a weakness, “all sinew and nerve” being a strength, or at least the beginnings of one)
Wendy has allies – including the heroic, street-smart Riders who fight the good fight in the realm of Never, which unevenly borders the real world – and she has enemies, including the tall, thin, sepulchral Walkers, who seek to corrupt the Light and take control of both the Never and everything else. Wendy also has a troublesome on-again off-again boyfriend named, you might guess, Piotr, a bad-boy Rider given to bursts of temper and bursts of Russian. And in tried and true Buffy the Vampire Slayer fashion, Reaper also has a “Big Bad,” a villain who succeeds in mortally wounding our heroine, who spends half the book slowly dying – a relatively easy device for cranking up the tension, but even easy devices can be fumbled, and McEntire never does: once you start reading Reaper, you won’t stop.
You’ll be plenty frustrated along the way, mind you. McEntire’s prose style is maddeningly uneven, and far too many of her older characters are prone to a self-important verbosity young people must think is stereotypical. One helpful old sod natters on to Wendy in a typically endless fashion:
“Look, Red, your family is one hell of a piece of work, you know that? Some of you cats are all right but some of you … look, any ghost with a lick of sense in his head is gonna tell you that they get it, they dig where you’re coming from. Being an angel or Reaper or whatever the hell it is that you all really do isn’t the easiest gig on this wide green earth. It’s pretty damn thankless on the best days and a straight-up slog on a mediocre one.”
When surly Wendy replies, “I feel like you want some sort of award for ‘getting’ me,” we know exactly how she feels.
The prose here is also filled both with annoying slang and idioms (“Reaper homegirls for life, yo,” etc.) but also with a frequency of offhand profanity guaranteed to make any reading parent’s heart clutch in their throat. The draw of such profanity, obviously, is to give teen fans the impression this is “real” adult stuff they’re reading – a fairly simplistic rationale we can hope (without much justification, admittedly) McEntire herself doesn’t believe and will quickly abandon.
Reaper is fast-paced and eerily sure of itself – it’s even better than Lightbringer, which was one fine, fun performance. The imagination on display in the sequel – both in the meticulously-imagined fantasy world and in the sharp interactions of the characters who inhabit it – is compelling, for all its occasional resorting to quick fixes and easy formulae. McEntire should finish the series in the next book and then take a year off to really work at writing; she has the time to spare, and the results could be remarkable.