Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Review: Loss by Jackie Morse Kessler

I did a lot of reading about the Riders of the Apocalypse novels before I ever bought or read any of them. And one thing I was very curious to see was how I would feel about Loss after finishing Rage and Hunger. There seem to be a lot of mixed reviews about this book, not necessarily because of good or bad writing, but rather because it tampers with the "formula" (for lack of a better term) set forth by the first two novels.

Those who feel that this novel is different definitely have a valid point, and while I found some of these differences intriguing, I also found them a bit distracting and detracting from the core thing that initially drew me to this series--the seamless blending of the real world and the paranormal.

Did I think it was horrible? No. But I do feel that Loss is an extremely different animal then the two novels that proceeded it and that the effects these changes had on the story are worthy of consideration within my reviewing process.

(Summary from GoodReads)
Fifteen-year-old Billy Ballard is the kid that everyone picks on, from the school bullies to the teachers. But things change drastically when Death tells Billy he must stand in as Pestilence, the White Rider of the Apocalypse. Now armed with a Bow that allows him to strike with disease from a distance, Billy lashes out at his tormentors...and accidentally causes an outbreak of meningitis. Horrified by his actions, Billy begs Death to take back the Bow. For that to happen, says Death, Billy must track down the real White Rider—who is lost in his memories.

In his search, Billy travels through White Rider’s life: from ancient Phrygia, where the man called King Mita agrees to wear the White Rider’s Crown, to Sherwood Forest, where Pestilence figures out how to cheat Death; from the docks of Alexandria, where cartons of infested grain are being packed onto a ship that will carry the plague, to the Children’s Crusade in France—all the way to what may be the end of the world. When Billy finally finds the White Rider, the teen convinces the man to return to the real world.

But now the insane White Rider plans to unleash something awful on humanity—something that could make the Black Death look like a summer cold. Billy has a choice: he can live his life and pretend he doesn’t know what’s coming, or he can challenge the White Rider for his Crown. Does one bullied teenager have the strength to stand his ground—and the courage to save the world?

When I read the summary for Loss, my first thought was "How will she pull this off?" and my second thought was "This doesn't seem as tightly connected (real world / paranormal aspect) as the last two.". Turns out both of my thoughts were well founded. Loss is a book which, unfortunately, suffers because of a lack of cohesive direction. It is broken into three parts and while the story works fine in theory, it does not by any stretch work in the same vein as the plots found in Hunger or Rage

There was a tremendous emphasis placed on the history of the White Rider, rather then on Billy's actual experience being the White Rider. In many ways, this seems like it is more King White's tale then Billy's, which I found (for this series) a little distancing and disorienting. Yet again it wasn't "bad"--but it wasn't what I wanted from a Riders of the Apocalypse novel. 

There was further disconnect for me in the relation between Billy's major issue--bullying--and his connection to the White Rider. I get the whole "ice cream man" and trickery thing--in a way, the White Rider bullied Billy. I also understand that we do get the grandfather with Alzheimer's Disease, and from reading the author's note it's made clear she initially intended that to be a much larger focus. I think, as much as the drawing back on this did weaken its connection to the series, that it likely was the right choice. There is a tendency in paranormal fiction to essentially have a "phoenix tears" effect toward ill or disabled characters, wherein they tend to be healed. Within this series that would have been totally off, whereas showing this disease to its bitter end would have been harrowing and not given the right kind of message. 

It's a shame a better resolution to the problems this caused for the book's structure and connectivity to the series could not be found, but I've never been one to criticize someone for something I can't answer myself, and I have no answers here. So instead I will take a moment to commend Jackie Morse Kessler for taking a hit in how her readers might respond to this in order to preserve a far more important integrity of this series: that the real does matter and that it has real consequences here.  That too guts.


I wasn't a huge Billy fan. I didn't hate him and there was nothing "wrong" with him per se, he just wasn't really my kinda guy--maybe because when people tried to bully me I didn't take it? Though that could just as easily have to do with a difference in boys and girls, at least back when I was in school. I'm not really one for passive or self doubting characters and I think, in a nutshell, that Billy took too long to really step up and stand up for me to really click with him. A pity, because the actual writing *for* him was good. It was a "me, not him" thing here. 

I like that we get to see some very different layers to Death's character in this book. So often he seems charming and very chill and relaxed. It can be almost easy to forget who he "is" and what his job is. I found the way that we see how his behavior has changed over the centuries because of the timeline of the novel. I also found the differences in how he interacted with Billy as opposed to, say, Missy. (I'm referring to a really cool scene in this novel, rather then to the connection between Death and Missy in book two, btw.) 

While I don't necessarily feel all the info about the White Rider was necessarily the best way to go with this story, once we got into learning about him his history was very interesting. Pestilence has been one of my favorite characters throughout the series and I will give a nod of appreciation to how his role in this story was handled and how the end result played out. There is a subtle elegance here that cannot be ignored. 


I think that the Billy and Marianne thing was handled well. I admire the fact that Jackie Morse Kessler let Billy think 'like a guy' for lack of a better way of explaining what I mean. I also like how her confidence in him helped give him courage and how his desire to finally kiss her--which to me represented what he was fighting for, in a way--was handled. I wasn't as crazy about this pairing as I was about the one in Rage, but romance is not the central focus of this series anyway. 


Loss is not as good as the first two books in the Riders of the Apocalypse series, largely because those two books were extremely well done and deal with different genres in a way that is unique and refreshing and which, unfortunately, does not connect as strongly here. However, do not allow this to dissuade you from checking Loss out. It is a perfectly good story in its own right; it's just not my favorite. 


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