Twin Peaks meets Stars Hollow in this paranormal suspense novel about a boy who can reach inside people and steal their innermost things—fears, memories, scars, even love—and his family's secret ritual that for centuries has kept the cliff above their small town from collapsing. Aspen Quick has never really worried about how he's affecting people when he steals from them. But this summer he'll discover just how strong the Quick family magic is—and how far they'll go to keep their secrets safe. With a smart, arrogant protagonist, a sinister family tradition, and an ending you won't see coming, this is a fast-paced, twisty story about power, addiction, and deciding what kind of person you want to be, in a family that has the ability to control everything you are.
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Aspen Quick comes from a long line of mind-reading thieves—born with the ability to rummage about in other people’s heads and steal whatever suits them. Feelings, memories, motivational drives… even physical characteristics. His family has a long-standing habit of “feeding” these pieces they’ve taken from others to the cliff overlooking his grandmother’s house. Aspen has always been told that if his family fails to appease the cliff it will fall and crush not only his family, but also the tiny town of Three Peaks. He’s never really concerned himself over the whole thing, as he spends most of the year living in New York. But with the recent death of his cousin, his exceptional abilities are in high demand—threatening to interfere with his summer vacation plans…
While it’s being billed as a paranormal suspense, there's actually little by way of suspenseful moments. There’s some intrigue involving missing memories and manipulated emotions, and a spot of action toward the very end. But aside from that, its feel is closer to a contemporary teen drama with mild paranormal elements.
What I Liked:
I loved the title of this book, and the cover image so well suited that initial impression of dark whimsy. It sets you up for the expectation of an atypical story; and that is indeed what it delivers.
The writing itself is competent—told entirely in past-tense (from the male protagonist anti-hero’s first-person POV.) Between certain chapters there are “Before” memories interspersed, which serve to fill readers in on previous incidents in Aspen’s life. They range from recollections on his father’s abilities, to romantic near-misses, to reflections on his interactions with now-deceased cousin Heather. These are inserted well enough not to cause too much disruption to the overall flow of the storytelling.
I also appreciate that there was a concerted effort to examine the experiences and necessary unpleasantries that contribute to the construction of human compassion. Though readers must wait until the very end of the book for this moral payoff, they can rest assured that it will get there eventually. The book places readers in the unique position of hoping for consequential come-uppance, rather than a desire to see the protagonist achieve their desires.
What Didn’t Work For Me:
Aspen turned out to be one of the more unlikeable main characters I’ve ever encountered. Not only is he an arrogant narcissist, he’s borderline sociopathic—lacking in emotion that most healthy people could relate to. Rather than coming across as “smart,” as the blurb suggested, he instead seems to spend most of the story missing the obvious and lacking base curiosity. He excessively describes females as “hot,” and his favored expletive is G-D (which he uses multiple times per chapter, and at the slightest provocation.) It’s a bold move to place readers solely in the head of a character who is difficult to root for. We do receive the sense that his immaturity and self-absorption may not be entirely his fault, but a fleshing out of that aspect arrives well after page 200.
Aspen’s tag-along friends, Brandy and Theo, also come across as obnoxious and emotionally vapid. His aunt lacked depth outside of angry grief, his grandmother was more of a background effigy, and his parents—while largely introduced through Aspen’s memories—didn’t quite achieve three-dimensional status. The only real hope for a sympathetic character is found in Leah: Sanctimonious, super-cool alternative girl and former best friend to Aspen’s late cousin, Heather. But this hope gradually wears off as we learn the reasons behind the dissolving of their friendship, and the ethically malignant bargain Leah tried to strike (essentially using Heather’s ability to bend someone to Leah’s will in the same way Aspen did.)
Characterization bottom line: I couldn’t find anyone I cared about or wanted to root for in this story. (Unless you count Aspen’s cousin, Heather… but she’s dead from the beginning, so there’s no logical call for any emotional investment there.)
The world-building started out intriguing as a concept, but unfortunately seemed to fall by the wayside as the story progressed. Aspen describes is ability as “reaching” inside a person (or object connected to a person) and taking a particular trait away. But the process is vague enough so as to quickly become unmemorable.
Content Note: Teen sex is depicted casually but non-graphically, and prophylactic use is clearly mentioned.
Some readers are likely to find it deplorable and deeply unsettling that the main character in this book uses mind-altering trickery to elicit and maintain a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl. This goes well beyond mere manipulation and dishonesty. Aspen uses his inherited abilities to permanently extract natural feelings, thoughts, and even instincts from his target "girlfriend," thus allowing him to take sexual advantage of her compromised mental state. Granted, there is a free-will moral to the story that’s partially explored toward the end, though this reader didn’t personally feel it went deep enough to expunge (or satisfactorily address) the yuck-factor.
This is perhaps a more ideal read for those interested in ethical quandaries, the “what ifs” of mind control, and/or main characters that flow heavy in the anti-heroic vein.