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.
Something is waking in the sleepy town of Oleander, 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. (from RobinWasserman.com)
I like to say that Robin Wasserman's previous book, The Book of Blood and Shadow, is like The Da Vinci Code except actually good. Well, this one is like Stephen King's Under the Dome, except better. It deals with some similar themes of power and religion and drugs and evil in a small town that has been isolated by a sudden traumatic event, but the overall plot hangs together better here, civilization falls apart in a much more believable way, and the "solution" to the central mystery makes much more sense. (I sort of wanted to throw Under the Dome across the room at the end.)
Even more importantly (at least to me), the depth of the characterization made me really care what happened to the teenagers at the center of the story. Wasserman does a great job of seeding the action with genuine character moments that make the horrors of the story resonate even more. She starts with some "types" you'd expect in a small town story - the high school football star, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks, etc. - but then manages to turn them into real, complex people, making both the reader and the other characters question their assumptions and prejudices. No one is quite what they seem, but it doesn't feel like a trick - it's just realistic, sometimes horrifyingly so.
I will say that horror is not my genre - but/and also that this book wasn't as frightening, exactly, as I feared. (I only had a few nightmares while reading it.) But it's intense. This book is not for the faint of heart, which is either a warning or an encouragement, depending on your tastes. A lot of terrible things happen, and Wasserman is pulling no punches here. There were a few times when I literally stopped, said "Did that just happen?", and reread a sentence or paragraph. But it never feels like bad or scary things are happening just for shock value - it's all earned and meaningful, never gratuitous. And the tone manages to be simultaneously bleak and hopeful, which is one of my favorite combinations. Oh, and did I mention the creepy? Bleak, hopeful, and creepy - a combination that makes it a perfect fall read.
(Disclaimer: I know Robin and she gave me an ARC, so I can't say I'm unbiased, but I wouldn't say I liked something I didn't.)