I don’t normally review YA novels for the sheer fact that they so rarely appeal to me. I’m not a huge fan of a lot of the typical fare they cover (teenage drama, lots of romance, etc) so I tend to stay away from them. But I’ve read some of Daniel Kraus’ previous work, the most recent being his adaptation of The Shape of Water, and really enjoyed it. So, when I saw that he had a new book coming out and read the book’s synopsis, I was definitely intrigued. It sounded like the kind of thing that might be right up my alley (being an avid lover of Science Fiction and Horror), so it seemed like a fun book to look into. Having now finished it, I can say that it was a good decision on my part. It’s a really well-written story that does its damndest to defy the normal constraints of its genre. I really enjoyed it and I think it’ll be a good read for a number of different audiences – including, but not limited to, the YA crowd. (Mild spoilers may follow.)
Bent Heavens by Daniel Kraus
Liv Fleming’s father went missing more than two years ago, not long after he claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Liv has long accepted that he’s dead, though that doesn’t mean she has given up their traditions. Every Sunday, she and her lifelong friend Doug Monk trudge through the woods to check the traps Lee left behind, traps he set to catch the aliens he so desperately believed were after him.
But Liv is done with childhood fantasies. Done pretending she believes her father’s absurd theories. Done going through the motions for Doug’s sake. However, on the very day she chooses to destroy the traps, she discovers in one of them a creature so inhuman it can only be one thing. In that moment, she’s faced with a painful realization: her dad was telling the truth. And no one believed him.
Now, she and Doug have a choice to make. They can turn the alien over to the authorities…or they can take matters into their own hands.
I cannot overstate just how much I enjoyed Bent Heavens. While the term “delight” probably wouldn’t be appropriate given how dark the book often gets, reading it was thoroughly enjoyable. This is one of those novels that’s incredibly difficult to put down once you’ve started it; you’re just craving to know what happens next as each chapter ends. Kraus writes in a style that is immensely easy to read and is immediately captivating. From the first page, you are pulled straight into this world that he is built and you’re more than happy to join the main character, Liv, on her journey throughout the novel’s story.
As for that story, woof… this one’s a doozy. While the way the plot unfolds is fairly simple and linear (save for a few flashbacks that tie into the surrounding chapters), it’s littered with genuine surprises and deeply satisfying moments. I’m gonna choose my words carefully here because I really think this is a book that should be read with as little foreknowledge as possible. As the summary says, a couple of years before the novel’s main story begins, Liv’s father, Lee, disappeared for a few days before returning, claiming he’d been abducted by aliens. Less than a year later, he’d disappeared for good, leaving Liv and her mother behind to deal with his loss. Liv’s life returned to some semblance of normal until she and her friend, Doug, find an alien caught in one of her father’s leftover traps. From this moment, the book takes a truly dark turn, veering straight into the territory of a horror novel. But the horror isn’t this alien threat… It’s the humans who’ve caught him.
Even though the story itself isn’t super complex, the central mystery of what’s actually going on is definitely an interesting one. Kraus ensures that the novel’s plot twists and reveals land at precisely the moment they’ll have the most impact. Every time you find yourself itching for an answer to a question, it’s pretty likely you’ll find an answer a few pages later. And if you don’t, it’s because you’re not supposed to know the answer yet. But you’ll learn all the answers to all of the major questions you’ll have and, ultimately, it’s a really satisfying mystery. It’s also a lot of fun seeing Liv and Doug try to work out exactly what’s going on – and when we do find out the truth behind everything, there’s something deeply satisfying about it. Initially, I was a tiny bit disappointed in the reveal, but as it became clearer just how the reveal tied into the broader themes Kraus covers in the novel, I quickly fell in love with the mystery’s solution.
Speaking of themes, Kraus tackles some pretty intense ones. As you’d expect, the biggest theme the novel explores is that of trauma – both the trauma of losing a parent in such an upsetting way and also the trauma that comes with what Liv and Doug do to the alien they’ve captured. Much of the first quarter of the book focuses on the way Liv, her mother (Aggie), and Doug are dealing with Lee’s disappearance/death. Aggie’s an alcoholic, Doug is obsessed with continuing Lee’s quest to capture an alien, and Liv is trying her best to just hold herself together. Then, once Liv and Doug have actually found an alien trapped in one of Lee’s old traps, the story shifts to examining the trauma that comes with how they treat this alien and the weight that keeping this secret places on them. From here on out, the book gets pretty dark and pretty violent. There are some genuinely disturbing scenes, but they never feel gratuitous because they feel grounded in Liv and Doug’s experiences. What Liv and Doug do in this novel seems fairly okay, at first, but as it quickly becomes apparent it’s not okay, we actually get to see Liv try to grapple with that. How does she feel about herself in the wake of her actions? These moments are where we get the most nuanced take on this theme of trauma and they rank among the book’s best.
Of course, a huge amount of any book’s success lies in how well-executed the main character’s characterization is. In Bent Heavens‘ Liv, Kraus has created the kind of character that every writer hopes to create: one who is multi-faceted, very flawed, yet still so easy to root for. While the novel is written in the third-person, Kraus does an amazing job of bringing the reader into Liv’s mindset. We are privy to her thoughts and her feelings and we find ourselves sympathizing with her as she navigates these increasingly murky waters with Doug. The bulk of the story is built around the reader getting to see how all of these awful things Liv does, and goes through, throughout the story impact her. We get to see her deal with all of these memories she’d thought she’d dealt with as they get reopened after she’s seemingly found proof that her father was telling the truth. We get to see how everything she and Doug do with the alien takes a toll on her. We get to see how her whole life crumbles in front of her very eyes the deeper she gets into this. We get to see how she deals with the weight of this terrible secret crushing down on her. We get to see her do some morally reprehensible things and we get to see her react exactly the same way we’re reacting: with revulsion.
Kraus takes great care to ensure that we understand why Liv does the things she does and that we sympathize with her while also making sure we don’t condone her actions. She and Doug do some awful things in the novel and we’re supposed to find them awful, just as Liv does. Liv doesn’t forgive herself and neither do we. The difference between Liv and Doug, and the thing that makes us sympathize with Liv even in her darkest moments, is that she feels true remorse for what she’s done. She realizes she’s being as bad as the people she hates and we get to see her come to this realization. We’re on this journey with her, and we’re inclined to stick by her because of how well Kraus established her and drew us into her world at the beginning of the novel. Without the audience already liking her, we’d turn on her in an instant. But here, the reader wants to root for her, even as she does, and goes through, all of these nightmarish things We’re invested in her and in her story and we desperately want to see her come out of all of this in one piece. That kind of character is a gift to a story like this and Liv is basically the single reason this story works. Everything ties back to her and it’s so enjoyable experiencing this story with her.
Now, to be fair, pretty much every character that isn’t Liv doesn’t get a huge amount of focus. Doug clearly has an arc that he goes on, but we only get to experience that arc through Liv’s eyes and how the changes she sees him going through are affecting her. The same is true for every character, really. Kraus has created a world where all of the characters truly feel real and lived in, but we don’t get to see a lot of that because we’re so caught up in Liv’s story. And, in a way, this makes a lot of sense. I mean, when you’re seventeen, the world really does feel like it revolves around you. You don’t really notice everyone else’s journey through life as you’re too busy dealing with your own. So, normally, I might ding a novel for only really developing one of its characters, but with Bent Heavens, it’s entirely understandable why Liv gets most of the focus. This is her story, through her eyes, and we’re only going to be privy to the things she sees and experiences. However, this approach wouldn’t work if Kraus hadn’t taken some care in ensuring the rest of the characters didn’t feel like cardboard cutouts. And he certainly made sure of that because all of the characters truly feel real, even if we don’t see them much. We see enough of them to understand what they’re about and to relate to them in one way or another. And that’s more than enough to make this story work.
Overall, I enjoyed Bent Heavens even more than I’d hoped I would – and I really hoped I would enjoy it. It’s one of those books that’s immediately engaging and extremely difficult to put down. It’s a pretty quick read, but it’s an absolutely engaging one. It tackles some heavy themes, it’s scary, it’s thought-provoking, and it’s easily one of the best books I’ve read in a good while. Kraus’s voice is so well-defined and his prose is so easy to read that you quickly find yourself speeding through the novel but enjoying every second of it. It’s so easy to relate to, and route for, the novel’s main character and you’ll be surprised by just how invested you’ll become in her story. I just cannot overstate how much I enjoyed this book. It’s not perfect and I have a nitpick or two here or there, but I haven’t had such a visceral reaction to a book I’ve read in so long and that’s far more valuable to me than anything else. I loved this book. While it’s technically marketed as a YA novel, I think it’s easily accessible to science fiction and horror fans who don’t normally read YA books. It defies the typical genre constraints and it’s all the better for it. Seriously, if you like a good SciFi/horror story with some really interesting, morally gray themes, this is the book for you.
5 out of 5 wands.
NOTE: I received a digital ARC of this novel from Edelweiss in exchange for a fair review.