Rating: 3.75 stars
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On his 18th birthday, Josh Harper is kicked out of his aunt and uncle’s home and left to fend for himself on the streets. After being beaten up and almost robbed, he is saved by a young man named Sam Mitchell. Sam spent time on the streets himself, but now squats in abandoned building with three young teens, all also homeless. They all have something else in common too — Devil Syndrome, a condition that causes small, horn-like bone growths on the top of their heads. Sam and the others have made a home of sorts for themselves, though they are struggling to get by. Josh is happy to find others like himself and eager to get off the streets, so he moves in with the group.
Josh has always known something is different about him, and not just the bones on his head. He has had flickers of an ability to create a force field that blocks attacks. It is spotty and not reliable, certainly not protecting him from the abuse by his uncle and the bullies at school. But Josh learns that the others have abilities that seem to go along with their condition as well, such as the ability to turn invisible or to speak to ghosts. And with Sam’s help, Josh begins to learn to control his powers and to use them at will.
Still things aren’t easy for any of them. Even when hiding their heads, people seem to immediately recognize them as different. They are ignored, abused, and attacked. Josh tries to continue going to school, but he is faced with constant abuse from class bullies. The group must steal food and constantly risk arrest and detection, needing to be incredibly careful who sees them lest they get thrown in jail or kicked out of their home. But through it all, Josh finds a haven, especially with Sam. The young men begin to find more than friendship with each other, as they slowly begin to build a family together with the younger teens. But when disaster strikes, Josh, Sam, and the kids risk losing everything they have built for themselves and ending up back on the streets or worse.
So this book had a lot of aspects that were really creative and engaging, but often not quite as well developed as I would have liked. I felt that there were a lot of great ideas, but perhaps too many different directions without really developing any of them as well as needed.
First up, my favorite part of the story is the paranormal aspect, with the Devil Syndrome. What at first appears just to be a physical problem that draws unwanted attention, actually turns out to be a sign of supernatural ability. I loved this sort of gang of kids, each with their own powers. Sam and Josh’s abilities work kind of in opposites – Sam has a super strength, almost like a ball of energy than can crush and destroy. And Josh has a shield that lets him protect himself from harm, and at times even be able to protect others as well. The kids can turn invisible, speak to ghosts, and interfere with electrical devices. I loved seeing how these various abilities played out, especially as they all work together to get by on the streets. These sequences were my favorite part of the story and brought a really unique aspect to the book. I do wish things had been further developed with the world building though. We learn that people know about Devil Syndrome, but no one seems to know about the powers side of things. What is bringing these powers on? Does everyone with Devil Syndrome have these abilities? How has this been kept a secret for so long? I also wish I understood more about the hostility to these kids. We learn that humans sense the “otherness” about them, but I wish we more clearly could see the reason for the violence and vitriol that is sent their way.
The relationship between Josh and Sam is another area that has great potential but just didn’t come together as well as I wanted. Both of them have horrible histories. In Josh’s case, he is kicked out of his home and forced onto the streets. Those early pages where Josh is realizing he is alone with no money and no place to go are just horrifying and we can really feel that fear and despair. His mother died years before and she was the only one who truly accepted him. Since then his aunt and uncle allowed Josh to live in their home, but mistreated and physically abused him. Sam also has a tough history with a mother who abandoned him at birth and a father who only wants to change him. He ran away to the streets rather than live with a parent who couldn’t accept him. The two young men come together, first as friends, and eventually forming a relationship.
Both Josh and Sam are so thrilled to find someone who understands them, cares about them, and can be a true friend. They are both such natural caregivers, taking on these younger teens and becoming surrogate parents to them. So I was happy to see them find each other and to gain some much deserved happiness. But I really did want more from this relationship. We barely even see it develop, and it never felt fleshed out enough for me to really believe in much beyond friendship between these guys. It not that there isn’t much on page intimacy, it is that we really don’t see enough to show us that emotions and feelings are really growing between these guys. We just are sort of told that it is happening, but never really see it build or even much once they are officially together.
I also had a hard time connecting with either man as a reader, but especially Sam. Sam is angry and bitter and has a definite us against the world mentality. While he is caring with the kids, he is hostile and resentful with everyone else. And while much of it is justified, it made it hard to really relate to him or get to know him. Often it felt like he was letting his emotions just take too much control and he is unable to be rational or deal with problems. We see that especially as the major conflict of the book arises, but even in smaller things, like the fact that he tries to convince Josh that school is unimportant because no one will ever hire them. And yes, the economy is hard, but two 18-year-old men couldn’t find some sort of work? Or even try? Even something small to help pay for the basics? Instead they are forced to risk their safety by stealing everything they need, barely surviving. I guess I just felt he lets his hostility get in the way so much as to become a hard character to relate to.
My last issue is that I couldn’t quite figure out the real focus of the story as there are so many different threads, but none that really solidifies. Early on the book deals with the horrors of Josh out on the streets and how the kids are managing to get by all on their own, kicked out for being different. Here the story focuses on the abilities they all have, including Josh’s discovery of his power and learning how to control it. We get some really clever scenes where we see these kids use their abilities to fend for themselves on the streets. But most of that happens early in the story and then fades out as we get further along. Then the book sort of transitions to the relationship between Josh and Sam, and Josh’s uncertainty about getting involved with Sam. His hesitancy isn’t really clear however, in terms of whether it is over Sam being a man, or having his first relationship, or why he is so freaked out. But the development of the romance is fairly minimal, and then they are together without really seeing much develop. Then the story shifts again, and focuses more on the bullying Josh faces at school, events that trickle over to Sam and the kids as well. Then over time it starts to focus more on Sam and a horrible event that challenges him to control his anger. At that point, Josh and the others sort of become side characters in the story. And then in the end, a whole other thread sort of develops. I just think it would have helped to focus more on only a couple of these ideas and develop them further. As it was I never quite felt like things were fleshed out as well as they could have been and I was a bit at sea as I was reading in terms of how the story was developing.
So I was mixed on this one. I think there is a lot of potential here and Kaine clearly has brought a lot of creativity and interesting ideas to this book. I loved the sections on the Devil Syndrome and the powers these kids had. And I could feel real emotion as Josh tries to recover from being kicked out on the streets and we see these kids struggle to survive. I would have loved to see these issues developed further, along with Josh and Sam’s building relationship, but instead there just seemed to be too many threads to really pull everything together. But definitely an interesting story and one that gave me a great feel for the creativity of this author.