Athanasios “Athan” Bakirtzis lost his parents in a fire when he was young and now lives with his yiayia, his grandmother. It hasn’t been easy, and the pair have had to rely on the kindness of their family’s former business associates for help. And things are getting increasingly worse, as Yiayia seems to be losing herself to the family curse, one that affects both her and Athan. They can look into any reflective surface and see scenes from the past. Athan has learned not to look into mirrors, and never to catch his own reflection, for fear of getting lost in the visions. Over the years, Yiayia seems to have gotten caught up in her own visions and she is losing her hold on her sanity.
One night, Athan is at a fancy party, invited by his boss and benefactor, when he takes a chance and looks in a bathroom mirror. Suddenly, something erupts outside of the bathroom and Athan is warned by a boy his age to stay hidden. In the aftermath, Athan steps back into the apartment to find everyone dead. Not just dead, but it’s a massacre with the bodies artfully and horrifically arranged. Fearing he will be blamed as the sole survivor, and with no idea how to explain the events of the night, Athan flees.
To Athan’s surprise, he once again encounters the mysterious boy who helped him at the party. Dom knows more about what is going on than Athan, and while he is clearly keeping some secrets, even the little bit he reveals is horrifying. Something is killing people, or compelling them to kill themselves — and someone is behind it, making it all happen. Even worse, what is going on seems to be connected to Athan’s abilities. He is now not just seeing the past in reflective surfaces, but something evil, something threatening him and trying to get out. Now, Dom and Athan have to figure out who is behind the attacks, what they are trying to accomplish, and how to stop them before more lives are lost… including their own.
Beholder is a fascinating and engaging supernatural horror that really drew me into the story. The set up is such a great hook, with Athan attending this party and just missing the horrific slaughter that happens right outside the bathroom door. The action here is driven by Athan and Dom as they attempt to uncover just what is going on — and complicated by the fact that Dom clearly knows more than he is telling. There is sort of a forced proximity element to the story as the boys work together and grow increasingly close as they uncover the horrors and must rely on one another to keep safe. The plot is twisty and clever and just the right amount of scary. I would classify this as horror, but with a YA lens, so we have these two young men in the position of needing to be the saviors, of not having adults to rely upon and being forced to handle things themselves.
The title very much fits the theme of the story, as in “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and La Sala does such a great job weaving this idea into the book. It is all about what is real and what is perception, how other people see us and how that affects who we are, and the external facades that cover the internal truth. It comes through in big and small ways throughout the story. It is the mirror that Athan looks into that reflects not his face, but past events. And even worse, sometimes untold horrors that are hidden from our everyday reality just waiting to strike. There are the fronts the boys put on, the self they show the world, versus who they truly are inside. It explores the question of who we are if no one sees us, and whether the act of being seen makes something real. And there are clever little elements dropped in, like the way the boys travel the city and find themselves in old spaces long since covered up or hidden by a new facade. It is just really cleverly done and adds such a nice depth to the story, tying all the various elements together so well.
The story is told from Athan’s first-person POV and he is our key narrator. It works well, as it allows us to really understand his abilities and what he is seeing when he looks in those mirrors. It also keeps Dom a bit unknowable at first, which is befitting as he keeps secrets that slowly get revealed. I also liked how each chapter begins with a section told in second-person point of view. It is a strange POV and one that only works in very specific situations and I think La Sala uses it to maximum effect here. (Second-person has the narrator essentially speaking to the characters about what is happening.) At first, it was a little jarring, but soon I found myself completely sinking into these portions. I think why it works so well is that there is this idea running through the story of some sort of otherworldly being wreaking chaos. It is what Athan is seeing when looking in the mirror and the threat that they are trying to stop. So there is this eeriness to the POV, as if this being is somehow talking right to Athan.
As I noted, this book is a horror mixed with young adult. Athan and Dom are about 17 or 18 from what I can tell, but both very much on their own. This is not a genre romance, but there is a bond and connection that forms between them that is critical to the story. Just don’t go into this expecting a traditional happy ending for them as a couple, as this is not that type of book. I’ll admit, I did want a little more of a clear cut ending, as my brain likes things tidy like that, but I do think the fact that the ending is a little open to interpretation fits well with the rest of the book. Overall, I just found this one really engrossing and, while it is a pretty long book, I just couldn’t put it down. This one has great intensity and is so well done, and I can highly recommend it.