Rating: 3.5 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel

 

Alex Elson lives in a world he doesn’t always understand. Isolated and abused by his mother until he was twelve, Alex knew nothing but feelings of unworthiness, terror, and desperation for release. However, being saved didn’t save him from the consequences of his trauma or his demons. Alex sees and hears things others cannot, making him unsure of what is real and uncertain of how to live in the world. After being institutionalized last summer by his adoptive sister, Jane, Alex has been trying to reintegrate into small town life. He’s found a job at a bookstore that he’s holding precariously and still living at home with Jane, but doing his best to prove to her that he can be a capable and worthwhile partner. Unfortunately, when he encounters a boy whose aura is cloaked in darkness, Alex’s gifts show him the evil in their midst.

With his mind fully open to the depravity in the town and the victims’ cries, Alex is trapped in a race to save them and stop the killings. However, his help and presence at multiple crimes scenes makes him a target of malevolence and police antagonism. One way or another, Alex may be unable to help anyone, especially himself.

Alex is about a tortured young man with uncontrollable psychic talents trying to stop killings while building a life for himself. The book has no trigger warnings, so the reader should be mindful that there are many scenes of child abuse, mentions of animal cruelty, violence, self-harm, moments of suicide ideation, forced institutionalization, kidnapping, and torture. Alex wants to be a regular guy who doesn’t hear desperate sobs for help or strangers’ terror and pain and who isn’t blinded or horrified by people’s auras. His cornucopia of abilities include premonitions, seeing auras, and empathetic reception of thoughts and feelings, particularly through touch. He was raised by a cruel and sadistic mother who kept him in an environment of unmitigated violence, emotional abuse, and constant terror of displeasing her. Despite his horrific upbringing, Alex is a sweet-natured and shy young man who only wants love and friendship. Being locked away from others for almost half his life and seemingly having no improvement in his socialization skills leaves him awkward and insecure. Even when he’s rescued and adopted, Alex remains isolated by voices and visions that trap him in his mind. However, he has a few good friends who add levity and normalcy to his life and support him unconditionally. The moments when he is just a free twenty-year old goofing around with them are few and far between and more precious because of that. It’s lovely he has a wonderful found family in all the chaos, and seeing how they rally around him is one of the best aspects of the story for me.

Among the psychics stopping killers premise, I find Alex’s situation unique. Alex has had some level of psychic abilities since childhood, but it appears that the breadth of them aren’t unlocked until a young boy is in harm’s way. Alex’s boyhood trauma and the scared boy inside him opens a connection to the victim that leaves him more sensitive to psychic phenomenon. Alex’s utter helplessness and how it affects those close to him offers an interesting perspective. They are constantly taking care of him because his premonitions are visual and auditory; they can completely overtake him and subsume his perspective and situational awareness. It’s a good thing he lives in the country because he would have been hit by cars many times from running around in a fugue state. Jane is his caretaker even before she accepts he has visions. She shelters him, soothes him, saves him, and centers him. Her confidence in him gives him confidence in himself. While Alex’s friends are there to help him or find him at the drop of a hat, she carries an extreme emotional load, but her love for him gives her strength.

While it’s captivating to see the stark reality of loving a psychic as out of control as Alex, I have an issue with his romantic relationship with Jane. Jane is six years older, so she was eighteen when Alex was adopted by her father. She was one of the first people to show Alex care and concern and the first woman who loved him. At some point, their father died and Jane became his sole caretaker, so Alex has an older sister and mother figure all in one. It makes sense that he would be besotted by her (quite a few men are). I’d be extremely surprised if he hadn’t grown up with a massive crush—an Oedipal connection with Jane is almost inevitable. But Jane? She says he stole her heart when he was around 12 and she probably meant it in a sisterly fashion, but “by the time he was nineteen, she was enamored” sooo… not a great look. If Alex had more life experience and hadn’t lived and breathed for this older woman for almost half his life, the relationship might feel more balanced. Plus, she is so motherly in her care of him, even after the sexual component is added, that it’s hard to shake the mother-son vibe.

Alex is an extremely sympathetic character whose past shaped his life and his abilities. His struggles throughout are heartbreaking, and the brutality leveled against him practically oozes from the pages. There are over a dozen flashbacks of his mother harming him in ways ranging from slamming his skull against cement, showing off her handiwork to a friend interested in him sexually, and beating him with a board with nails on it. He is then assaulted and tortured by various people almost as much in the present, being hospitalized multiple times. While I understand all the violence against Alex conveys his strength to survive these violations and the deleterious consequences of his abilities, after a point the physical abuse began to feel gratuitous, especially because the tormenting nature of his gift and the abyssal depths of his pain are on constant display. Instead of rooting me in Alex’s experiences and struggles, it eventually alienated me from the story. Also, with the focus on Alex’s continuous traumatization, other elements of the plot aren’t structured as well. There are many continuity errors and slippery logic around the case and various actions. Several character interactions and their extreme emotional shifts speak to a lack of interest in the characters beyond being plot devices. The pace is slow and borderline repetitive, as there are many victims and visions related to each one and almost every psychic phenomenon is attached to a flashback. A few could have been trimmed and more about Alex incorporated into this 400+ page book.

Although Alex’s history of abuse is extremely important, less care is given to Alex’s complete history. Despite his mother’s abuse (and the fact that he was trapped in a burning house while duct taped in the basement), it doesn’t seem Alex had any therapy, and his life between age twelve and nineteen should be significant given Alex’s talents and limitations. Yet there is nothing before his institutionalization (the cause of which is explained two different ways). Even a few substantial lines about what it was like for Jane and her dad to have such a damaged and strange child in their house would have provided some clarity, since there is no consistent indication of what they did or didn’t know about his gift. To me, Alex is more a vessel for trauma than a character for most of the story. Even his ability to help one of the victims and gain a glimmer of self-worth is through his trauma, and any character progression is done for others. His motivations and actions are guided by outside forces. His desire to keep a job and sell his art is to show Jane he can be a man so she will fall in love with him. He talks about getting stronger and standing on his own two feet, but that isn’t shown well in the story, and again, it’s to be better for Jane. His wants, needs, and drive begin and end with Jane, another reason their relationship troubled me. Helping the victims isn’t a choice either, as he is constantly hounded by images and voices and literally dragged about as if possessed. There are a few times Alex declares he has to help, but because of the inevitability of being overwhelmed by nightmarish images and out of control behavior, it doesn’t feel impactful. Despite it now being a series, this book was originally published as a standalone, so the minuscule amount of development of Alex’s character beyond bearer of bad tidings and tortured hero is insufficient for me.

While I liked Hartsock’s take on how trauma can unlock psychic talents and what it would be like for the psychic and their loved ones if those abilities are extremely debilitating, Alex as a whole just didn’t land for me. However, for the most part, the writing is solid, and I think those who enjoy extreme hurt-comfort stories and/or are looking for an interesting interpretation on being a psychic might like this one.

Originally published in 2011