It's quite au courant for grownups to love young adult fiction – and to proclaim it proudly. And as more men and women devour novels pitched to kids, it's only good business that books for adults will continue absorbing YA tropes. Think plucky, coming-of-age protagonists; accessible story arcs; heavy doses of magic and happy endings. It's crowd-pleasing stuff that's made celebrities out of unknown authors and readers out of countless families.
Such are the hallmarks of Robert J. Wiersema's new thriller Black Feathers, but such are its limitations. Like many market-ready paperbacks, the book blends genre and embraces the YA zeitgeist, but to a fault – many adults will find its pleasures too childish, and as a book wrongly pitched to adults, many children simply won't find it at all.
Black Feathers is the story of Cassandra Weathers, a 16-year-old runaway living on the cold streets of Victoria. Suffering from vivid night terrors in which she brutally murders loved ones, and fleeing a disturbing incident back home in which she (possibly) murdered her (possibly) abusive father – details are shadowy – Cassie finds herself ill-suited to homeless life. Luckily, she becomes fast friends with a girl named Skylark, who offers safety and acceptance with a group of outcasts led by a cultish dude named Brother Paul.
Finding community on the streets is crucial, as sex workers are being dismembered by a killer eerily similar to The Fall's Paul Spector: a family man with a secret need for murder. There's also a pseudo-supernatural "Darkness" hunting Cassie for her vibrant life-force, making pretentious imprecations such as "The Darkness cannot be conquered. It cannot be vanquished. It is eternal. It is everywhere."
As a lucky white girl with a comfy upbringing, Cassie's everywhere met with charity. Skylark and other homeless people offer her food and support; a cop named Constable Harrison keeps a watchful eye over her; and a strange man named Cliff Wolcott keeps giving her money. She's fed free grub at a local Chinese restaurant, where she's served by Ali, a girl who bends over backward to make her comfortable – even offering up her bed. After a great deal of chaste blushing, the girls even find themselves falling in love.
The problem is Cassie's disconcerting dreams of murder have a sinister way of coming true – literally. As any hero would, she runs from all who reach out, knowing she might unknowingly harm the people she cares about. By the midway mark, she's so unmoored from reality that her past and present, dreams and waking life begin to blur into a nauseating spiral – and this is the novel's most impressive, ambitious narrative act.
Wiersema writes with rapid-fire bursts of tiny paragraphs, frequent dialogue and restrained vocabulary (sentences such as "Cassie smirked. Heather scowled." get their own paragraphs). The book moves fast as a result – you can hear the cinematic score, the jump-cut timing. This speed also undoes some intended effects: Cassie only knows Skylark for a couple of days, but when things take a dark turn, she acts as if they were lifelong confidants. Though Cassie is only 16, there's no mention of how she feels about her sexual orientation – no hint of turmoil, of her coming out – and to me this is a major sacrifice to psychological realism, all for the sake of keeping the pace. Psychotic murderers and obsessed cops seem lifted from movie-of-the-week clichés – with requisite levels of misogynist violence and stagey dialogue. And despite her disconnect with reality and the very real deaths around her, it never feels as if Cassie's in true danger – from the murderer, the Darkness or her haunted past – until the very end, which feels predictable and safe.
Even the best thrillers – works by Gillian Flynn, Stieg Larsson, Neil Gaiman, Lee Child or Stephen King – trade in the recycled conventions of genre. But their narratives and tones are pitched to an adult sensibility. If young people choose to read, they're often reaching for a higher bar – and if these books fail to transcend their clichés, they do so on an adult level. Black Feathers fails on an adult level, but I'm certain if repackaged – if it were to shed its bloody adult plumage, so to speak – it would find success and admiration among YA readers. In the eyes of a teenager, Cassie's plight might have more bite and urgency; characters might break from their wooden casting; and the plot might twist with the kind of gripping slither all thrillers require.
Spencer Gordon is the author of Cosmo.