What do you get when you blend horror, YA, and an author who knows how to twists a reader’s expectations?
One hell of a thrill ride is what you get.
!!! If you read ahead, there will be spoilers, so if you haven’t already read the entire book, please click away and go read it ASAP! If you don’t care about spoilers, then I want to reiterate: this book is amazing, and you don’t want to miss out on all the twists and turns. Please read the book first and come back afterward for the discussion. !!!
Nita doesn’t murder supernatural beings and sell their body parts on the internet—her mother does that. Nita just dissects the bodies after they’ve been “acquired.” But when her mom brings home a live specimen, Nita decides she wants out — dissecting living people is a step too far.
But when she tries to save her mother’s victim, she ends up sold on the black market in his place — because Nita herself is a supernatural being. Now Nita is on the other side of the bars, and there is no line she won’t cross to escape and make sure no one can ever capture her again.
Nita did a good deed, and it cost her everything. Now she’s going to do a lot of bad deeds to get it all back.
* this summary was taken from Goodreads
Subversion of Balance
I first came across Rebecca Schaeffer’s original dark story via Webtoon, an app for online comics, and I was overjoyed to see that the comic is an adaptation of a YA novel. I was growing impatient with having to wait for weekly updates, and I could more easily devour the story in book form. I could tell from the concept that this was a story I would come to love, even though I failed to notice that the listed genre was horror. o.0
But I talked about fear in last month’s analysis. This time, I want to draw attention to Schaeffer’s knowledge and subversion of fiction tropes.
From the very beginning, Nita is introduced as a morally grey character; however, she possesses mostly positive character traits. Namely, when her mother captures a young unnatural, Fabricio, alive and tortures him by cutting off his body parts one at a time (yes, this book is not for the squeamish), Nita acts defiantly against her mother and frees him. She even goes as far as to use her tiny but hard-earned college fund to buy him a bus ticket and lets him take her phone to call for help.
This, while made interesting by Nita’s uniquely dark character and her unfortunate situation, is not an unexpected turn of events. As a reader, we have seen enough of Nita’s unshaken morality to know that she will do “the right thing.”
Schaeffer knows this about her readers. We expect a story with a familiar frame. In this case, we expect Nita to rescue Fabricio, and because the introduction of Nita’s mother presents her as a wrathful person, we have some idea of what to expect when Nita arrives back home to find her mother angry. They move to a hotel, where Nita’s mother leaves her alone to deal with the situation that releasing Fabricio has wrought. When Nita is abducted from her hotel room and taken to the Death Market, the story is on a set track. Nita deduces that as punishment for her little rebellion of siding with Fabricio, her mother had betrayed her.
The subversion of a reader’s expectations can be clearly seen very early from the dark tone and uncomfortably disturbing hobby of our protagonist (Nita is most content when cutting up the bodies of unnaturals). But the most blatant clue that this story is not going how a reader expects is the inclusion of the character, Mirella.
An unnatural that Nita meets in captivity at the Death Market, Mirella’s personality clashes with Nita’s to the point where Nita finds her annoying, but the two of them bond through their attempt to escape. The escape, however, does not go as planned: Mirella is shot, and Nita is left with no way to escape.
The thought had crossed Nita’s mind that she deserved this after everything she’d done in her life. But that wasn’t true. There was no karma: there was no balance. Nita wasn’t making amends for her actions by experiencing this. She was experiencing this because her mother had betrayed her. There was nothing deeper (Schaeffer, 163).
This notion that there is no higher power or balance system is not just a new thought for Nita; it is a new concept for a reader who is used to looking for and finding greater meaning or moral balance in fiction. The knowledge that there is nothing deeper, that Mirella died because she died and for no other reason, and that Nita is suffering this tragedy not because she deserves it but because her mother betrayed her, catches an astute reader off guard. It also introduces an interesting change in character for Nita: the absence of responsibility. Nita reasons that Mirella’s death was in no way her fault.
While this is true for Mirella’s death, it also opens the door to Nita’s progressive change in dehumanizing the people around her. It’s not her fault if she has to kill someone to get what she needs. Schaeffer’s subversion has a dual purpose: to make a reader uneasy and to set up Nita’s subtle yet demoralizing character arc.
More and more, I found myself believing that this was not just any story. I believed it to be a villain’s origin story, especially at the moment of Nita’s first murder:
Nita choked back a gasp. She was a killer. She wanted to scream. She wanted to cry…she forced herself to try to see Reyes with the clinical detachment she used on the bodies she dissected. Forced herself to take a step back. That was just an arm. And a head. They were pieces, nothing more. Parts to be dissected (Schaeffer, 203).
I don’t read much horror (only recently have I read any horror at all), so I am the type of reader who isn’t accustomed to stories that take everything you know about how that story is crafted and turn it on its head. Nita’s descent to desensitization and possible simultaneous ascent to villainy has only just begun. At the end of the story, Nita has not become the villain I thought she would become. But since this book is part one of a trilogy, I fully expect Nita to continue changing in different ways, and with her, the story.
Schaeffer doesn’t leave us without one last gut-punching twist. As Nita thumbs through Reyes’s phone, she comes across the text messages linking her abductors to the person who told them about her:
Somehow she was crouched on the floor, hyperventilating, and the phone was on the ground beside her. When had that happened? There was a blank space in her memory, as though her brain had been so overloaded it just glitched and shut down for a moment…
“Nita? What’s wrong?”
He frowned. “What about them? They’re probably taken from Facebook.”
No. Those photos were only in one place—Nita’s phone. Which she hadn’t had with her.
It was with Fabricio (Schaeffer 303-4).
I had to look up from the book for a second to process what this meant. Fabricio, the very person for whom Nita had sacrificed, had betrayed her, not her mother. This twist not only caught me by surprise; it reinforces the idea that appeared as far back as Mirella’s death:
…on some childish level, she’d expected Nita to get her justice. Because that’s what happened in stories—the good guys reached their goal before they died. It was a rule. But it was a rule of fiction. Stories here didn’t get neat endings tied up in a bow (Schaeffer 163).
While Mirella did get her justice in a way, Nita’s own selflessness, her moral side, caused her suffering. Hers is not a story that ends, or even begins, in a way that is either expected or fair. There is no balance, only a close following of one character’s transformation.
This subversion creates a sense of hopelessness, yes, but it also conjures a sense of freshness and variety not often seen in YA fiction, at least from my experience. For Nita, anything could happen, good or bad. Good and bad are themselves useless labels. There is only survival. And as a reader who often relies on the inherent formula of story, the balance of character and predicament, this is both a shocking and exciting experience.
Schaeffer’s fresh, creepy, and brutal writing has convinced me that I’ve found a new favorite author. I can’t wait to read Only Ashes Remain!
If you haven’t read Not Even Bones and ignored my spoiler warning anyway…well, first of all, why did you do that?…but also, if you liked this taste of Schaeffer’s dark story and hunger for more, check it out! Experience the thrill firsthand, whether it’s in book form or comic form.