Home Science Fiction Review: Bent Heavens – Horrific, Depressing, and Super Compelling

Review: Bent Heavens – Horrific, Depressing, and Super Compelling

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Title: Bent Heavens
Author:
Daniel Kraus
Publisher:
Henry Holt and Co.

Genre(s): “YA” Horror, Contemporary
Subject(s): Alien abduction, torture

Release Date:
Feb 25th, 2020
Page Count: 304 (hardback)

Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

 

 

Liv Fleming’s father went missing more than two years ago, not long after he claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Liv has long accepted that he’s dead, though that doesn’t mean she has given up their traditions. Every Sunday, she and her lifelong friend Doug Monk trudge through the woods to check the traps Lee left behind, traps he set to catch the aliens he so desperately believed were after him.

But Liv is done with childhood fantasies. Done pretending she believes her father’s absurd theories. Done going through the motions for Doug’s sake. However, on the very day she chooses to destroy the traps, she discovers in one of them a creature so inhuman it can only be one thing. In that moment, she’s faced with a painful realization: her dad was telling the truth. And no one believed him.

Now, she and Doug have a choice to make. They can turn the alien over to the authorities…or they can take matters into their own hands.

CW: Depictions of physical torture, mutilation, (spoiler: human experimentation, body horror)

 

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Okay, listen.

This isn’t a nice book.

In fact, it’s a pretty damn depressing book.

It’s a book that roams the dark and shadowy place that Mufasa warns about. Nothing good can come of chasing it but death and singing hyenas.

Which is why I’m here, on my knees, asking you to chase read it.

Contradiction, thy name is Bent Heavens.

This is my third Daniel Kraus read (well, two and three-quarters–I still have to finish Zebulon Finch) and here’s what I’ve gathered about the guy so far: when you leaf through the pages of Dictionary: Daniel Kraus Edition, you’d find burnt holes under the entries “comfortable,” “pleasant,” and “simple.” Kraus doesn’t do soft. He doesn’t do pretty. Interpersonal horrors and intimate darkness–darkness made almost beautiful by its closeness–are spaces in which he thrives (which is why he works well with Guillermo del Toro, I suppose). He has a knack for taking discomfort and instinctual revulsion and turning them into compelling art.

Calling this book “art” might be an arguable point for some, but it is definitely compelling.

The first half is pretty slow, focused on the psychological ramifications of having a father who went missing and returned, telling everyone he’d been taken and experimented on by aliens, and then promptly disappeared again. It’s a stripped-down, realistic take of your typical abduction plotline; less of flashing lights and crop circles, and more of the abductee’s obsessions and fears and the toll they have on his family. It sets up the lonely and insulated environment for the main character quite well.

The second half is where things get truly heavy.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: this story has alien torture. Not as graphic as I’d thought it would be, but still pretty graphic. One of the characters quotes and takes inspiration from George W. Bush’s policies on torture of al Qaeda prisoners, and they become the springboard for everything that follows. And there’s a lot that follows: an exploration of prisoner/prison guard psychology; the ease with which people dehumanize and justify their dehumanization. What happens when tragedy meets anger in an echo chamber, Kraus asks, and then proceeds to muddy waters by slipping weariness into the mix. And more so than the anger, the latter is what really stuck with me. Atrocities you commit because you’ve been ground down and you’re exhausted and it’s easier to let someone else’s rage fuel you than to scrounge up your own and realize you’re not that angry–at least, not enough to brutalize. No. Much easier to give someone else the reins and follow.

I think passivity is a difficult trait to portray, as you’re fighting against reader expectations of what a protagonist should be, with popular media teaching us to love active characters and scoff at the inactive ones, but the author does a brilliant job of it. There are scenes that ride the edge of suffocation and frustration, and I would’ve hated them if they weren’t written so honestly. At the same time, I hated them because they were written so honestly.

The prose is the biggest complaint I have. I wish Kraus had used the first-person POV; it’s where he works best, and it would fits the narrative better, making the introspective scenes more, well, introspective. But maybe that’s exactly why he didn’t use it. Because he wanted a buffer between the readers and everything that happens with the characters. A deep dive into Liv’s emotions might have been too raw. Regardless, the third person POV combined with Kraus’ style–surplus descriptions and use of adjectives–has the unfortunate side effect of making things comically overdramatic at the wrong moments. And while the dialogue is mostly fine, sometimes it gets a little cringey:

“You’re a barrel of monkeys today.”
“I didn’t ask for this ride.”
“Will you take ten chill pills?”

My second complaint isn’t really a complaint, just another rendition of Why the Hell Is This Marketed As YA. I’ve looked at Kraus’s books in the past and thought, “I’m not sure what age group this belongs to,” and that feeling is doubled here. It’s very mature, despite the high school characters, and the themes would feel more at home in an adult horror/thriller.

If nothing else, though, I recommend it for the ending because it’s probably the most bonkers thing I’ve read in a while. I’d call it entertaining if I didn’t feel bad about finding it entertaining. Horrifically delightful? Delightfully horrific? It’s like watching a train plummet straight into a ravine, and then seeing a land kraken erupt out of nowhere and bash the locomotive to pieces. And you can only laugh at the chaos inbetween whispers of “What the fuck.”

So yeah. Not a nice book.

It’s twisted and claustrophobic and heartbreaking and–

And I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

So, come on, Simba. Take a walk on the dark side.

 

(Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review)

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15 comments

Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum February 18, 2020 - 8:43 pm

This is one of my upcoming reads – despite the horror and depression, it sure sounds good and I’m looking forward to checking it out 🙂

Reply
Susy's Cozy World February 18, 2020 - 9:42 pm

Oh my, this was such an amazing review! This book is definitely not my cup of tea, I don’t like horror because they usually bore me to no end and I am not a fan of dark book, usually (even if I love grim dark fantasy…) but your review was so intriguing that I have to think about it!

Reply
Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky February 23, 2020 - 12:15 am

It’s definitely not for everyone! But I haven’t seen any other blogger talk about it yet and there are spoilery things I want to get off my chest, so I’ll be chatting your ears off if you do end up reading it. 😀

And it’s weird, I’ve read quite a few grimdark and I generally like them, but contemporary grimdark feels a lot darker than fantasy grimdark to me. Maybe because all the fantasy aspect (dragons and magic and whatnot) helps muffle the unpleasant bits?

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Susy's Cozy World February 23, 2020 - 1:48 am

The part about the fantasy aspect muffling the unpleasant bits could just be the answer here!!!

Reply
Ola G February 19, 2020 - 12:24 am

I’m glad you enjoyed it so much despite – or because of – the darkness. It’s totally not my type of book, and yet your review makes it seem very compelling!

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Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky February 22, 2020 - 3:39 pm

Oh yeah, it’s definitely not a book I’d want to shove at random people on the streets. They’d probably chase me down after they read it and chuck it at my head 😛 But ugh, I just wish I could show everyone the ending! It’s an M. Night Shyamalan style of twists and shock, except actually GOOD.

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Ola G February 22, 2020 - 5:23 pm

😀

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Qamidala27 February 19, 2020 - 4:52 am

I love your blunt but hilarious reviews. I don’t think this is a story for me but your reviews are on point. Keep it up!

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Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky February 22, 2020 - 3:23 pm

Ahh that’s a sweet thing to say, thank you so much! <3

Reply
bookbeachbunny February 19, 2020 - 3:31 pm

It sounds really interesting but ugh bodily horror is usually something that really gets to me. I’ll have to see how brave I get!

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Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky February 22, 2020 - 3:29 pm

Oh no, I’m torn between telling you YES, YOU CAN BE BRAVE, because I want more people to suffer–er, *experience* the book, but the body horror stuff does get kinda dark. They’re mostly cluttered near the last 1/4, though!

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waytoofantasy February 24, 2020 - 5:04 am

I don’t read a ton of dark and twisted and depressing stuff because of my own mental health issues but the bonkers ending you’ve described has me intrigued. Fantastic review, Kathy!

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@lynnsbooks February 24, 2020 - 2:16 pm

Wow, you certainly have me intrigued with this review. will go and check this out.
Lynn 😀

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Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky March 3, 2020 - 5:47 am

Omg YES Lynn, give it a go! Kraus’s books are super underrated (minus Shape of Water, I guess) and he always brings something strange and unique to the table. And that’s 100% the case here 😀

Reply
January & February 2020 Wrap-Up: Begone, Cursed Months! (Feat. Pretty Lights) – Pages Below the Vaulted Sky March 3, 2020 - 6:30 am

[…] The worst and also the best alien abduction story I’ve read in a while. Daniel Kraus has no chill. [Review] […]

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