First things first, I need to say a huge thank you to Curiosity Quills Press for sending me this title in exchange for an honest review.
‘He couldn’t control what he did during the Outs any more than he could stop the Outs from happening at all.’
‘A buzzing sound swarmed Caleb’s head, almost knocking him over. Lights blinked to life around him as the shroud lifted from his eyes.’
This opening sentence is as disorienting to the reader as it is to Caleb. The first few chapters are just giant question marks, but if you persevere through them the answers quickly start becoming clear.
A few months ago, the Outs began. During the Outs every electrical device fails to work – no cars, no phones, no lights – and brains can’t use the electrical impulses to store memories. Everything that happens in the Outs stays in the Outs: as soon as they end, everything is forgotten.
Caleb wakes up after the Outs in a little girl’s room. She lives a couple of doors away from him, but he can’t understand why he’d be there, or why he’d be murdering a fellow Deadheader in her bedroom.
‘Deadheaders. Dmitri says they shoot people during the Outs just for thrills. I know everyone just comes back to life when the Outs are over and all, but that’s just wrong.’
Yep, Caleb is part of a gang who go around killing themselves and other people just to experience the thrill of revival that comes when the Outs finish. If you die in the Outs, you come back. If you die outside of the Outs, that’s just death.
Caleb grabs Amanda and runs. Deeds, the leader of the Deadheaders, wants her for something, but he’s determined to protect her.
Kitzi is Caleb’s best friend. She suffers from aphasia following a car accident in which she was hit by a drunk driver, and it means she finds it hard to understand speech and to speak herself. In the Outs, however, she’s back to the old Kitzi, able to have conversations freely. She’s also the only one that can remember what happens in the Outs, but she can’t work out if that’s just because of her aphasia or if something bigger is at play.
Caleb quickly discovers that Amanda has powers. She wants him to stay, and no matter how many times he tries to leave her he finds himself back in the driving seat of their getaway vehicle. He considers blowing up the SUV to distract the police and cover their tracks, and moments later it goes up in flames; Amanda wants it, so it happens.
‘Amanda was doing this. She wanted the SUV to explore, and it did. She wanted Caleb to stay with her, and he stayed. She’d wanted rain and the sky opened up. She was writing this story.’
Leeza, Kitzi’s mother, is involved in the team investigating the Outs. She has the only car that works when the electricity goes off, powered by a different kind of energy to allow it to keep running. Kitzi feels as though her mother has abandoned her since her aphasia began, and struggles to accept her mother’s involvement in the phenomenon.
But before long, Kitzi will learn that she’s a lot more connected to the Outs than she could possibly imagine. Caleb and Kitzi work together to fight Deeds and save Amanda, but as the Outs become more volatile it starts to look like no one will survive…
The concept of ‘The Outs’ is a fascinating one.
Can you imagine every person in the world losing huge stretches of time, no one knowing what had happened beyond the notes that they’d manage to scribble to remind themselves before the Outs ended? Mass forgetting on that scale is inconceivable. The fact that technology ceased to work meant that there was no chance of anyone vlogging the incident, no live tweeting or photos taken on phones for posterity.
The Deadheaders remind me of the people in ‘The Purge’. Being able to do anything without suffering the consequences is a recipe for disaster. There’s no way to prove anything that happened during the Outs because no one can remember, so there’s no way justice can be served. It’s very philosophical. There’s no punishment for acts committed in the Outs, which makes everyone act without restraint. If we knew we could get away with it, how far would we go?
Meanwhile, Amanda reminds me of Eleven from ‘Stranger Things’. If you’re a fan of that show – and face it, who isn’t?! – you’ll love this story. The power that she can wield with her mind is astounding, and really cements the stereotype of the creepy child. It all stems from a father’s love for his daughter: Amanda dies and Teague is desperate to bring her back, but in doing so he gives her the ability to rewrite the world as she sees fit. It’s a warning against people who have the desire to play God, and shows you that sometimes the best thing you can do is just let your loved ones go. Power being held by a child is the cause of most of the weirdness of the Outs. Nightmare creatures swarm across the landscape, packs of lions appear from nowhere to defeat them, and Caleb ends up wearing a suit of armour convinced that he’s about to fight the Jabberwocky. Yep, just a little fantastical! It wouldn’t have worked the same if Amanda had been older, so making her an innocent little girl who has no idea what she’s capable of is another fascinating choice.
I love the way the Deadheaders had multiple personalities, their Outs self and their regular self. Caleb struggles against Crimes, the other him that was created while he was rendezvousing with the Deadheaders, while we discover that Amanda’s father Teague is Deeds, the man determined to use her powers for ill. This fight against compulsion is something that we all experience in some way, shape or form – the inner voice that tells us to do a terrible thing that we have no intention of actually doing – and to see the struggle becoming physical is terrifying. Crimes can push himself to the forefront of Caleb’s consciousness and take control of his body, leaving Caleb stuck in the background fighting back. It’s a sadistic version ‘The Host’: the Deadheaders take over their hosts to wreak more death and destruction rather than to be able to survive.
However, it makes things convoluted. Teague is Deeds is Nicky, and the more information we receive the more muddling it is to look back over the events that have already occurred. A huge part of this story regards playing with the way that time works, and I found it hard to keep my head straight, particularly when Kitzi ended up in Amanda’s dreams, an alternate universe held together with golden threads.
Talking of Kitzi, she was definitely my favourite character. I hadn’t heard of aphasia before, but I empathised with her struggle and was cheering for her when she managed to be a badass outside of the Outs while her condition was still plaguing her. E.S. Wesley wrote her perception of dialogue very well, and the frustration that the reader experiences when unable to understand what’s happening mirrors Kitzi’s frustration. I’m glad that her aphasia wasn’t ‘fixed’ at the end of the novel, because that would have been unfair for people with aphasia who deserve to be represented. I also adored all of her comic book references – they lightened the tone in scenes that would have otherwise been filled only with despair.
I also thought the relationship between her and Caleb was a brilliant inclusion. Too often you read stories where people who have disabilities aren’t thought of as lovable, but Caleb realises he loves Kitzi whether she can speak or not. She’s always the same person, whether she’s talking in the Outs or struggling to communicate but staying by his side outside of them.
I was a little disappointed by the end of the novel, because things are left so wide open, but I have hopes that means a sequel might be on the way. Ordinarily a story like this would have gone right over my head, and while I admit that I didn’t understand what was going on for huge chunks, E.S. Wesley is great at helping you join the dots together and see the bigger picture.
If the characters hadn’t been so strong, I might have given up on this one, but I couldn’t resist seeing what happened to Caleb and Kitzi. Both of them are equally strong, and show that even when you’re fighting yourself you can triumph and be a superhero.