Caren Gussoff Sumption Reviews Freaks by Brett Riley

Freaks, Brett Riley (Imbrifex 9781945501531, $18.99, 283pp, hc) March 2022.

Hey, speculative fiction reader, indulge me on a hunch. Here it is: high school was not… great. Probably not a time you look back on with much fondness. Not one you’d willingly return to for all the money in the world. The awkwardness. The delicately balanced social rules – trying to balance being an individual with fitting in, wanting attention, but also abhorring it. Even with a supportive family and a tight group of friends, navigating one’s teen years was a nightmare of losing battles while hop­ing beyond hope that you’d ultimately win the war.

Yeah. Me too.

So, it’s hard to dismiss a good teenage revenge fantasy. You know, the one where the underdogs defeat the bullies – where the misfits get the power and re-write the rules for everyone. Those fantasies are satisfying, even when we know the whole prem­ise is contrived.

And this satisfaction is the one thing Brett Riley’s Freaks gets right. Much of the rest is uneven and brings forth more questions than it answers. But it captures the shape and feel of a good adolescent requite.

The first book in a series, we meet Freaks’s main characters as they are living the worst of the worst adolescent existences: they’re being, literally, tor­tured by the three school bullies. The misfit group’s de-facto leader, Micah, is being dipped, head first, into a toilet for a “swirly.” Jamie, the A+ student, is more spitball than boy by the end of his study hall period. Gabby gets soaked to the skin with a bar­rage of water balloons, while Christian gets herself pantsed, down to her underwear, in the schoolyard.

The torments are oddly old-fashioned. The fact that all but Micah’s are videoed and later posted on the Internet is the first clue that this story is actually set in the present. Strangely, though, while each character has a cell phone, there’s no mention of social media whatsoever, and they are hardly ever portrayed as even looking at their phones. Either the technology or the dialogue/behavior of everyone in the novel is a disconcerting anachronism.

Readers are frequently fine when time/expectation conventions are bent, when the author does it as part of a setting’s design. In Freaks, however, it’s hard to suspend disbelief. It calls into question not only when the book takes place, but what audience Riley envisioned for Freaks. On one hand, both the plot and the prose’s cadence and vocabulary position it squarely as a young adult novel. But it also heav­ily relies on torments and insults (calling someone “pussy, “a girl,” and other sexist/homophobic slurs) that were getting hokey in the 1980s (when I was suffering my way through high school). The titular freaks are singled out for abuse because they enjoy video games, RPGs, Marvel movies, and comic books; because of their race or sexual orientation (Jamie is teased for being Black, Gabby for being Jewish and Latinx, and Christian for being gay); and for being high achieving students, all of which feels wildly out-of-date, given current popular culture. At the same time, Freaks did not seem aimed at an adult audience – say, Gen X-ers like me – hungry for nostalgia, either (like a Ready Player One or a Stranger Things).

Changes come for our four underdogs when they LARP a magic ritual, using a spell book, robes, and herbs found at Micah’s house, accouterments that turn out to actually be magic. The friends acciden­tally call forth an Eldritch-style monster, and give themselves (and one of their bullies, Kenneth, who was spying on the LARP) superpowers.

The characters get to use their powers against their tormentors. Interestingly, it doesn’t quite go as planned, because rather than having their newfound powers impress their schoolmates, it actually further exposes them to scorn. This scorn includes the newly super-strong Kenneth, who is now also a “freak.”

The complications of having superpowers nicely meshes with the general complications of adoles­cence. The five teens struggle with their changing roles and responsibilities, brought on by both their powers and the usual teen drama stuff (love, envy, hormones) that all comes close to making the char­acters hate one another. But, as the monster, the dark prince Na’ul, starts killing and maiming folks in their town, the five heroes have to figure out how to work together and stop Na’ul.

Na’ul is interesting. Though he gets limited time in Freaks, a lot of care was given to making his motivations quite clear, and – nearly – sympathetic. He is really the most rounded character here.

In the end, though, the five teens pull it off. They banish Na’ul. They save the day. They become heroes, ones that their town has no choice but to acknowledge and embrace – even as a new big bad, one from their own world, has already started to rise – for, of course, book two.

Caren Gussoff Sumption is a writer, editor, Tarot reader, and reseller living outside Seattle, WA with her husband, the artist and data scientist, Chris Sumption, and their ridiculously spoiled cat-children.

Born in New York, she attended the University of Colorado, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Clarion West (as the Carl Brandon Society’s Octavia Butler scholar) and the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop. Caren is also a Hedgebrook alum (2010, 2016). She started writing fiction and teaching professionally in 2000, with the publication of her first novel, Homecoming.

Caren is a big, fat feminist killjoy of Jewish and Romany heritages. She loves serial commas, quadruple espressos, knitting, the new golden age of television, and over-analyzing things. Her turn offs include ear infections, black mold, and raisins in oatmeal cookies.

This review and more like it in the March 2022 issue of Locus.

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