Next Year provides a believable fantasy world and hints at several sub plots, leaving one wanting to read an entire novel about Next Year. The two accompanying stories leave one hoping things had been different. In the Illusion of Choice, we are taken through unbelievably surreal scenarios while The Garbage Man’s Boy treats the reader like children, giving away the twist with the first and most obvious hint.
The Garbage Man’s Boy, by J.C. Sayer, has the potential to be a romantic thriller but never quite gets there. Ron, the protagonist who idolizes his father as a standard of honesty, learns his father uses people’s trash to learn their secrets. Momentary judgement from Ron could have been drawn out for tension after Ron exclaims “FATHER! You can’t be telling me that you are an immoral creature?” However, the father’s explanation is immediate and satisfying enough to the reader; “Old Barnley owns a good part of town, and always tries to expand is kingdom with...” and Ron finishes “with under-handed politics.” Since they’ve learned Barnley’s having an affair, Ron recalls a time when this knowledge could have saved a close friend’s farm. As the reader sees the worthwhile explanation, Ron’s reluctance to trust his father suggests it will affect the story. It does not.
We learn that Ron does not know about his mother before the writer switches direction, telling about a murdered sixteen year old girl who showed signs of rape. The obviousness felt like a slap in the face even to an early teen audience. This is furthered when Ron later notices a blue truck trailing him. The driver looks like an older version of Ron. At this point in time, the whole story should be known and you hope that you’ll be surprised by some twists. Don’t bother getting your hopes up. In the end, Ron learns his mother was an early victim of the killer dubbed The Ferry Man, named for the highway he hunts. Ron’s adopted father nursed her back to health and they fell in love. Don’t expect to find out what happened to her after that; the main character may have learned it through a letter but the reader does not. The climax is rushed. At one point, we are to believe Ron climbs down from a locked attic, exits his front door, and plants himself, rifle in hand, all in less time than it takes the antagonist to climb through his broken windshield.
This is not to say that The Garbage Man’s Boy was without some merit. The father has some great relationship advice for Ron “Men that can’t let their loves breathe don’t know how to treat them properly.” The father fancies wine so even though he doesn’t make the comparison, it is left for the audience. We were also reminded “Knowledge is better currency [than] copper.” In the end, Ron is proud of the life his father lived and the lessons learned from him while he goes on to become a moral politician, marrying the love interest.
Illusion of Choice, by John Biscarner, has less to enjoy. Beginning in the first person with a little gender ambiguity, the reader is left wondering if the protagonist is female, but with the strong impression that we are dealing with a gay male. This is quickly confirmed after a rushed series of events that leaves one feeling like Alice after tumbling down the rabbit hole. After having a fight with his parents (we can guess he came out to them – also hastily confirmed) Darren leaves home, begs for spare change, and then happens upon a sign stating, “Wishes Granted. Inquire Within.” Curiosity brings him in but he doesn’t know what to expect. Personally, I’d expect a bogus fortune teller. When the twins, -one in black, one in white- in the creepy little shop asks Darren what he wishes without any greetings, he hesitates.
“I’m sorry, I’m really confused. Maybe I should just go?” The twins don’t get any less creepy but Darren asks for equality. Suddenly, we are confronted with the end of the world, in ashes. Whether this is illusion or not is never revealed. The story is heavily influenced by the author’s belief that equality is not achievable, as revealed by the powers of these twins calling themselves God and Satan, or Ying and Yang. “Equality, I don’t believe you know what true equality is. No matter how you work it, no one can EVER be on completely equal footing.” This is due to two factors that these beings say all people seem to forget “free will and random happenstance.” Asking again what Darren wants, he asks for time to think. Apparently this is something novel that has never been asked of them before, and we later find this is something they have been doing for eternity. In another apparent surprise, Darren asks to trade places with them, to have their power. Ominously, he is warned that not all things can be reversed before they reverse everything they did and give him their power. Unable to control it, he unmakes existence, leaving just himself and the twins who escaped erasure. Unsurprisingly they ask him again what he wants. Finally, he wishes he never told his parents about his orientation, nor run away. “Granted.” Again, they return everything to normal. But do they grant his wish? No. He is returned to the moment after the argument leading the reader to believe Darren imagined the whole scenario. At least this time he chooses not to run away. Near the end, the story switches to third person but not for any artistic reason. I kept hoping the story would be about a gay teen overcoming adversity caused by his sexuality but it fell so short I would recommend skipping this one unless you’ve just taken some drugs and would like to kill time.
Next Year begins with Walker, the protagonist, groggy and in pain. We learn of a rich fantasy world where just enough details are revealed through Walker, about each of the other characters, to help us understand the dynamic between the motley group of newly chosen demon hunters. Armed with magical weapons from another dimension, the Sunfire Seeds are led by The Messenger.
After jamming his finger into a gut wound, Walker sees Geoff in battle before passing out. As he comes in and out of consciousness, Walker’s dreams reveal the plot.
Walker doesn’t have faith in himself but his teammate, Geoff, gives him sound advice. “Your league is what you define it. Ain’t nothing out of your league that you don’t put out of it yourself.” This line is delivered by the intimidating, large fighter who, aside from Walker, has the greatest depth of character, and also happens to be gay. In contrast, another member of the group, Devin, is thin, lanky, and bigoted. We get the feeling that while Walker appears to be the outcast in school, Devin is the outcast of the group. The seer, which is Devin’s role, reveals with some help from Cathy (The Killer as she’s named by Devin) that one of them will betray the group. The Messenger arrives to send the chosen ones into battle against the greatest threat they’ve faced in their first year as champions against The Hellbent, a powerful demon that can attack physically and spiritually.
By the end, most of Walker’s team is dead and he is left to make a difficult decision that could cause his own death.
The story is wonderfully paced, giving important details just in time to make crucial connections, and ending with a fulfilling twist. The tale gives just enough closure to satisfy the reader while hinting enough to keep the imagination going through the end.
(reviewed 22 days after purchase)