The Twelve-Fingered Boy -- John Hornor Jacobs
On the inside, some folks don't know what they want. Some folks have to be convinced they want what you got. Some folks have to be convinced they don't want what you got. You have to scare them bad enough that they don't think they can take it from you. It's only been six months since I first came here, but now I can't remember if the inside differs from the way it is outside. I doubt it really matters. I'm on the inside, and I'll remain incarcerado for the next eighteen months.
He's not as big as a lot of the other inmates, and he's a hell of a lot mouthier, but everyone tries to stay on his good side because of his one-man candy smuggling operation.
Everything changes when he gets a new cellmate. At first, 13-year-old Jack Graves seems like any other kid, if a little more quiet than most, and maybe a little bit more shell-shocked about ending up at the Casimir Pulaski Juvenile Detention Center. He's got twelve fingers, and he's clearly uncomfortable with any sort of attention, but he seems like a good kid.
When he gets mad, though... bad things happen. And there's a scary man in a black suit—if you're a Babylon 5 fan, I doubt you'll be able to picture Mr. Quincrux as anyone but Walter Koenig's Alfred Bester—who claims to be from Social Services, but CLEARLY IS NOT, who is very, VERY interested in Jack.
OH, I LOVED THIS ONE. Be prepared, I might jump around a bit while I gush.
Shreve's voice is hard-boiled, in that he's figured out some life truths that will be familiar to anyone who's read Robert Cormier:
On the inside, pack mentality rules the yard. I've said it before, and I will say it again: Everyone thinks he's different. But when you truly are different, the different gets beat out of you on the yard. I don't have to be a mind reader to know that things are about to get bloody.
But the thing about Shreve is that unlike most hard-boiled narrators, Shreve is also pretty open about his softer side. He loves his little brother and is devastated that his own actions resulted in their separation; without any sort of selfish motivation, he almost immediately becomes Jack's friend and protector; at his core, HE'S GENUINELY NICE.
And he's smart. He never has any real doubts that what is happening—between Jack and Mr. Quincrux, between Mr. Quincrux and Assistant Warden Booth, between Ilsa and anyone she deals with—is really happening. He doesn't play dumb, he doesn't hide from the truth, he doesn't try and explain it away.
AND THEN. When he [SPOILER] gains Quincrux's talent for mind control, he is revolted by it—it is, after all, psychic rape—[END SPOILER] but he's not above using it. Even more impressively, using it strengthens his empathetic nature, which makes him feel more and more guilty about using it, but, again, he's going to do what he has to do to keep Jack safe. And eventually, he finds that it can bring some amount of joy, too: it gives him a sense of the interconnectedness of all things.
Are you familiar with Andrew Vachss' Burke? Because Shreve could be Burke at fifteen. A less-hardened, but no-less caring, no-less determined Burke. If, you know, Burke had superpowers. Relatedly, while the boys are on the run, there's quite a bit about the Art of the Scam, which is always something I love.
There's a BIG DARKNESS, too—this is the first in a trilogy, though it reads like an open-ended stand-alone—a DARKNESS that is alluded to, but never faced... and more than anything else, it made me think of IT in A Wrinkle in Time. Which is terrifying.
At the same time, despite my terror, I AM LOOKING FORWARD TO THE SEQUEL SO VERY, VERY MUCH. Just... KILLER. So much to think about, and so, so well done.
NOTE: If you are someone who already feels that YA is too dark, this is probably not the book for you. Because, despite the threads about friendships and chosen family and choice and hope, WOW. DARRRRRK.
Book source: Bought.