A serial killer with a nightmarish artistic vision stalks the streets of Detroit in this cross-genre thriller that flirts with ideas on urban decay, the dangers of technology, art, social justice, and the supernatural.
The point of view rotates between a diverse cast of characters whose lives each intersect with the killer’s. Chances are you already know whether this is a narrative device that works for you. I often found myself rushing through the sections featuring jaded journalist Jonno—a character who felt more like a plot device—anxious to return to detective and single mom Gabi Versado, whose interactions with her daughter Layla were both compelling and realistically nuanced. Other characters, like homeless do-gooder TK, were richly drawn in their own right but felt like they deserved a story of their own rather than just having wandered into this one.
Ultimately, the plot and themes outshine the characters. Beukes has a definite interest in art and life as they intersect with modern technology, and there are moments when she illustrates the ramifications of these collisions beautifully. The idea of social-media-as-stage isn’t exactly a new one, but it’s germane both to the questions raised in the novel and to the reality of many of our lives. You’ll find entire chapters that are composed as Reddit threads, sections of texting, and references to everything from Tumblr to Chatroulette. Where Beukes sometimes falls short of the mark is in her tendency to illustrate “The Dangers of Technology” with a tone that feels a bit too after-school-special for a book published in 2014—especially one intended for an adult audience. The level of finesse falls somewhere between the sharp-toothed Black Mirror and that Buffy episode where Willow’s online boyfriend turns out to be a techno-demon.
The most memorable segments are those that pull back on the commentary and unleash some honest-to-goodness, adrenaline-pounding thrills. This book would have been a 3/5 for me, but the final act is so creeptastic that I couldn’t help but stay up late to finish—and then promptly fell prey to some serious nightmares. The climax is a dark spectacle you’ll carry with you for some time.
Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of these “is it real or is it fantasy?” sort of plotlines (think Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! or even HBO’s True Detective) that blur the line between the ordinary and the mystical. The first half of Broken Monsters flirts with this trope. Is Clayton Broom an off-his-rocker maniac, or is he, as his POV sections imply, tapped into something otherworldly? To Beukes’s credit, there’s a fairly definitive answer given by the end—but (no spoilers!) whether you prefer one resolution to the other will likely affect your ultimate enjoyment of the book.
Now, about this chalk door drawn on my wall…