Review: Even If We Break by Marieke Nijkamp

Publication Date: September 2020
Attributes: ya fiction, short novel, horror/thriller
Tags: TTRPGs are a little too real, trans man protag, nonbinary protag by nonbinary author, characters with disabilities, neuroatypical characters

This book was fine. For readers more interested in concept and style than character, it'll even be great.

The concept is great fun, a tropey twist on an old tale: Friends with secrets head to a cabin for the weekend. Instead of whatever they were planning on doing in most slasher films, these kids are going for a full-on LARP session. It's the last session before they all split up to go to college, and after a few brutal falling outs, things are tense. Then someone starts hunting them down, one by one, and using their secrets against them.

I love this concept, and in ways the book used it well. I'm a sucker for any subversion of the old cabin-in-the-woods premise (hello, Cabin in the Woods (2011) and Until Dawn). Especially if it's queer and trans and has a T4T romance. The prose is compulsively readable, which doesn't hurt.

And the TTRPG elements are delightfully whimsical and true-to-life. Nijkamp also writes frame chapters told as if the GM is narrating. As the book progresses, and characters come closer to their “breaking points”, the RPG-world narration collapses into the real-life game that someone is playing with their secrets. These were one of my favorite elements of the book.

Nonbinary GM Ever is still determined to give everyone a great time, complete with props and ambiance. Trans man Finn is there mostly because he has a giant crush on Ever. Autistic injured lacrosse star Maddy wants to close out the game and bridge some of the gaps that have cropped up in recent months. Middle-class, high-achieving Carter sees the weekend as one last chance to have some fun before embracing the boring business future he needs to bring in the $ and please his dad. And extremely rich and rather aloof Liva is providing the cabin for the weekend.

The character concepts are one of the biggest delights in this — it's a good cast, with lots of places to clash. And the Finn/Ever romance is cute and, as a “wait, our lives are splitting up soon” love tale, quite well handled. Almost everyone has clear motives, and they end up clashing with clarity and purpose.

But the character work from the POV-side is also one of the biggest weaknesses. Nijkamp tells their stories in alternating first-person POV chapters. Everyone has a secret that they're hiding — from each other AND the reader.

All these eighteen-year-olds are headed to a remote cabin for a weekend, and they all slowly reveal their secret hangups and hopes and fears. But the interiority of the characters never quite rings true. The narration ends up sounding all the same, even between five wildly different characters with separate motives. And it seems unbelievably overwrought for a person to actually think something like “will we reach our breaking point this weekend?”, even for a group of intense TTRPGers. All POV characters spend a lot of time reiterating those themes of breaking, even though they don't necessarily have a good reason to — especially in the book's early pages.

The murderer (not saying who) wants to use everyone's secrets to drive them to a breaking point, too. They leave creepy messages that end up mirroring the props of the game. They try to drive an addict to overdosing, a thief to cheating with stolen money in the TTRPG, a kid with low self esteem to start questioning their worth. The conceit is compelling.

But like a lot of the book, it doesn't come together. It's a lot of thematic and conceptual and structural works that works on the theoretical level, but doesn't quite end up making sense from the character motives side. We hear from the murderer early on, but there's little clue that they're Up To Something. (In that sense, it joins a long legacy of teen thrillers like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars.) The murderer's identity also feels more thematic than character-driven, even though it should have been both.

This book could perhaps have benefited from a third person limited POV perspective. The interiorities of five characters are just a lot to establish in a short novel.

I've also really loved Nijkamp's work when it depends less on the characters' interiority. The Oracle Code is a phenomenal DC YA reboot.

Despite its imperfections, I still enjoyed reading this book. It's unusual enough to read horror where queer characters [REDACTED]. I'd recommend it to others who are looking for a quick YA horror that's a low-key love letter to TTRPGs and has solid rep from multiple directions.

More like this: The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler, Until Dawn, Cabin in the Woods (2011)

#backlist #reviews #books #yafiction #novels #y2020

Kae Petrin is a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Find them at @petrinkae on Twitter.