The Light Fantastic by Sarah Combs

Posted September 14, 2016 by Taryn in Reviews / 0 Comments

I received this book for free from Candlewick Press, NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

The Light Fantastic by Sarah CombsThe Light Fantastic by Sarah Combs
Published by Candlewick Press on September 13th 2016
Pages: 320
Source: Candlewick Press, NetGalley
Buy on Amazon

April 19th is April Donovan’s eighteenth birthday. It’s also Senior Skip Day, but she and her two best friends decide to attend school anyway. April has a Hyper Superior Autobiographical Memory (hyperthymesia) and can’t stop herself from thinking about every tragedy that has happened during her birth month. On the same day, a young man–known online as the Mastermind–is planning a coordinated attack on the nation’s schools.

“People might say to you kids that your generation is spoiled. Entitled. Too wrapped up in yourselves. … But this thing,” Mr. Goodrich says. “I mean, what is this? Nobody can tell me that you kids aren’t fighting a war all your own. Jesus Christ, nobody can tell me that.”

I was a junior in high school when the Columbine shooting happened and the active shooting drills entered the routine soon after. Even though they were just drills, those days were always so unsettling! The idea of being hunted is terrifying. Several mass murders are vaguely referenced within the chapters (no murderers are named) and it shocked me how fresh each one is in my memory.

The entire story happens in a 2.5 hour period (9:43am to 12:03pm), except for the final two chapters. Despite taking place in the time surrounding an active shooter situation, there is very little violence. It’s more about the inner lives of these teenagers and their moment of decision (“the light fantastic”) than bloodshed. What makes someone willing to take their own life and the lives of others? What could steer that person towards a better path?

We all want attention. Every single one of us. We’re all starved for it, and anyone who says they’re not is a liar. The root of all evil? I don’t think it’s money, like the saying goes. I think maybe the actual root of all evil is the constant need for attention on the part of every single human being on the planet, myself included. We are all just bottomless pits of need.

The Glass Menagerie (helpful analysis at link) and several Greek myths (Icarus/wings, Theseus, Fates/ thread) are frequently alluded to. The writing style reminded me of Tennessee Williams and it took me forever to figure that out, even though it was staring me right in the face! There is in anxious energy and a passion in these character’s voices. The youthful use of language did make me feel old! Several of the characters mash their words together and one of them occasionally communicates in hashtags for emphasis. It annoyed me at first, but it underscores the youth and innocence of the characters. Everything is so new, so much is happening, and they feel it all so deeply; they can barely stop to take a breath between their words.

Be the most awesome you can awesomely be. Don’t settle for anything less. It’s a huge lot of pressure, the constant expectation of awesomeness. What if you don’t feel awesome? What if awesome is the opposite of the way you feel? How about this, assholes: be kind.

There are a lot of perspectives and it can be difficult to keep track of them all. The chapter headings are poetic, but not always helpful. The headings have timestamps, but it would’ve liked it if a location was also included. Since there were also many different places and minor characters, I kept having to go back and see how the perspective I was reading related to everyone else. I wasn’t able to keep everyone straight until I was halfway through the book. I hope the character list below will help readers who are having the same problem. The character names that aren’t italicized are mentioned a few times, but they don’t have their own chapters.

April- The central character. Has hyperthymesia.
Gavin – One of April’s best friends.
Gina – Best friends with April and Gavin.
Pal  – Classmate that April has grown up with.
Nate – Classmate, has had a crush on Gina for years
Mr. Goodrich – Physics teacher.

Lincoln – Friends with April in elementary school, but lost touch when he moved.
Sandra Heslip – High school English teacher, released class early on April 19.
Adrian  – Made a threat to Ms. Helslip.
Laura – Lincoln’s classmate and crush.

The Assassins and the Plan
Mastermind in California
Idaho (Phoebe)
Delaware (Revealed at end)

Shame. It weighs more than sorrow, and much more than regret. Delaware can’t even say what it looks like, because that’s the thing with shame: After a while you might dare to open your eyes, thinking maybe you’ve managed to forget about it this time, just for a second — but no. There it is. Always there. It might once have been attached to whatever it was you said (or didn’t say), whatever it was you did (or failed to do), but it is now its own dark creature, separate from and larger than the thing that gave it life. It keens its high, silver scream in your ears, the sound of echoing mirrors. It feeds and hungers and preens, and it will not go away.

April’s condition causes her to recall almost everything she has experienced throughout her entire life in excruciating detail. The Assassins are also haunted by memories. They each have single incidents that replay in their heads, forcing them to relive their shame constantly. As the Assassins turned inwards, they become untethered from their families and communities. Even though many of the Assassins of are self-isolated and too ashamed to go to their loved ones for help, they still crave human connection and deep down hope someone will reach out to them. The main messages are to look out for your fellow human beings and be kind. “You never know what’s going on inside somebody’s head, somebody’s heart.” At one point a character wonders if those that experience cruelty anticipate its return. That gives some insight into how the Assassins may have became so trapped inside themselves. 

What matters is the love, and love is always good. It’s a start, a tether. It’s enough.

This author excelled at authentic character profiles. I cared about their fates. I was surprised that I was able to relate to some of the inner turmoil of some of the characters in The Assassins group. I remember keeping things to myself in high school because I was too ashamed to tell anyone, especially those closest to me. I could understand why these characters embraced an online community that allowed them to shed their identity and baggage, as well as giving the illusion of power over their situation. One thing that really got me was how different my picture of the Mastermind was compared to his physical description at the end. It’s easy to forget how young these kids are.

We think we want and need so many things in this life, but this, I realize, is the key: just, every once in a while, to feel new again.

The downside is I didn’t feel like I read a complete story. It was more like a series of scattered moments with little connective tissue. Some parts didn’t capture my imagination in the way I think they were supposed to (the bleachers) and I didn’t always feel the tension you would expect with a story of this nature. The pivotal events that drove Phoebe and Delaware to consider mass murder didn’t ring completely true to me. However, I think this book is important for understanding the minds of the kids that are teetering on the edge. The teens in this book aren’t sociopaths. They are consumed by self-hate and unable to see a way out. I loved the writing too; it was the kind I could feel in my gut.  Recommended for teenagers and those who work with them.

My favorite passage:

God, the world is so huge. This is all anybody needs to keep on going, I think: a daily reminder of just how huge the world is, and how small we are—how small our problems are—in comparison. Don’t laugh at me, either. Don’t laugh. This is not me talking some sort of manufactured inspirational nonsense. This is me trying hard to tell the truth about something, and the truth is that I couldn’t not be in love with the world if I tried. And I’ve tried, too — I’ve tried to feel sorry for myself, I’ve tried to affect a brood. I can’t do it, though. It’s like I’m physically incapable. Sooner or later I always get bowled over by what appears to be my genuine affection for the world. It’s like I can’t help it, and it doesn’t even take much. Like a song’ll come on the radio, some song I haven’t heard in a while or whatever, and, bam, there I am, taken by surprise, right back in love with my life. Music does this to me all the time. Music, and that part of the day just before the sun disappears, and cherry Twizzlers, and most of all freedom. Any kind of freedom at all.


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